Mike Pence is the Governor of Indiana. He has served six terms in Congress so he can be forgiven for not understanding that the actions of governors might have consequences because those of congressmen rarely do.
The other day he signed a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The law immediately fell into the “chasm of competing narratives,” that vast divide between what left-wingers and right-wingers want you to think is true whether or not it actually is. Despite its great size and the distance from left to right, the “chasm of competing narratives” has no room for “ambiguity,” “subtlety” or “nuance.” The shouting of blowhards — known predators to now-nearly-extinct thoughtfulness — has long ago drowned out these three endangered species.
Competing narratives exist only for political purposes, especially fund raising.
RFRA says that if you have a religious objection to doing something like baking a wedding cake for a gay couple, you can raise an objection in court and the court should listen to you. It doesn’t say you have to win; it just says you have to be heard.
Nineteen other states and the federal government have similar laws. The federal version was passed in 1993 and signed by Bill Clinton. Twenty-nine states have not even bothered to enact laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. In polls where anonymity is assured, a majority of respondents believe that religious views might well be reasons to take or avoid certain actions.
RFRA sounds a little like marriage counseling — spouses don’t have to win arguments but it is always best to let them feel they have been heard.
RFRA did not last long in Indiana. In the face of a tsunami of threats, the governor quickly backpedaled from the signing ceremony photo op, in which anti-gay activists accompanied him, and the law is now history. Whatever anyone might have thought privately and whatever RFRA actually did or did not do, the winning narrative was to oppose it and everyone had to be seen to be on board.
In all likelihood, RFRA was more spin than substance — the signing ceremony photo op mattered far more than the law itself. In exchange for dollops of campaign cash from social conservatives, albeit at some passing cost to the personal reputations and political prospects of the recipients, inconsequential “statements were made,” “stands were taken” and “lines were drawn in the sand.” These hallmarks of epic public relations battles will be long forgotten by Memorial Day and probably much sooner.
The reality of RFRA is far too subtle for today’s narrative wars. Whether or not there is a law of telling them to do so, courts are likely to listen to claims of religious objection and weigh them against other considerations present in a specific case. The existence of RFRA would probably have been about as harmful as getting rid of it will have been helpful. In other words, not very.
Why then was the wasted week in Indiana worth it?
In essence, RFRA’s critics, who generally hail from the left of the political spectrum, have told religious conservatives, who generally hail from the political right, “your feelings don’t matter in comparison to the larger social goals so just get over it.”
This is actually big news, but in an entirely different setting: the colleges and universities, where the same critics of religious over-sensitivity demand trigger warnings and safe spaces from everyone expressing a controversial opinion, or one that goes against the current narrative grain, lest micro-aggressions creep into conversations or uncomfortable ideas be heard.
If religious believers are directed to “just get over it” when their concerns are at issue, surely the political correctness constabulary should do the same in educational settings.
In the unlikely event that the “just get over it” logic were to migrate into the world of higher education, the week we wasted in handwringing over RFRA in Indiana will have been well spent and Governor Mike Pence will deserve our thanks.