Core Values, Political Tactics, and Religious Liberty
Heres an odd question for you all: In a political race, is leadership that has been proven through successful and profitable entrepreneurship something we truly value? Is fiscal restraint? Or are each merely tactics we expediently use to get what we want?
(Stay with me, I’m actually going somewhere here.)
In 1998 Bill Sizemore ran for the office of Governor of Oregon on the Republican ticket. His opponent was the incumbent Democrat John Kitzhaber. It was an uphill battle for Sizemore — partially because Oregon is a blue state, and partially because at the time Kitzhaber was extremely popular. In addition, Kitzhaber’s CV was the more impressive of the two by far: prior to being governor, Kitzhaber’s boasted of degrees from Dartmouth and Oregon Health & Sciences University, a thirteen year history as an emergency room surgeon and hospital department head, and a successful run with the offices of both state representative and senator.
Sizemore, on the other hand, was a very-small business owner mostly known for being the architect of a series of state initiatives — most of which were controversial, few of which had ever passed, and fewer still of which held up to constitutional challenges. The only reason he was nominated at all, really, was that Kitzhaber was so popular that all the seasoned GOP operatives wanted no part in taking him on. Sizemore was basically nominated because he threw his name into an empty hat, and his task of beating Kitzhaber was nothing short of Sisyphean.
To their credit, the Oregon GOP made the best they could out of a seemingly losing hand. They built their campaign around the one thing Sizemore could say that Kitzhaber couldn’t: Sizemore had a long history of entrepreneurial success as the owner of several profitable business ventures. A case was never made for why being a profitable business owner was a better background for governor than managing surgeons at a hospital or crafting legislation for the state. Instead, it was simply presented as a Value. Do you value the self-made man, a job creator who manages to make everything he touches succeed? If so, then you needed to vote for Bill Sizemore, because he was the very personification of your values. Republicans rallied around this narrative — and why wouldn’t they? As their leadership reminded the public over and over throughout the early days of the campaign, proven business acumen, profitability, and the fiscal restraint needed to grow a venture without spending more money than you had were all core conservative values.
Unfortunately for Sizemore, as the campaign went on the press looked into his previous business ventures and found that his businesses acumen wasn’t actually so great. None of the businesses he claimed he had grown into profitability and sold for profit had actually grown, achieved profitability, or been sold to investors at all. They weren’t even fiscally restrained. Sizemore had borrowed heavily to fund and float all of them, only to see each fail rather spectacularly. Instead of being the personification of the conservative value of fiscal restraint, he had left a staggering trail of debt and angry creditors in his wake. He had only escaped that debt by filing bankruptcy for each business as well as personal bankruptcy for himself.
State Republicans were furious.. with the press. Why would the press even want to look into Sizemore’s business past, they wanted to know. How was Sizemore’s past business relevant to the question of whether or not he could run the executive office of a state government? Why did anyone even care about whether his businesses succeeded or failed? The answer to all of those questions, of course, was the same: Because the GOP had spent the past six months telling everyone that Sizemore’s business past was important and we should all pay attention. Indeed, they had had pitched Sizemore’s past as emblematic of core Republican values that Oregonians should embrace: the Values of Profitable Business Leadership and Fiscal Restraint.
In the end, of course, it turned out that Profitable Business Leadership and Fiscal Restraint weren’t really core values for Oregon conservatives at all. The press’s reporting on Sizemore’s terrible business acumen and lack of fiscal restraint didn’t deter Republican enthusiasm; if anything it strengthened it. There were probably a myriad of reasons why Republicans were undeterred by the revelation that a vote for Sizemore was against something they just recently claimed they valued, but mostly it was simply this: Bill Sizemore was on their team, and what they really wanted was to win. Winning was the real value; everything else they claimed was a value were merely tactics used to get that win. This is incredibly common, and stems not from the Oregon GOP being conservative rather than their being human. The Sizemore Values vs. Tactics story is an example of the rule, not the exception.
In politics, I would argue, most of the things we insist are core values are in fact just tactics we use in order to win arguments and influence others in order to get very specific things that we want today. If we see something else we want tomorrow, we will abandon those same core values without a thought — and I mean that literally, because even though sometimes we do it consciously, usually we aren’t even aware we’re doing it.
And because we do this so often and with so little awareness, every now and then when we present a tactic as a value it backfires on us.
Which brings us to gay rights, Mike Pence, and the political maelstrom that was Indiana’s recent religious freedom law.
Over at the American Conservative, Rod Dreher has been writing quite a bit about Indiana’s new (and newly remodeled!) RFRA-modeled law. Like Pence, Dreher argues that the issue at hand has nothing to do with gay rights. Instead, it has everything to do with religious freedom:
It seems to me that the real and lasting meaning of what has happened here is how, in the court of public opinion (at least the public opinion that matters as to how the country is run), we now see that religious liberty, a First Amendment freedom, is something contemptible when it clashes with gay rights. Not only something unimportant, but something despicable.
To be sure you didn’t miss the the subtle cut of his jib, Dreher titled the piece The Eclipse of Religious Liberty. He followed that post with one in which he lamented that “it would be nice to hear Republican leaders make an attempt to defend religious liberty as a bedrock American value, one that has to be balanced with gay rights.”
