Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is teetering on the precipice of political obliteration, and the threat to his bid for a second term as chief executive of the 21st most conservative state in the country comes from the unlikeliest of challengers—religious freedom.
A state that is a bastion of Republican conservatism and promotes itself as the “Crossroads of America” is headed toward sending its first-term governor packing, according to multiple public opinion polls that have measured a dramatic and spectacular plummet in Pence’s approval ratings since last March. Then, flanked by religious and pro-family supporters vocally opposed to LGBT protections, Pence signed religious freedom into state law and swiftly invoked a national cry of disgust from gay and civil rights groups that hold the law legalizes discrimination against LGBT people and exempts businesses, churches and government agencies from accountability and civil liability.
Within a week of signing the law—titled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—the fallout to Indiana was fast and furious from civil libertarians and, more menacingly, from businesses threatening to pull out of the state. At the same time, Pence made the rounds in the media groping to defend religious freedom and shaming the media for presenting “the good people of Indiana” as bigoted and homophobic. Pence’s assurances that the law is not a “license to discriminate” against the LGBT community—nor a “fix” to the law he was forced later to sign and which critics maintain isn’t a fix—seem not to convince the state’s electorate.
Riding high in January and February amid lofty approval ratings between 62 percent and 66 percent in two polls, Pence took a staggering hit in the week after enacting religious freedom into law. A poll conducted by the Republican firm Bellwether Research for Howey Politics Indiana put Pence’s approval rating at 45 percent while just as many, 46 percent, disapproved. Pence’s favorability rating, like his approval mark, came in upside-down as well: 35 percent of voters viewed him favorably but another 38 percent saw him unfavorably.
Howey Politics editor Brian Howey framed Pence’s tumble as “significant, if not historic” and added,
“In the 20 years that HPI has been publishing …an Indiana governor has never experienced this kind of survey decline in this short time frame.”
Pence has since languished in the anemic approval and favorability ratings that supporters and opponents on both sides of the political aisle in the Indiana Statehouse concede threaten his bid for re-election. After retreating into a low public profile for months, Pence reemerged in late October in a non-story that he is “mulling” how to reconcile conservatives and equality advocates to religious freedom as Indiana law.
The Howey poll leaves little room to argue that religious freedom as law of Indiana land is to blame for Pence’s stunning political decline. Fully one-half of respondants said the controversy would negatively impact Indiana’s economy, and 59 percent said they thought the bill was unnecessary. A majority, 54 percent, said they would support adding legal protections against discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.
Indiana’s religious freedom law has some potentially formidable challenges. The state’s largest-circulation newspaper, The Indianapolis Star, has all but declared war on religious freedom as law: the newspaper is currently publishing periodic editorials and features that highlight the bigotry LGBT people encounter, and the paper’s stated intent is to force—perhaps shame—local governments statewide into implementing LGBT protections. Perhaps ironically, Pence’s hometown of Columbus, Ind., recently adopted protections against bias based on gender and sexual orientation.
A logical argument can be made that the religious freedom debacle in Indiana is a reflection of a broader problem not only with religious freedom but with Republican conservatism in general.
The controversy in Indiana notwithstanding, religious freedom as an image and a concept enacted by law may have a suffered a staggering PR crisis courtesy of Kim Davis, the elected Kentucky clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The controversy in Indiana notwithstanding, religious freedom as an image and a concept enacted by law may have a suffered a staggering PR crisis courtesy of Kim Davis, the elected Kentucky clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Weeks of media and Internet saturation both elevated Davis as a sacrifice to religious persecution and demonized her as a self-promoter whose history of four marriages and martial infidelity disqualifies her as poster child for the religious right.
But both Davis and her “cause” fell into disrepute courtesy of two apparent fabrications within days of each other by her and the law firm representing her. The law firm, the pro-Christian and openly anti-gay Liberty Counsel, was forced to admit it lied when it held up a photograph as proof of global support for Davis. The photo turned out to be of thousands of worshippers praying at a religious rally in Peru in 2014.
