Same-Same

The Polite Right’s Bryan Fischer Problem

The national debate over the religious freedom acts highlighted two strains of social conservative—unabashed gay-hating conflict entrepreneurs and members of the Polite Right. But if both camps support the same law for the same reasons, what’s the real difference?

04.05.15 10:45 AM ET

The fight over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has pulled back the curtain on the Polite Right.

Beltway-centric but not moderate, these cautious spokesmen for civility do not practice your drunk uncle’s bigotry. They endorse a more soft-spoken and socially acceptable kind of prejudice. This prejudice comes clothed in talk of tolerance and piety, appeals to fairness and freedom. 

They talk about faith and religious rights but what defenders of the pre-“fix” RFRA really wanted was the privilege of condoning bigotry without actually being associated with it. It’s more than a rhetorical sleight of hand to turn denial of service into an “infringement upon religious practice.” It’s Solomon sawing Lady Justice in half. Such an argument insists that theologically-condoned discrimination is somehow less hurtful than the normal, not-God-approved form. “You can still get married!” and “You can continue to deny service to those you see as morally unfit!” do not cancel each other out.

Indeed, many of those who supported Indiana’s original law recognized this—that denying service to gay couples is an impediment to their gaining full civil rights. The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, for one. Fischer is a nationally-syndicated radio host, not simply a lone fruitcake, even though the next exit down from his particular brand of crazy is the Westboro Baptist Church: His Twitter feed is full of references to “the Church of the Rainbow Jihad,” “same-sex cakes,” the “Gay Gestapo,” and several warnings that “Big Gay is not about ‘marriage equality’ but ‘homosexual supremacy.’”

It’s easy to mock the idea of “Big Gay” (what a size queen!), but Fischer’s logic is the perfect mirror to the argument of the law’s critics. All you have to do is scale down the hyperbole, and read “full civil rights” where Fischer fears “gay rule.” Indiana’s RFRA was intended to hamper the progress of “Big Gay and the Homosexual Supremacy” (my favorite Motown band). If the original RFRA had been implemented, the civil rights for LGTB individuals would have been diminished. Fischer approvingly tweeted out Mother Jones’ mocking of his supposed paranoia—that’s how closely the analysis of the law’s most ardent defenders tracks that of its most ardent detractors.

The Polite Right wants nothing to do with Fischer. When I drew attention to his Twitter timeline, the proudly reasonable conservatives that populate the Acela Corridor were offended. They demanded that I acknowledge that Fischer is not representative of all conservatives, or even all defenders of the law—and that’s true, in the sense that Polite Right would never sully themselves with such obvious homophobia.

Bryan Fischer is a hateful, ignorant homophobe. The people I know on the Polite Right are not hateful, and certainly not ignorant. Some of them are gay themselves.

But while it’s Bryan Fischer’s rhetoric that makes him so amusingly offensive, it’s his logic and his goals that demand an answer from those who are aligned with him as far as the RFRA goes. In other words: I believe my friends on the Polite Right when they say they don’t hate gay people; but when it comes to the RFRA, I am not convinced that emotional or theological context is less important than acts of discrimination itself. 

Put another way: Two different Christian bakery owners both refuse to bake a cake for two different gay weddings. One bakery owner says that’s because he believes gay people are sinful sodomites that regularly recruit and molest children. The other says she loves and respects gay people but “just can’t participate in a ceremony that goes against my faith.” The Indiana RFRA was written to protect both bakers, not just the nice one.

Of course, both sides of the debate have their drunk uncles. On the left, it was a bunch of randy Yelpers and rageful Twitterers that embarrassed the more selectively outraged RFRA critics. The Memories Pizza owners turned out to be the nice, presentable sort of discriminators, and some of their online critics went overboard in expressing their upset.

It’s not fair to equate the marauding Internet hoards with Fischer, though. If the idiots that suggested burning down Memories Pizza were seeking legal protection for theologically-sanctioned arson, the parallel might hold. But they are not an organized pro-arson lobbying block, they’re idiots. And I hope those that went over the legal line have to suffer consequences for their indulgence.

I’m proud to live in a society where being accused of bigotry is itself offensive. I like it that decent people don’t want to be associated with obvious homophobes. But the polite solution to an association with an obvious homophobe isn’t to simply deny the relationship—it’s to ask yourself what you have in common.

The problem is that Bryan Fischer and the Polite Right want the same thing, for the same reasons, even if they use very different language to make their case. They’re activist allies, joined at the hip whether they like it or not. You might even say they’re married.