by Peter Johnson
A friend of mine—who happens to be gay—has refrained from commenting on the Indiana RFRA. That is, until last night, when he couldn’t help himself and tweeted this: “No self-respecting gay man would serve pizza at his wedding.” I think this tweet pretty much sums up this latest tempest in a teapot.
In a former life, I spent two years in rural Paraguay teaching beekeeping to subsistence farmers. I had no phone, no access to the Internet. About once a month I would ride 9 hours by bus to the capital to do emails, catch up on the latest American news. Could you imagine what I might think about the US, were this still how I got my news? Let me paint a picture of the headlines I might be reading:
Look, I get it. Clickbait pays. Internet traffic is as good as money your pocket these days. In my day job, I raise money for a conservative think tank and often use stats on our organization’s Internet traffic to make a case for support.
Not too long ago I took an op-ed writing class from Sam Ryan, a WSJ reporter turned entrepreneur who now runs a well-respected full-service PR firm in Washington DC that places thousands of op-eds a year for clients. Best memory from this class was trying to shoehorn the name “Kim Kardashian” into an op-ed headline. Sam explained that based on the title alone, an editor oftentimes chooses the top three or four editorials from dozens or hundreds received every day. Putting “Kim Kardashian” (or another degenerate national obsession, ie #RHWBH) in the headline would ensure that our op-ed made the initial cut.
So, again, I get it. None of us are immune from the demands of an oversaturated media market. Ambitious reporters are sent on missions to find bigots—and when they can’t find any—they’ll just manufacture one. Organizations (like the one I work for) who have long been staunch—though measured—advocates for religious liberty are being crowded out by fly-by-night operations that post poorly researched articles with outrageous headlines in order ride the wave of publicity. So, in response, normally restrained organizations like mine up the ante: They post pieces like the one that makes that case that one tweet from a dummy is evidence of burgeoning genocidal tendencies in our society.
Of course, there are the exceptions. The Federalist recently ran a piece that asked both advocates and opponents of gay marriage to write about what most troubles them about their positions. In an age of take-no-prisoners polemics, this was a very refreshing way to treat a subject that continues to be a divisive issue in our country.
So in that tradition, here is my response to the ongoing controversy in Indiana: Freedom of conscience—of which religious liberty is inextricably linked—is perhaps the most important freedom that we possess in this country. I think most people would agree that this is probably the defining characteristic of our great country. Because of this, I think anything that challenges this freedom should be taken seriously. Freedom of conscious is the wellspring of good citizenship and legal protections for free association and freedom of conscience are, in my estimation, foundational for a virtuous citizenry.
That being said, I think that people who share my opinion need to reduce the temperature on the rhetoric about the “attacks on religion.” As someone whose great-grand parents were German Jews who actually lived through Kristallnacht, I would hope we would reserve the holocaust analogies for when there is real violence happening (like, maybe, the sort of stuff happening to Christians in Iraq and Syria). Anti-RFRA tweets don’t tempt Kristallnacht any more than the RFRA itself tempts hate crimes on homosexuals, right?
Experience tells me that in America homosexuals are at greater risk for discrimination, bullying, and violence than devout Christians. I don’t need stats to back this up (though I’m sure someone is keeping tally out there). Anyone who has gone to an American public school in the 50 years knows this is true. While kids going to school today are less likely to bully a gay classmate than they were, say, 20 years ago, I still think it is much more likely that a gay student is bullied than a devout Christian. And it is this truth about our culture that gives me pause when I advocate for laws like RFRA.
Peter Johnson is a graduate of New York University where he studied English and philosophy. After graduation, he lived and worked in Africa and in South America, where he taught beekeeping to rural subsistence farmers. Before joining the Development team at Acton, he held various positions with the National Capital Area Council, Boy Scouts of America. Peter is married to Ashley, a teacher, and has three children.