Unless you’ve been trapped in a monastery for the past month, you’ve witnessed the fire and brimstone storms over so-called religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas. Coverage of the push for these religious freedom laws tends to focus on how they have emerged as pushback against gay marriage.
They are that, but the backstory is more complicated. These laws deserve some serious decoding and on this week’s podcast, we turn to Robert Jones, the director of the Public Religion Research Institute, for help.
Jones is a sociologist and a scholar of public attitudes about religion. At the Public Religion Research Institute, he and his colleagues conduct large polls to track changes in religious attitudes about public issues.
Jones traces this conflict of values at the center of ‘religious freedom laws’ back to the late 1970s, when the Christian right organized itself into a real political powerhouse.
Groups epitomized by Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority pushed an aggressive agenda that was conservative, anti-abortion and anti-gay rights. They had enormous clout with the Republican Party and were a prominent voice in all the big national debates.
But the political might of those groups has waned dramatically; their agenda has become less reaching and more defensive.
For many religious conservatives, the Supreme Court has opened a path to new interpretations of existing religious freedom laws that fit their agenda.
“White protestant conservative Christians who had a hold on the country's moral center feel that slipping away, and so this is a way of trying to find leverage ,” Jones says.
Legislators in Indiana and Arkansas argued the laws could protect religious business people from being sued if they chose not to serve at a gay wedding or provide health insurance coverage for women’s birth control.
At the same time, the percentage of white Protestant evangelicals in the American population has declined sharply – and the percentage of people with no religious affiliation has increased. The country has come to accept changes, such as gay marriage, that seemed revolutionary and outlandish only a decade ago.
This has left religious conservatives searching for civic refuge, for some protection from all this change and for some political “wins.”
They almost got those wins in Indiana and Arkansas, but not quite.
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