New “religious freedom” laws are a last-ditch effort to fend off threats to traditional conservatism, which has been continuously upended for 50 years. Yet they’re bound to make these socio-cultural backwaters even less appealing places to live, work and invest.
A man in the audience waves an American flag after Ted Cruz announced his campaign for president at Liberty University founded by the late ultra-conservative Christian preacher Jerry Falwell, in Lynchburg, Va.
Revolutions, which seem inevitable in hindsight, are often hard to predict because the forces that propel them are, out of necessity, often hidden from sight and only brought to public view under unusual circumstances.
Like a glacier that suddenly falls into the ocean after an imperceptible crack grows into a gulf, they only appear after the fact, when factors that had kept them in check are suddenly removed. Then, what was once out of sight becomes glaringly obvious to all. Indiana’s new ”religious freedom” law is one such example — but not in the ways most might think.
On its face, the law is a glaring example not of revolution, but of reaction; a move by America’s cultural right to ensure that their members shall remain free to publically discriminate against individuals for reasons of religious faith.
Although supporters of the law, not least of which is Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, have attempted to roll back criticism by arguing this isn’t what the law is about and to amend it somewhat so as to be less onerous, the context in which it was passed and the practical way in which it will be enforced leaves no doubt that the law is intended to give religious conservatives a “get-out-of-law-free-card” when it comes to long-sacrosanct public accommodation rules first articulated during the civil rights era.
The way things used to be
However, to understand why these laws are actually a positive sign for gay rights, it’s important to first understand where the United States and much of the Western world stood just 50 years ago on the subjects of sex, women, homosexuality and much else.
In 1965, when America’s modern civil rights rules first went into practice, gay rights weren’t even on the agenda, and women, under the banner of second-wave feminism, were only slowly beginning to liberate themselves from centuries of Western-style patriarchy by fully entering the economy, en masse, as legal equals.
What’s more, traditionalist conservatism and its views on sex and gender still had a powerful grip on the country in a way that seems very difficult to understand today. Sex between consenting heterosexuals, let alone homosexuals, was still a taboo topic. “The pill” had only just been introduced in more forward-thinking areas of the country in 1960, and would not be available in many areas until another Supreme Court ruling allowed the oral contraceptive to be sold to all married women everywhere in 1965. It then took another five years before the Supreme Court extended that access to unmarried women as well.
In today’s sex-saturated environment it seems difficult to imagine that this was ever the case, but sex was still something mostly not talked about and referred to only in the hushed tones of shame and titillation. Challenging that and the traditional gender roles that supported it was considered radical.
Consider, for instance, the media of the era. Such tepidly sexual movies like “The Graduate” and its seductive Mrs. Robinson was still two years away in 1965, while just ten years prior the country had been scandalized by Marilyn Monroe’s skirt being blown above her hips by a subway vent in the movie “The Seven Year Itch” – hot stuff for the time, but hardly noteworthy by today’s standards. The same occurred on television, where sex, like black people, was mostly banished from the small screen, while more wholesome and thoroughly boring programs like “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Leave It to Beaver,” and other such tales of white-bread, middle-class, small-town staleness were the norm.
Even comic books had to adhere to this standard of uptight, faith-filled decency that turned those pages into little more than boring propaganda for the conformity-inducing, soul-crushing, God-Bless-America standards of the day.
The end of cultural monopoly
From our perspective, then, a contemporary critic’s view at the time that American television, and by implication the rest of the country’s culture industry, was a “vast wasteland” is correct. Yet it is important to understand that it was a wasteland of conformity that reflected the moral sensibilities and preferences of white, conservative, middle-class Americans and their appointed and approved cultural guardians both inside and outside of government.
For better or worse, they and their sensibilities dominated, and so long as both electoral politics and mass consumption vested America’s Mayberrys with both civil and economic power, their wishes and standards would be adhered to.
Indeed, so powerful were they that these traditionalist views were not only adhered to almost completely, but even questioning them by proposing alternatives was deemed radical and dangerous – something akin to the godless communism America was fighting overseas in the Cold War and investigated accordingly.
This all begs the question of just how this monolithic interpretation of the way things should be changed. How did the country go from being so dominated by traditionalists that heterosexual sex, not to mention homosexual sexual, could be barely acknowledged, to being a country where homosexuals not only exist freely and openly, but can legally marry and adopt children, too? Moreover, what does that story of change say about today’s “religious freedom” laws?
