Indiana Governor Mike Pence is shocked—shocked—that people see anything objectionable in Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “Was I expecting this kind of backlash?” he exclaimed, “Heavens no.”
After all, who could object to religious freedom?
Yet, there is something fishy about the Christian right’s newfound passion for spiritual liberty. For most of American history, the First Amendment has been the redoubt of religious minorities: Catholics, Jews, Mormons, atheists, and others. The 1993 federal law that Indiana lawmakers claimed to innocently reproduce was inspired by a Native American who was fired for smoking ceremonial peyote.
Mainstream Protestants, safely in the majority, have had little need for such protections, and right-wing groups have often opposed efforts by the ACLU and other civil rights organizations to defend religious minorities.
So why the sudden clamor for religious freedom?
In fact, the clamor is not all that sudden. It dates to January 18, 1977, the day that Miami-Dade County tried to stop employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. At the public hearing, angry opponents crowded into the chamber. They followed an unlikely leader: Anita Bryant, singer, spokesmodel, Miss America runner-up, and Good Housekeeping magazine’s “Most Admired Woman in America.” She wrote to the commission, “if this ordinance amendment is allowed to become law, you will in fact be infringing upon my right or rather DISCRIMINATING against me as a citizen and mother to teach my children and set examples or point to others as examples of God’s moral code as stated in the Holy Scriptures.”
The commissioners, unpersuaded by the perverse argument that an anti-discrimination ordinance was actually discriminatory, passed the measure 5 to 3.
“We’re not going to take this sitting down,” Bryant promised after the vote. “The ordinance condones immorality and discriminates against my children’s right to grow up in a healthy, decent community.” She invited opposition leaders to her house to plan their counteroffensive.
What began as a local referendum campaign quickly became a national phenomenon. Reverend Jerry Falwell, televangelist Pat Robertson, Senator Jesse Helms, and other leaders of what would soon be called the religious right jumped into the fray. In an early instance of the coming Catholic-evangelical alliance, the archdiocese of Miami argued that to permit gay teachers was to let “a fox in the chicken coop.” (The archdiocese would later admit to having allowed priests accused of child abuse to continue to work with children. Ironies abound.)
The key to Bryant’s “discrimination” strategy was to portray equal rights advocates as anti-Christian oppressors. She warned of “militant homosexuals who are highly financed, highly organized.” Their true objective, she claimed, was not the right to hold jobs and buy houses. Since they were unable to reproduce biologically, their only hope of survival was “to recruit your children and teach them the virtue of becoming a homosexual.”
When a publicity-shy sponsor canceled Bryant’s television show, she also pioneered the media victim narrative that has become popular among right-wing provocateurs like Sarah Palin. Referring to herself in the third person, Bryan alleged a “national conspiracy to do away with Anita Bryant,” and complained, “The blacklisting of Anita Bryant has begun,” oblivious to the irony that she championed gay blacklisting.
The strategy worked. Bryant quickly gathered 64,000 signatures for a referendum to repeal the ordinance, which passed by 69 percent. She and her allies then took the fight to other cities like Wichita, Kansas and Eugene, Oregon, where they helped voters overturn similar ordinances.
After Bryant’s campaign, gay rights activists became stock villains in right-wing persecution narratives. “Militant homosexuals” were accused of creating supposedly gay cartoon characters like Tinky Winky and Sponge Bob Squarepants to recruit innocent children. They were said to advocate hate crime laws like the Matthew Sheppard Act as a pretext for “thought police” to incarcerate Christian believers. They were suspected of championing same-sex marriage not because they actually want to get married but because they plotted to destroy the sanctity of marriage and force Christian businesspeople to violate the faith.
It is a clever trick. The demonization of gay rights activists and fantasies of religious persecution have enabled Christian right leaders to engage in rhetorical jujitsu. They have taken the language of the civil rights movement and flipped it on its head. In their upside-down worldview, Christians, not the LGBT community, are the true victims of discrimination.
That is why legislators in red states like Indiana have been trying to pass new religious freedom laws. Gay rights has come a long way since Anita Bryant’s 1977 campaign. Many cities and states bar employment and housing discrimination. The federal government enacted hate crime legislation and allows gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly. Perhaps soon, LGBT Americans will gain the right to marry anywhere in country. The so-called religious freedom campaign is the Christian right’s last desperate gambit to stop the march of gay rights.
And even this scheme is faltering. Religious freedom measures failed in Kansas and Arizona. Arkansas’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, forced legislators to amend another. Finally, Governor Mike Pence, under pressure from business leaders, asked for an amendment to Indiana’s controversial law. State legislators prepared a new bill that bars the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from being used to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Soon, the myth of the militant homosexual and everything it connotes may disappear into the fog of history.
Michael Wolraich is the author of Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual (Da Capo Press, 2010). His writing has appeared at New York Magazine, The Atlantic, Daily Beast, CNN.com, Reuters, Talking Points Memo, and Pando Daily.