Davis’ second challenge to her credibility came just days later from a more daunting challenger – the Vatican. Davis had claimed she met with Pope Francis in a 15-minute private audience in Washington where both he and she happened to be the same time, he as part of his visit to the United States and she to receive an award from a conservative religious coalition. The Vatican, under fire for Davis’ claim that the pope urged her to “stay strong” and keep up the “good fight,” characterized the “meeting” as nothing more than a handshake with “dozens” of other people in a reception line.
Davis and her attorneys have since kept a low profile – mercifully – save a heavily reported email from Davis to her staff in which she characterized herself as a “soldier for Christ” and her law firm’s denunciation of being smacked onto the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups.
The next news blitz about Davis is expected to be the response from Kentucky’s attorney general to a federal court inquiry about the legality of marriage licenses issued to gay couples during and since Davis’ five-day stint in jail for contempt of court. Davis allegedly altered the licenses to remove her name and references to her office, an act that state attorneys argue violates the court’s admonishment to Davis that she not interfere “directly or indirectly” with the issuance of marriage licenses to LGBT applicants.
A web of deception in the Davis case is undeniable, and beneath it is a valid doubt about her and her law firm’s motiviation and tactics. More argumentative, however, is if Davis’ case has done more damage than good to the cause of religious freedom. At the core of that argument are more tantalizing questions, namely if the power and influence of the religious right have been weakened or have been over-estimated in the first place.
On the political front, although GOP governors in mostly southern states have stated their willingness to sign religious freedom into law, none has yet dare to risk the economic and public image backlash that Indiana and Pence have sustained. Instead, some legislative bodies have suggested the notion of dodging the religious liberty bullet by amending state constitutions to define marriage legally as a union of man and woman, apparently to trump the Supreme Court’s verdict last June that marriage between same-sex couples is a federal right.
Rewriting constitutions will not override law established by the Supreme Court, of course. Even if it did, voting constituencies are historically and notoriously resistant to fiddling with their constitutions. In political science theory, the ideological and historic intent of constitutions on both federal and state levels is to grant – not deny – rights and liberties.
The complete failure of the 2008 convention made me think for the first time about my place in the political universe.
National public opinion polls this year do not back up conservatives’ push for religious freedom laws. Opposition to them was born out perhaps most strongly in a Reuters poll last April: by a near 2 to 1 margin, 54 percent of respondants opposed them and only 28 percent supported them. The inherent message apparently is falling on deaf ears of Republican governors and presidential candidates.
Donald Trump, whose front-runner status for the GOP nomination has only recently come into challenge by a surge in the polls by Ben Carson, has said he does not support gay marriage privately but accepts the Supreme Court decision as law. Nor would Trump, if elected, push an amendment to the federal Constitution to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples. Carson, on the other hand, is vehemently anti-gay, so much so that he, like Kim Davis’ law firm, has a spot on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another GOP hopeful but never a serious contender, has said the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision can be simply ignored because the law is rooted in “judicial tyranny,” somehow likening it to the high court’s decision in the 1857 Dred Scott case. And Jeb Bush, who until recently had long been the presumed Republican nominee in the 2016 election, has gone on record with his private opposition to same-sex marriage. But Bush has not hinted what he might do, if anything, to circumvent the Supreme Court decision if elected.
Adversely, the Democrats’ two leading presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have both commited themselves to LGBT rights and protections and denounced religious freedom laws.
Certainly issues other than religious freedom and LGBT equality will and should be weighed by voters when they cast their ballots. Indiana’s example should serve as a warning nonetheless. Although problems with Indiana’s infrastructure and education system comprise a chunk of the state’s political discussion, religious freedom as law remains the driving force behind the threat to Mike Pence’s political future.
Other Republicans and conservatives may want to asks themselves if putting their private prejudices above their voting constituencies is worth the price that Pence has risked.
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