As patriotism can be the last refuge of scoundrels, so religion can be the last refuge of bigots.
The most recent attempts to besmirch religion have come from Arizona’s Republican state legislators, who last week, on a near-party-line vote, passed a bill allowing businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds. The bill is on the desk of Republican Gov. Jan Brewer; she has until week’s end to sign or veto it.
Arizona’s Republican U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, recognize that a bill permitting restaurants, hotels and other business to deny service to gays and lesbians on religious grounds might (and should) strike many Americans as an affront to our foundational creed “that all men are created equal.” They have called on Brewer to reject the bill. So has the state’s Chamber of Commerce, which fears that some businesses would decide not to set up shop in Arizona if they knew their homosexual employees could be subjected to that kind of discrimination. A host of other officials have called for a veto, including three Republican legislators who voted for the bill but have had second thoughts.
Recently in Kansas, Republican legislators in the lower house passed a kindred bill only to have it die in the state Senate when GOP legislative leaders realized that it went too far. But the fact that two absurd proposals swept through two states’ legislative bodies with nearly unanimous Republican support signals a kind of panic within the GOP base at the recent advances in gay and lesbian equality, in particular the right to marry. It signals that Republicans, and some religious leaders, are willing to invoke religion as a cloak for their bigotry.
That wouldn’t be the first time, of course, that religion has served as a shield for those who would deny their fellow Americans the most rudimentary equal rights. During the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, a number of Southern fundamentalist ministers preached that racial segregation was God’s design. In a 1960 Easter Sunday radio sermon, the Rev. Bob Jones, founder of South Carolina’s eponymous Christian university, told his listeners, “If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God Almighty.” Labeling as “Satanic” those who were working to abolish Jim Crow laws, Jones preached that it was God who “drew the boundary lines between races.”
Mainstream Southern denominations, by contrast, did support desegregation, and the Rev. Billy Graham, crucially, declined to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act while it was pending in Congress. But the religious case for discrimination was alive and well in Southern fundamentalist circles — as it is alive and well, apparently, in some parts of the Republican Party today.
And not just in the Republican Party. The Arizona Catholic Conference is among those urging Brewer to sign the bill. Just to be clear: No one is advocating that priests, the Catholic Church or other religious institutions be compelled to preside over same-sex marriages. The issue is whether businesses can refuse service to gays and lesbians based on the businesses’ religious beliefs, though you probably have to believe that corporations are people to grant that businesses can have religious beliefs.
That the Catholic Church in Arizona is opposed to gay marriage is hardly news. But its willingness to go so far as to create a right for private businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation is appalling. It harks back more to the spirit of Bob Jones than to that of the brave priests and nuns who went to the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s to demonstrate for civil rights — or, for that matter, to the spirit of Pope Francis. Indeed, the church’s opposition seems to reflect the pre-Enlightenment social conservatism that Francis’ predecessors sought to impose on the church through their hierarchical appointments. If the church’s position on the Arizona bill is any indication, those appointments continue to pose a huge problem for the Catholic Church in America — for its future among the young and for its moral stature.
On the other hand, the president of Uganda signed into law Monday a statute that would sentence to life in prison people convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” (that is, people convicted more than once for having had gay sex). If Arizona’s Republicans and Catholic bishops don’t like it here, why don’t they move to Uganda?
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.
Special to The Washington Post