As retrograde as this kind of legislation [religious liberty laws] is, however, there’s something ironically modern — even vaguely progressive — about the arguments its supporters have put forward in its defense.
If it were 10 years ago, during the time when Karl Rove infamously hoped to use opposition to same-sex marriage as a tool to increase turnout among evangelicals and secure George W. Bush’s reelection, you wouldn’t expect those on the religious right and their Republican allies to claim that their discriminatory legislation is about protecting civil rights. Instead of unpersuasively warning that those who hate gay people because of their religion are in danger of having their rights trampled upon, the anti-gay movement in American politics would focus their arguments on the “sin” of homosexuality and the dangers it poses to the social order. Their pitch would focus on LGBT people, not themselves.
Yet here we are in 2014, with gay marriage legal in more than a dozen states and with the social stigma against homosexuality less powerful than at any other time in American history. Now, the very same people who would once dismiss the notion that LGBT people have rights are adopting the rhetorical framework of their opponents, hoping to rebrand bigotry as an outgrowth of religious conviction. Instead of making an argument in favor of marginalizing a persecuted group, conservatives are now the ones hoping to claim the mantle of oppression and shoehorn themselves into the sphere of protected persons.
It’s an utterly self-conscious act of disingenuousness and deception, too. As George Mason University public policy professor Mark Rozell once recommended they do, conservatives, understanding that their culture war language was repelling young people on the left and the right, have adopted “the rhetoric of ‘rights’ and ‘tolerance’ that liberals currently own” in an attempt to “speak to secular types about the value of pluralism and religious conscience.” It may be a savvy move, but the hypocrisy is stunning. It’s as if the shadowy spymasters of the National Security Agency began arguing that their activities should be shielded from public scrutiny in the name of preserving their privacy rights.