As the dust from the recent explosion over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act begins to settle, one thing is clear: Republicans and Christians lost, Democrats and gay activists won. Republican leaders initially supported the legislation for what was likely a combination of strategic political reasons and the belief that religious freedom is a positive good. Passage of RFRA laws was an intensifying demand in conservative Christian circles. Having concluded that the culture war was lost, conservative Christians retreated to the castle keep of American political order: the right to the free exercise of religion, a right that had been bolstered by the bipartisan passage of the federal RFRA law in 1993. Governor Mike Pence no doubt thought he was practicing good politics: giving his base something they dearly wanted, while only potentially alienating committed members of the opposition party.
Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, and the Republican party were not blindsided by opposition to RFRA by gay rights activists. What knocked them back were major corporations, such as Apple, Walmart, and Angie’s List, and organizations such as the NCAA that denounced the law, in many cases announcing boycotts of Indiana. Had the only appreciable opposition to RFRA come from gay rights activists, RFRA would have been a smashing political success for Republicans. It would have made the right enemies while generating gratitude and energy in the base. They did not expect their usual friends in corporate America to join the opposition, which was an idiotic miscalculation given the fact that establishment outrage scuttled the Arizona RFRA last year.
The decision by corporate leaders to take a political stand over a controversial issue is therefore of great interest. Corporations and business leaders almost always avoid political statements and announcements, recognizing that such declarations have the effect of unnecessarily alienating potential customers. Corporations live in constant fear of bad publicity that can ruin a brand carefully erected through millions of dollars of advertising and publicity. Why step into a heated political debate and unnecessarily turn half of your customers away? Corporations exist to make money, not to advance political and social causes—except for those that help them make money, of course.
And that’s just the point: The decision by Apple, Walmart, Eli Lilly, Angie’s List, and so on was a business decision—even more, a marketing decision. Coming out in opposition to the Indiana RFRA law was one of the shrewdest marketing coups since E.T. followed a trail of Reese’s Pieces. The decision to #BoycottIndiana was not made because it was the politically courageous thing to do; it was made because it was the profitable thing to do. The establishment could express support for a fashionable social norm while exerting very little effort, incurring no actual cost, and making no sacrifice to secure the goal. It had the further advantage of distracting most people from the fact that corporations like Apple have no compunction doing business in places with outright oppression of gays, women, and Christians. Those real forms of repression and discrimination didn’t matter; Indiana’s purported oppression of gays did.
The public statements, often hyperbolic propaganda about the dire consequences of the Indiana law, were cost-free because gay rights activists have successfully argued that opposition to gay marriage is tantamount to racism. Through a powerful and concerted effort, gay activists have succeeded in convincing the establishment that gays are the equivalent of blacks in Selma, and that their opponents—particularly their Christian opponents—are Bull Connors. There can simply be no brooking bigotry! Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton conveniently forget their previous support for conjugal marriage, and none of their supporters seek to hold them to account. All that matters is that one now deny that there can be reasonable opposition to gay marriage, and affirm that those who maintain that view are rank bigots. Companies like Apple and Walmart eagerly joined the bandwagon once it was clear that the tactic had worked.
There is a deeper reason for corporate support, however. Today’s corporate ideology has a strong affinity with the lifestyles of those who are defined by mobility, ethical flexibility, liberalism (whether economic or social), a consumerist mentality in which choice is paramount, and a “progressive” outlook in which rapid change and “creative destruction” are the only certainties. The response to Indiana’s RFRA law shows very clearly that corporations have joined forces with Republicans on economic matters and Democrats on social ones. Corporate America is aligned with the ascendant libertarian portion of each party, ensuring a win for the political, economic, and social preferences of libertarianism. In effect, there is only one functional party in America today, seemingly parceled between the two notional parties but in reality unifying them in its backing by financial and cultural elites.
What this means is that today’s cultural power elite is entirely aligned with the economic power elite, and they’re ready to steamroll anyone in their way. In the case of Indiana’s RFRA, corporate and gay activists combined to bring to heel conservative Christians in a rural, Rust Belt state that struggles at the margins of America’s global economy. The threat to demolish Indiana’s economy is only a more explicit expression of a project that corporations like Apple and Walmart have been carrying out with the assistance mainly of Republicans (as well as free-trade Democrats) for a generation.