Cities, capitalism and secularism
The story is complicated, but this change is due to several self-reinforcing factors that appeared in strength by the late 1950s and early 1960s and which continue to play out to this day. First and foremost was the growing urbanization of the country from the beginning of the 20th century onward. From about 1910, half the country lived in cities, with some areas — the Northeast and industrial Midwest in particular — reaching the 50 percent urban mark about a generation or two earlier.
Thus, by the 1960s a good portion of the country’s population had already been gathered together in cities and exposed to the diversity that naturally comes with city life.
The parochialism and emphasis on tradition that naturally comes from non-city life had thus largely been shed by many living in these areas, and new ways of living and doing sprung up in most of country’s largest metropolitan areas.
These new modes of life were imperfect, to be sure, but constantly living and working among many types of people necessarily exposes one to all types of differences, including those surrounding norms of sex and gender. It’s a cliché, but America’s big cities became centers of gay culture for the same reason they became centers for the cultural lives of other groups – cities offer a place to congregate, meet others, and live life relatively unburdened by one’s community of origin.
Second, this urban mentality, long present in America’s cities, began to spread to other parts of the culture through new mass mediums. Journals, books, periodicals and other print instruments had of course long spread liberal ideas, which is why the kings and religious despots of Europe had long tried to suppress them. But the new mass mediums of radio, film and television spread those ideas, too, albeit often dumbed down. And they spread them to a vastly larger audience, no less. One could read about racial injustice in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or learn about a Woolworth’s lunch counter protest in the newspaper, but vastly more people probably saw an interracial kiss on “Star Trek” or witnessed the changing social role of women on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
These new messages were powerful not just because of how they were delivered, but in how the system that distributed them had incentive to do so. Capitalists came to understand that their fear of offending the great middle of the country was misplaced, and indeed, there was money to be made in crafting and selling non-traditional stories and ideas. Hollywood, which has come to symbolize this new thinking, is lambasted by conservatives for offering these ideas a platform, but what conservatives forget is that no one is being forced to consume what Hollywood produces – the decision to consume and accept non-traditionalist media is one made freely in both the regular marketplace and the marketplace of ideas.
The final component of the set of forces leading to these changed circumstances is the corresponding rise of American secularism. As this space has noted, conservative religion and the social norms it promotes in terms of sex, the status of women and homosexuality is being pushed aside in the United States. While this retreat is most advanced in America’s blue states, which also happen to be the most urban and exposed to mass consumer culture, secularism is also growing in red states, as the same factors that pushed traditionalist morality out of the public square in Western Europe and Blue America are at work there, too. Lest one forget, it was not until the 1950s that the American South, the headquarters of America’s current right-wing, became 50 percent urban. Indeed, the region and its rural conservatism are only now feeling the weight of these changes, as what Marx deemed the “idiocy of rural life” was abandoned there only relatively recently.
Thus, what we are seeing in Indiana and other American bastions of rural social conservatism is a dying worldview using its last shred of political power to stave off the inevitable. In many ways it’s a sad, pathetic display precisely because of how powerless the traditionalist right and its appeals to traditional norms and religious authority have become in the face of all this change. In just 50 years, the blink of a historical eye, a system that for centuries kept women under effective lock and key, banished sex from the public sphere, brooked no public criticism of faith and relegated homosexuals to the status of criminal outcasts is desperately fighting for the right of backwater bigots to not sell wedding cakes or pizzas to gay men and women. Oh, how the mighty have fallen if this is what they are reduced to!
So, take heart. If by some miracle these new laws pass constitutional scrutiny, a few businesses in forgettable, unimportant places may win the right to deny service to gays and lesbians, but in the long run what have they really won? The answer is simply “nothing,” for who in America would want to live in a place where such a thing is celebrated? Of those with talent and means, very, very few, and in the future even fewer. Thus, these backwaters will be made even less desirable places to live, work and invest going forward.
Indeed, the religious reservations to gay rights promoted by these laws will backfire, and in so doing create actual physical reservations for America’s remaining social conservatives similar in many ways to the ones set up for the country’s original inhabitants.