Dreher is not alone in his desire to stand up for the “bedrock American value” of religious liberty amidst the Hoosier backlash, or course. Presumptive presidential contender Scott Walker noted that his support of Indiana’s original bill was his “[belief] in protecting religious freedoms.” Even Pence, who seemed gobsmacked by public reaction, insisted that his hand was moved by the powerful Value of religious freedom. Throughout the GOP and the conservative movement the message is pretty much universal: “Gays shmays, all we really care about is protecting religious freedom.”
And all of that brings me to the faith of my family.
As regular readers of mine are already aware, my family has a deep-rooted history of faith with the Episcopal church. My parents were each on the vestry of their local church; the church-funded scholarship that still exists to help lower-income kids attend its religious preschool carries my father’s name posthumously. My wife has taught Sunday School at her Episcopal church in the past and is currently a lay reader; her best friend is an Episcopal priest. Up until this January when his academic and sports schedule necessitated changes, my youngest son served as both an acolyte and the first junior verger in his church’s history.
In other words, my family is not some johnny-come-lately group of pretenders who publicly claim that church is important but can’t be bothered to attend because football is on. And they are not alone: despite membership decline in recent decades, the Episcopal church has almost two million members in the United States.
And if you’re wondering what all of this has to do with religious liberty and the question of core values versus political tactics, it’s because you don’t know much about the Episcopal church.
Despite the fact that it shares the “Christian Faith” designation with both evangelical sects and Dreher’s own Catholic church, part of Episcopal dogma states that the embracing GLBT rights, including same-sex marriage, isn’t just something we should do, it’s something God’s love dictates we do. The church ordained it’s first openly gay bishop over a decade ago, and has been a proponent of gay rights and protections for even longer. And they have done so because it is what they believe God and Jesus would have them do. When an Episcopal argues for gay rights or legalized SSM it isn’t just an argument of politics, it’s a statement of faith.
It is instructive, then, to go back to when conservatives and Republican opinions on gay rights were still the majority viewpoint and look at how hard they fought for my family’s church’s religious freedom to legally marry same-sex couples in their own church, among their own congregation, according to their own sacred beliefs. Because the answer, as we all know, is this: Republicans and conservatives — the very same people that are currently calling for the protection of religious liberties for all Americans — told them they could take their religious liberty and go shove it.
Prior to this decade’s tipping point — that moment when those supporting gay rights and SSM moved from embattled minority to surprise majority — Republicans and conservatives argued that religious freedom for the minority was dangerous. Instead, they rallied around the Value of Majority Rules. They knew that Episcopal and Unitarian churches, reformed Jewish temples and other places of worship wanted to begin legally marrying gays and lesbians within their flocks. But rather than embracing the Value of Religious Freedom that would have allowed those they disagreed with to practice their faith as they wished, they instead argued that since so many states had passed SSM bans that it was the will of the majority, a thing which must be regarded as sacrosanct above all else. They trumpeted the Value of Majority Rules hard and often, and even pushed for state and federal Constitutional amendments to ensure that the religious liberties of the minority faiths could not threaten the sacred mathematical designation of >50%.
Here is Rod Dreher on the topic from back in 2009, when his side still held as the majority opinion on gay rights and SSM, on what would happen if the church of my family were freely allowed to fully embrace its religious beliefs:
If homosexuality is legitimized — as distinct from being tolerated, which I generally support — then it represents the culmination of the sexual revolution, the goal of which was to make individual desire the sole legitimate arbiter in defining sexual truth. It is to lock in, and, on a legal front, to codify, a purely contractual, nihilistic view of human sexuality. I believe this would be a profound distortion of what it means to be fully human. And I fully expect to lose this argument in the main, because even most conservatives today don’t fully grasp how the logic of what we’ve already conceded as a result of being modern leads to this end.
If you’re reading that over and over again looking for the part that shows how important the religious liberties of the minority are, don’t bother — it’s not there.
The same can be said of Mike Pence back in 2013, when he attempted to circumvent Indiana’s Episcopal churches by trying to pass a state amendment that would have quashed their ability to worship as they chose. Or presumed GOP POTUS nominees Mike Huckabee in 2011, Scott Walker in 2013, or Ted Cruz just this past November.
How, one might reasonably ask, can all of these people — who so deeply value religious liberty for everyone — have worked so hard to deny those same liberties to my family’s church? The answer, of course, is that religious liberty never was a value they held dear, no matter what they tell themselves today. Rather, it is and always has been just a tactic used in order to win a political battle they really, really wanted to win.
They may complain that the country’s values have changed from protecting first amendment rights to the rule of the mob, but in fact the country’s values are unchanged in this regard. In fact, you can argue that to no small degree Republicans and conservatives are where they are today because they were so successful in getting buy-in from people on the values they claimed were important yesterday. They spent a decade preaching loudly that the Will of the Majority was a Sacred Value that must trump the rights of the minority; the extreme backlash against Pence and other champions of the now-minoirty opinion on gay right suggests that they were very, very successful in hammering home that Value.
As I said at the beginning, mistaking your tactics for core values can come back and bit you in the ass if you’re not careful.
And for those who still worship the Value of Majority Rules, take heart: Were public opinion to change tomorrow and their beliefs were to again become the majority viewpoint, Dreher, Pence, Huckabee, Walker, Cruz, and all the other gay rights and SSM opponents who publicly fret about the infringement of religious liberties by the “despotism” of the majority will quickly abandon their love of religious freedom and return to your side.
You know, because of core values.