Our Pledge To You

News

Roger Simon: GOP candidates and the religious right’s poison pill

There is a poison pill inside the Republican Party, and if its presidential hopefuls keep swallowing it, they are going to choke off their chances for the White House.

OPINION

The religious right has managed to convince some potential candidates that it is extremely powerful. It has convinced the more gullible ones that they must grovel, kowtow and genuflect before it.

This is nonsense. As I have written before, the religious right has not gotten the nominee it has wanted since Ronald Reagan. It is a paper tiger.

And by taking the poison pill that the religious right offers, the potential candidates risk alienating the rest of the nation.

Witness the events of the past two weeks: The Indiana Legislature passed a “religious freedom” bill March 25. It was enacted into law by Indiana’s governor, Mike Pence, the next day.

Though the language of the law was so dense it read like assembly instructions from Ikea, the purpose was simple: It would allow businesses to discriminate against gays.

The law was necessary, the religious right said, because Christians are an embattled minority in this country and need special protection to practice their religion.

In that Christians make up about 80 percent of Americans, they seem like a pretty muscular minority, however, and in reality, only a tiny number of far-right conservatives feel embattled, discriminated against or put upon when it comes to the free practice of their religion.

In America today, if you serve the public, you have to serve all the public. You can’t put up a sign at your lunch counter that says “Whites Only” because it is your personal or religious belief that the races should be separate.  But if you believe that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin, should you be able to refuse service to gays?

Eric Miller, a powerful conservative lobbyist in Indiana, backed the “religious freedom” law. “Christian bakers, florists and photographers would now be forced by the government to participate in a homosexual wedding or else they would be punished by the government!” he wrote. “That’s not right!”

And a beaming Miller stood behind Pence as the governor signed the bill into law.

Pence was a congressman from 2003 to 2013. In Congress, he had very conservative views on homosexuality, as well as on many other subjects. He returned to Indiana to become governor and get executive leadership as a springboard to the presidency. But Pence failed to appreciate that the almighty dollar was going to be more important to Indiana than the religious right’s view of the Almighty.

Indianapolis, the state’s capital and largest city, mockingly used to be called Indian-no-place. Over the years, however, the city very consciously transformed itself into an international sports hub.

The NCAA is based in Indianapolis, and it threatened to move future events out of the city because of the new law. It wanted the law changed and changed immediately, which was to say before the men’s basketball tournament was played there this past weekend.

And the president and chief executive of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce called the law “entirely unnecessary.”

All sorts of giant corporations — including Apple, Gap, Levi Strauss and Subaru— opposed the law.

But the one that really hurt was Eli Lilly and Co.

Eli Lilly is a $20 billion pharmaceutical behemoth that has been based in Indianapolis since the company was founded in 1876. It employs 11,000 people in the state. And when Eli Lilly is unhappy, Indiana can get downright morose.

“Discriminatory legislation is bad for Indiana and for business,” Eli Lilly’s spokeswoman wrote. “That’s one key reason we worked with the Indiana Chamber and other businesses in an attempt to defeat the legislation.”

But you know who was just pleased as punch with the new law? Top-tier Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, as well as other potential candidates Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and Carly Fiorina.

Cruz said Indiana was “giving voice to millions of courageous conservatives across this country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks upon our personal liberties.”

At first, Pence was emboldened by such nonsense. He went on ABC’s “This Week” and told George Stephanopoulos, “We’re not going to change the law, OK?”

That was Sunday, March 29.

By Tuesday, March 31, Pence had learned that hardly anybody in Indiana cares what a bunch of Republican presidential yahoos believe.

Hoosiers cared that thousands of people were threatening to boycott their state. Social injustice turns out to be bad for business. So Pence said he wanted the law changed. Fast. On Thursday, April 2, the Legislature changed the law, and Pence enacted it the same day.

“In the midst of this furious debate, I have prayed earnestly for wisdom and compassion,” Pence said.

I don’t know whether Pence got either, but he did get a kick in the teeth to his presidential hopes. Where did this leave Bush, Cruz, Rubio and the others? Looking craven and foolish, that’s where.

No doubt they will get several chances to redeem themselves in the months ahead.

But if they are still searching for Bible verses with which to woo the religious right, I suggest they start with this one: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And if someone asks them to pop another poison pill, they should just say no.