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Columns
Dog-whistle bites man: Mike Pence and "religious freedom"

Wikipedia defines dog-whistle politics as "political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup." It's a time-honored tactic used by politicians of all persuasions. But, as Indiana Gov. Mike Pence learned on March 29 under intense questioning by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, sometimes it calls out unintended dogs.

Pence stammered and prevaricated, refusing to answer Stephanopoulos's simple, pointed, yes-or-no question: Does Indiana's new "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" protect business owners who claim religious motivations for refusing service to LGBT customers?

Pence's difficulties stem from the law's dog-whistle purpose. That purpose isn't to protect religious freedom, either in general or with respect to a purported obligation of businesses to not discriminate. It's to signal "Christian" (dog-whistle for "anti-gay evangelical") voters, donors and interest groups that Republicans are on their side.

Prior to last week, Pence generated continuous, if minor, buzz as a dark horse prospect for the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination. If he did indeed aspire to that crown, his klutzy defense of the new law almost certainly put it beyond his reach.

Even the ugly truth — that conservatives think the anti-gay vote is still a major electoral factor which might put Republicans over the top in 2016 — would have served Pence better than his live-on-national-TV meltdown.

Better yet, at least in terms of supporting American values of individual freedom, he might have laid down the libertarian line that business owners should be free to serve, or to not serve, anyone they please for any reason. That might have cost him votes, but it would at least have possessed the virtue of being right.

Personally I find it refreshing when a politician blows the dog-whistle and finds himself (or herself) surrounded by snarling pit bulls instead of the cuddly, eager-to-please puppies he expected.

I'd love to hear the baying of bloodhounds any time a progressive appeals for "access to" (dog-whistle for "I'll make someone else buy it for you") contraception, abortion, health care or housing.

When a bought and paid for politician calls for increases in "defense spending" (dog-whistle for "more corporate welfare for Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon"), I long for the appearance of a veritable pack of rabid wolves.

I've heard it said that the truth will set us free. I have my doubts. But it's preferable to dog-whistle politics.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). 


Columns
Indiana and the culture wars

If I visit a kosher restaurant and order a pork chop, am I being discriminated against when the waiter says they don't serve pork?

If an establishment requires that men wear jackets and women dress in what that establishment defines as an "appropriate way," does that constitute discrimination?

When I visit the Vatican, the Swiss Guards won't let me in if I'm wearing shorts. They offer a cover-up. It is the same for women, if they bare too much flesh. Is that discrimination?

What about the sign "no shoes, no shirt, no service" — is that bigotry against the shoeless and shirtless? Should the government force any of these entities to violate their standards?

That is the issue in Indiana, the latest front in the culture war. The state legislature passed and Gov. Mike Pence signed a law that says the government cannot force a business or individual to violate tenets of their religious faith, unless the government has a compelling interest in doing so. The language in the Indiana law is similar to a federal law, the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act," passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Though applicable to all religions, in 1993, the motivating issues were the protection of sacred lands for Native Americans and the use of peyote as a part of religious tradition.

The backlash following the Indiana law's passage was immediate. Gov. Pence later admitted there was some "confusion about the law," and he has since asked legislators to change the measure to make clear, he said, "that this law does not give businesses the right to discriminate against anyone."

But facts don't matter when the media and gay activists believe they can find an issue that stirs controversy (the media) and advances their cause (the activists).

Then-Illinois state-Sen. Barack Obama voted for a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1998. Several other states have similar measures protecting conscience from government intrusion. The religious conscience issue was before the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case. The Court upheld that company's right not to cover certain contraceptives for female employees as part of its health plan because of the owners' religious beliefs and their objection to abortion.

The uproar about Indiana's law is political theater. It is also a trap set by the Left, which Republicans risk falling into. It works this way: Find a Republican state (Gov. Pence is a Republican and the legislature is overwhelmingly Republican); pick an issue you can twist to your political advantage — and Republicans' disadvantage; enlist the help of a gay-friendly media; threaten a boycott of the state by prominent individuals and businesses; use this issue in the next presidential campaign to brand Republicans as racists, bigots and homophobes.

In this theater of the absurd, any defense becomes indefensible. The die has been cast; the scarlet letter attached.

