WASHINGTON — Some of my most cherished lines from President Bill Clinton's presidency had nothing to do with women with whom he did or did not have sexual relations. Rather, they were inspired by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which he signed on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 16, 1993. At the time, there was not much controversy about what he then said, but they were admirable lines nonetheless. Today they might be deemed heroic lines.
Back in 1993, President Clinton said that our Founding Fathers "knew that religion helps to give our people a character without which a democracy cannot survive." Then he elaborated on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying: "What this law basically says is that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion. This judgment is shared by the people of the United States, as well as by the Congress. We believe strongly that we can never be too vigilant in this work." In the coming years, some 30 states adopted variations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and all was quiet, until whammo.
The governor of Indiana signed the Hoosier State's variant of the law with emphasis that the law not encourage other forms of discrimination. Of a sudden, the top brass at Wal-Mart, Apple and — for some reason — the National Collegiate Athletic Association joined in a grand concordat with the top brass at various gay rights organizations to smite Indiana good and hard. The Indiana Legislature backed down. The state of Arkansas contemplated similar legislation. Those in the victorious alliance set their sights on the 30 other offending states.
They argued that the law would embolden bakers to deny gays wedding cakes. Photographers would deny their services to gays. Other religiously oriented retailers would begin denying services to gays and possibly to others, say, Zoroastrians. A pizza parlor in Walkerton, Indiana, was caught in the controversy and closed down. Indiana became the scene of rancor and abusiveness. What is going on here?
Well, politics has changed course over the past 20 years. Gay champions have taken the lead over those who are anti-homosexuality. They now have the momentum, and Clinton is hoping that everyone will forget his noble utterances from yesteryear. Progressives — once called liberals — have made over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into a dangerous weapon of intolerance. In Indiana a week ago, it became a veritable hate crime.
In truth, it is nothing of the sort. The arguments for supporting religious freedom as a bulwark of liberty are as compelling today as they were when Clinton was extolling them from the South Lawn. Surely, some reasonable solution can be worked out, yet not in the overheated political climate that we have today. The deterioration of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from admired legislation to abominated diktat is but another example of one of my most fondly held insights into politics. To wit: Progressives have but one political value to which they adhere through all the vicissitudes and travail of modern politics. It is not freedom. It is not order. It is disturbing the peace.
Throughout the land of the free, we had for years the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and various of its simulacra. There were few reported disturbances. People were living in peace and relative harmony. Then the progressives fell back on their one enduring political value, disturb the peace. Rouse the easily aroused. March on Indiana! It had the added benefit of arousing the progressives' base.
Yet at this point in the progressives' strategizing, I question their mischievous wisdom. My guess is that the vast majority of people in Indiana and throughout America do not like to be disturbed. Their elected representatives will find a compromise. The land will again return to tranquility, and the progressives will again be thwarted in their drive for power. In America, religious liberty trumps momentary agitation.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor-in-chief of The American Spectator. He is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and the author most recently of "The Death of Liberalism." To find out more about R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.