The hideous display of bigotry from Governor Mike Pence and his Republican allies in the legislature of Indiana, who supported the Orwellian-named Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is cringe-inducing for any moral and reasonable person who lives in the state.
It is also an appalling illustration of the extremity of the Republican Party today—and the destructive contortions that a politician must put himself through if he ever hopes to win enough support from the base to run for president.
It’s possible that he Pence purely a bigot—like many Christian conservatives, he seems to have successfully deluded himself into believing that the Bible can conceal his prejudice. The law, unlike the federal version that President Clinton signed, breaks precedent by applying to disputes between private individuals, not merely governmental entities. As much of the outrage suggests, it is a permission slip for private citizens to discriminate against gay consumers.
But it’s also likely that Pence is overcompensating—way overcompensating—to avoid the fate of his predecessor, Republican Mitch Daniels, whose bipartisanship proved to be the death knell for his presidential ambitions. As recently as February, Politico reported that Pence is strongly considering his own candidacy for national office.
Daniels led Indiana from 2005 to 2013 as a moderate who, with the exception of his enthusiasm for Right to Work legislation, acted in accordance with a pragmatic willingness to compromise and negotiate.
Many of Daniels’ programs benefited the state, attracting an influx of working and middle class home and business owners from next door neighbors, Michigan and Illinois. The pragmatism of Daniels produced his popularity, as he left office with a 63 percent approval rating, but it also prohibited him from the presidential primary.
As governor, Daniels refused to take a position on gay marriage, and when Republicans in the state legislature openly discussed the idiocy of an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex weddings, he met with many state business leaders to discuss how they could preserve their benefits for gay couples should the amendment pass.
But he angered the mob aching for an Ayatollah when he said that Republicans should “put social issues on the backburner” and “declare a truce on abortion.” When he began exploring a run for the presidency in 2012, he attempted to recover his Evangelical street cred by signing an anti-Planned Parenthood bill into law that he had long ignored, but like a Mafioso showing up with shovel after the bodies have been buried, his effort at pandering received no play.
It quickly became clear that because of his inability to appeal to the Republican Party’s medieval base, his presidential candidacy was dead on arrival.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is about homophobia and Christian-coated hatred, but it’s also about how earned bipartisan support in a conservative state through effective governance can make someone an unwelcome alien in a party of increasingly radical and hostile fringe dwellers.
It is love from the fringe that Pence will need to launch a successful presidential campaign, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is his attempt at the art of seduction. Whether Pence is a sincere homophobe or a cynical political operator is debatable, but it appears that a happy ending is awaiting anyone who values decency and diversity.
Proverbs 10:28 warns that “The prospect of the righteous is joy, but the hopes of the wicked come to nothing.” Pence has overplayed his hand. Millions of people, including mayors of cities joining boycotts of travel to Indiana on public funds, have rejected the law. Pence now appears to the right of Ted Cruz, and equally unelectable.
In his interview with George Stephanopoulos, Pence was pitiful in his inability to answer simple questions about the law and its discriminatory license against gay couples. He tried to defend his state from the stain he has left on it by proclaiming, “Hoosier hospitality is not a slogan. It’s reality.”
He is correct, and the hospitality he praises is visible in the countless businesses I’ve seen around my Indiana home, the colleges, including two Christian universities – Butler and Valparaiso (my alma mater), and city councils that have boasted they are “open for service” to gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens.
One should hope, and perhaps pray, that that same hospitality will eventually welcome the most extreme elements of the Republican Party to the cemetery.