Gov. Pence wrote an opinion piece for Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. In it, he professed the absence of discriminatory DNA, saying he believes in and lives by the Golden Rule and that the law, which is scheduled to take effect July 1, merely sets a standard by which a religious objection to a law can be judged.

It doesn't matter. As reporter Stephanie Wang wrote in the Indianapolis Star, "The argument over what Pence has thus signed becomes not only intellectual, but visceral, vitriolic, ugly. Both sides dig in, because each thinks the other is flatly wrong — in their hearts, and on the facts. And the debate rages on, sometimes spiraling to a place so far away from the law itself."

The debate has become far more visceral, vitriolic and ugly than intellectual, thanks to the secular progressives who have made it that way. A Wall Street Journal editorial correctly noted, "Indiana isn't targeting gays. Liberals are targeting religion."

Republicans have seen the potential for political damage. Nationally, Republicans don't want to debate social issues in 2016 because they see little advantage in doing so in a rapidly changing culture.

One potential good has emerged from this, however. Miley Cyrus has announced she won't be bringing her "twerking" self to Indiana, which is bound to have a positive effect on the state's moral climate.

Readers may email Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribpub.com.


Columns
Thankfully, faith of force and exclusion is not the only faith there is

"Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away." — The Beatles

"Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone." — Fleetwood Mac

On Sunday, people all over the world will commemorate the morning an itinerant rabbi, falsely convicted and cruelly executed, stood up and walked out of his own tomb. It is the foundation act for the world's largest faith, a touchstone of hope for more than 2 billion people.

But that faith has, in turn, been a source of ongoing friction between those adherents who feel it compels them to redeem tomorrow and those who feel it obligates them to restore yesterday. Last week, the latter made headlines — again.

In Arizona, a state senator suggested a law making church mandatory as a way of arresting what she sees as America's moral decline. When controversy erupted, Sylvia Allen said she couldn't understand what the fuss was about.

In Indiana, meantime, the governor signed a law protecting businesses from anything that might infringe upon their "free exercise of religion." In other words, it protects their right to discriminate against gay people. When controversy erupted, Gov. Mike Pence claimed this interpretation of the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" misreads its intent.

The senator's ignorance and the governor's disingenuousness offer stark illustration of what too often these days masquerades as faith.

Allen, like the Taliban before her, seems to believe faith is something you can coerce. Unfortunately for her, that's expressly forbidden in the first words of the First Amendment to the Constitution that her oath of office requires her to support. She might want to read it sometime.

As to Pence, his claim that the law is being misread is undercut by the fact that it is being celebrated by anti-gay lobbyists. He has contended the RFRA is as innocuous as similar laws passed by other states and the federal government, a claim sharply disputed by law professor Garrett Epps, writing online for The Atlantic, who notes there is language unique to Indiana's law that seems designed to let businesses refuse service to gay people.

But the most damning witness against Pence has been Pence himself. Five times last Sunday, ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked him a simple yes or no question: Does the law permit discrimination against gay people? Five times, he refused to answer. By Tuesday, Pence was promising to "fix" the miserable thing. Stay tuned to see what that will mean.

Taken together, Allen and Pence exemplify a "faith" that has become all too common, a U-turn faith that seeks to return America to a mythic yesterday. Pence's law would effectively allow businesses to give gay people the kind of mistreatment that was common 40 years ago, while Allen explicitly says she wants to go back to the way things were when she was a child. For the record: Allen turns 68 this week, according to Wikipedia.

And so it goes with this faith of force and exclusion. Thank God it's not the only faith there is. Indeed, in the same week Allen and Pence were making fools of themselves, a pastor in Miami was pushing for socially conscious redevelopment of a blighted inner-city community, a church in Los Angeles was hosting a panel on police-involved shootings and a preacher near Washington was recruiting men to mow lawns, clean up trash-strewn lots and mentor troubled boys.

This is the faith of sacrifice and service. Unlike the faith of force and exclusion, it gets no headlines, generates no heat. It just is.

But one is thankful it is. One is glad for its example and reminder.

This week, Christians mark the long ago dawn when the Son rose. But if that faith means anything, it means the ability and imperative to face what is without fear. So faith ought not pine for the old days.

After all, dawn is the breaking of the new.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, readers may email him  at lpitts@miamiherald.com.