To see the glee with which liberals joined forces with corporations revealed the deepest fact about the American ruling class: politicians and corporations will join forces to effect the change preferred by corporations, change that too often damages the working class and benefits society’s elites. Corporate America is willing to join any coalition that advances its financial interests and deeper philosophic commitments, at the expense of Americans on the wrong side of history, especially those Americans living in places like Indiana who aren’t part of the meritocratic global elite.
There was no more vivid picture of this project than the journalistic hit-job targeting Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana. Searching for a “smoking gun” that Indiana’s RFRA was nothing more than a cover for “bigotry,” an enterprising young reporter travelled to the downtrodden small town of Walkerton, where she claims to have walked into Memories Pizza to ask its owners about their views of RFRA. While stating clearly that they would not deny service to anyone, a young woman in the family declared that, as Christians, they wouldn’t want to cater a gay wedding. Never mind that no one had requested catering from this restaurant. Never mind that were this to come to pass, RFRA would merely give the courts a means of balancing the legal claims of Memories Pizza against a gay couple that might—in some bizarro world—order pizza for their wedding. And never mind that the employee said that they wouldn’t discriminate against any customer who came into the restaurant and that the entire “story” was manufactured. The outpouring of fury and denunciation on the various websites connected to the restaurant was relentless, vicious, and devastating.
Here, then, is a family that has seen corporate America and both parties throw them to the wolves. Corporate powers, in combination with the globalizing ideology in both parties, advanced economic policy that helped gut America’s manufacturing heartland in favor of low-wage labor markets abroad. Corporate powers, in combination with Democrats, have advanced the belief that this family is the face of bigotry and racism in America today, and that the ravening hordes have descended to drive them from a place that one poster on Yelp (who I am sure is the very picture of concern for economic inequality in America) described as “BFE, Indiana between WhoGivesASh!t and AintNobodyGahtTime4Dat.”
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats vie for the votes of the likes of the owners of Memories Pizza, with Republicans touting their support for family values and opposition to abortion, and Democrats insisting upon their commitment to equality and social justice. However, when the chips are down, the parties are only and ultimately successful when the corporate powers join their respective camps—forcing Christian commitments back into the catacombs and relentlessly widening the chasm of inequality that divides the “in-breds” (again, quoting from Yelp!) living in Walkerton, Indiana, from the Most Enlightened People who left violent and obscene reviews, aided by vocabularies picked up at the best universities in America.
When Democrats criticize the role of corporate money and influence in politics, they (rightly, in my view) point out the disfiguring effects of wealth and power on the political process. Typically the role of money ends up skewing the legislative process in favor of corporate interests, and results in legislation that favors especially wealthy elites over citizens who do not have the same access and influence in politics. We have come to expect that those corporate interests work almost always hand-in-glove with Republicans.
This past spring, we saw something quite different and revealing and worrying. With the imprimatur of American elites, which was clearly given in the furor over Indiana’s RFRA, religiously based opposition to gay marriage is now more than ever likely to be treated by our society as tantamount to a hate crime. This elite-sanctioned attack on “bigotry” will not stop at Memories Pizza. It will be extended first to religious nonprofit institutions that insist upon the view that marriage is between a man and a woman—the schools, the colleges, the adoption services—and then will reach inevitably into the sanctuaries of the churches themselves. The narrative of bigotry will demand nothing less, and the protection that might have been afforded by RFRA and the First Amendment has been shown to be a parchment barrier in comparison with the might and power of cultural and financial elites.
Americans of both parties once believed that no center of power in America should become so concentrated that it could force its views on every other citizen. What we saw in Indiana was not just a “miscalculation” by Republicans. We saw fully unmasked just who runs America, and the kind of America that they are bringing more fully into reality every passing day. It will be an America where the powerful will govern completely over the powerless, where the rich dictate terms to the poor, where the strong are unleashed from the old restraints of culture and place, where libertarian indifference—whether in respect to economic inequality or morals—is inscribed into the national fabric, and where the unburdened, hedonic human will reign ascendant. No limits reflected in political, social, or religious norms can be permitted: All are allowed except those who would claim the legitimacy of restraint.
Patrick Deneen is the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?