MRBlog | Indiana’s Religious Freedom Bill and The Power of the Public Transcript

Mike Pence ABC This Week 3.29.15

By Thomas J. Whitley

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act just signed into law in Indiana by Gov. Mike Pence has received a flurry of attention. Opponents of the law say that it will allow for discrimination against LGBT people. Pence and other supporters of the law say it is basically the same as the federal RFRA and does not allow, or at least did not intend to allow, for discrimination against LGBT people. Garrett Epps explains why that’s not true. Republican presidential hopefuls have jumped at the opportunity to support Pence. Some supporters have praised the passage of the law because it will protect “Christian bakers, florists and photographers . . . for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!

The intent of the law and what it allows could be understood as vague and open to interpretation, especially since the law does not specifically mention LGBT people, if Pence were not so adamant about not saying that it won’t allow for such discrimination. On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Pence refused six times to answer whether the law now allows for discrimination of this sort. The final refusal was the most painful.

Stephanopalous: Final question. Final yes or no question, Governor. Do you think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays and lesbians?

Pence: [Silence] George. [Sigh]

Stephanopalous: It’s a yes or no question.

Pence: Come on. Hoosier’s don’t believe in discrimination.

You can watch the video here (start at the 9:54 mark).

Pence then took to the the Wall Street Journal today, publishing an Op-Ed saying that this law is not a “license to discriminate.” One could be forgiven for not fully believing Pence, though, when one of the reasons he gives for saying this is that he personally “abhors discrimination” and he believes in the Golden Rule. He takes this point further by saying, “If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn’t eat there anymore.” Yet, as the Governor surely knows, what he would do personally is completely irrelevant to any legal protections afforded by the state. (It should be noted that the Wall Street Journal editorial board appears to be tacitly supporting Pence’s argument that the Indiana law is no different from the federal RFRA, as they published a “Notable & Quotable” piece just below Pence’s Op-Ed in today’s print version that contains an excerpt from Bill Clinton’s 1993 speech about the passage of the federal RFRA without comment.)

The conversation has almost everyone talking about religion and discrimination against the LGBT community, though money is clearly playing an important role in the conversation too. Apple CEO has spoken out against the law. The state of Connecticut has banned state-funded travel to the state over the law. Charles Barkley, NBA Hall of Famer and commentator, has called for moving this weekend’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four from Indiana.

What has struck me the most, though, is the near-unanimous connection between this bill and the possibility that Christians may now be legally able to refuse service to someone in Indiana because they are gay. This is, to be sure, played up a bit because of the comments made by some supporters of the bill, but it is not being challenged widely. That is, it is a given for those in the national media and many others that Christians will want to discriminate against LGBT people. “Christian” is being presented as synonymous with “anti-gay.”

When pressed, I imagine that most would say that this is not necessarily true, that there are Christian denominations and those who self-identify as Christian that support the LGBT community. Indeed, the Pew Forum released data last year that shows that 60% of white mainline Protestants, 57% of Catholics, 41% of black Protestants, and 21% of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage. The Presbyterian Church (USA) recently voted to allow same-sex marriages. The reality of what “Christians” think and believe about same-sex marriage is rather complicated.

Yet the narrative continues to dominate. It is an example of what James Scott called the “public transcript” (James Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts). This public transcript, in order to maintain dominance, must present itself as unanimous (45). Both sides have an interest in “conspiring to reinforce hegemonic appearances” (xii). For those who would wish to overthrow the dominant narrative, they need a productive foil against which to present their narrative.

The narrative is also important for those who support it beyond simply their support of it and general interest in maintaining it. As Scott puts it, “elites are also consumers of their own performance” (49). In contemporary political terms, this means that the presentation of this narrative – “Christianity is synonymous with anti-gay” – as natural, given, and uncontested works not only to discourage those who would disagree, but also to keep the base in line. Pence’s actions are being read by some as “pandering to the base,” but moves such as this, and the narrative that has accompanied it in the national media also serve to reinforce the base in their views, to remind them that, yes, all Christians do, or at least should, oppose same-sex marriage.

The public transcript, then, does not need to be regularly repeated by means of consistent talking points, as is the case in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but rather just has to ensure that hidden – or opposing – transcripts do not get heard. The “Christianity is anti-gay” narrative has been largely successful in this regard and it is success in this realm, what we might call the power of the public transcript, that even made possible the passage of this law in the first place.