Following the state Senate’s lead, Republicans in Arizona’s House of Representatives voted on Thursday in favor of a new bill to turn their state’s LGBT residents into second-class citizens. According to Arizona Republicans and their supporters throughout the country, they did this to protect "religious liberty" (a stark reminder that terrible decisions are often made in the name of an abstract good). Yet in spite of its lofty goal, in the real world, the bill, like bills put forward in Kansas, Idaho, Oklahoma, Hawaii and Mississippi, will become a weapon of exclusion and an impediment to the further integration of LGBT Americans into everyday life in America. A testament to ours being a time of universally recognized change on the issue of gay rights, social conservatives are mounting their most desperate assault on LGBT people since DOMA while utilizing the liberal's language of inherent dignity and fundamental rights.
The bills differ somewhat in their particulars, but the basic thrust of each piece of legislation is the same: In the name of religious liberty, these laws would allow folks in both the private and the public spheres to refuse services to anyone whose behavior — or assumed behavior — they considered sinful. Own a restaurant but don’t want any LGBT people to use it as the location for a same-sex wedding's after-party? Not to worry: Even if your town has anti-discrimination laws currently on the books, you can avoid getting sued by simply claiming your reasons are religious in nature. If the guy sitting at the counter looks to you like he might be gay, go ahead and tell him to hit the road. Republicans defend you when you say you're not discriminating but rather trying to live in accordance with your faith.
Needless to say, these are odious bills, so patently designed to allow some Americans to deny the rights and dignity of others that the frequently made comparisons to Jim Crow are depressingly appropriate. And while there are some signs that even those who don’t support the rights of LGBT citizens see this kind of legislation as a bridge too far, the Arizona example shows that this kind of legislation is a frighteningly real possibility for millions of Americans. As Evan Hurst, associate director of the pro-gay rights nonprofit Truth Wins Out, told David Corn of Mother Jones, “[O]ne would think the GOP would like to be electable among people under 50 sometime in the near future” and would thus avoid supporting Jim Crow-style anti-gay legislation. But at this point, it looks like that’s an open question.
As retrograde as this kind of legislation is, however, there’s something ironically modern — even vaguely progressive — about the arguments its supporters have put forward in its defense.
If it were 10 years ago, during the time when Karl Rove infamously hoped to use opposition to same-sex marriage as a tool to increase turnout among evangelicals and secure George W. Bush’s reelection, you wouldn’t expect those on the religious right and their Republican allies to claim that their discriminatory legislation is about protecting civil rights. Instead of unpersuasively warning that those who hate gay people because of their religion are in danger of having their rights trampled upon, the anti-gay movement in American politics would focus their arguments on the “sin” of homosexuality and the dangers it poses to the social order. Their pitch would focus on LGBT people, not themselves.
Yet here we are in 2014, with gay marriage legal in more than a dozen states and with the social stigma against homosexuality less powerful than at any other time in American history. Now, the very same people who would once dismiss the notion that LGBT people have rights are adopting the rhetorical framework of their opponents, hoping to rebrand bigotry as an outgrowth of religious conviction. Instead of making an argument in favor of marginalizing a persecuted group, conservatives are now the ones hoping to claim the mantle of oppression and shoehorn themselves into the sphere of protected persons.
It’s an utterly self-conscious act of disingenuousness and deception, too. As George Mason University public policy professor Mark Rozell once recommended they do, conservatives, understanding that their culture war language was repelling young people on the left and the right, have adopted “the rhetoric of ‘rights’ and ‘tolerance’ that liberals currently own” in an attempt to “speak to secular types about the value of pluralism and religious conscience.” It may be a savvy move, but the hypocrisy is stunning. It's as if the shadowy spymasters of the National Security Agency began arguing that their activities should be shielded from public scrutiny in the name of preserving their privacy rights.
It's risible, of course, but it's not without precedent. The right has done this before, adopting the left's own arguments while perverting them so egregiously that they barely resemble their former selves. Think of that other, older GOP claim to victimhood: reverse racism. Like reverse racism, the religious liberty defense implicitly grants the legitimacy of the liberal worldview while attempting to rejigger it in such a way that previously antithetical elements of the conservative perspective can survive in a new, less hospitable political environment. Just as pointing out white privilege and advocating for policies to counteract it in material, rather than just social, ways became a manifestation of "reverse racism," so, too, does the attempt to fully integrate LGBT people into mainstream society become a form of ignoring "religious liberty."
Ultimately, these conservatives grant too much legitimacy to the liberal narrative for their ersatz "rights" to survive under the weight of their own incoherence. The logic of inherent dignity and rights is too powerful, and its implications too easily understood, to be overcome by the right's desperate contortions. The religious liberty argument largely appeals to the kind of people who were once receptive to more straightforward, traditionalist arguments against homosexuality. As their numbers dwindle through the passage of time, and as generation after generation is raised in a culture that takes LGBT people's humanity for granted, the religious liberty argument will be seen as the bizarre last gasp of fading order that it is.
It reminds me of nothing so much as that cliché of modern politics, "If you're explaining, you're losing." When it comes to electoral politics, that may be true. But when we're talking about the larger political struggle between the ideologies of the left and right, I don't think it's sufficient. In that context, it's not explanation that's a sign of failure, but rather plagiarism. To put it differently: The simplest way for opponents of LGBT rights to know they're now losing the debate is to do nothing more than listen to themselves speak.