The Perils of Political Propaganda: Mass Hysteria over Indiana


It’s fine for people to express disagreement with the Indiana RFRA—if they know what’s in it. We must not allow ourselves to be manipulated by political propagandists into mob hysteria.

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As you may have heard, the State of Indiana just passed a Religious Freedom Bill. It’s based on a similar federal statute that was passed in 1993 and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, and it is nearly identical to the laws in nineteen other states. Because of state court decisions, nearly identical protections exist in ten additional states. The law simply prohibits substantial government burdens on religious exercise unless the government can show that it 1) has a compelling interest in burdening religious liberty and 2) is doing so through the least restrictive means possible.

Oddly, people across the country are reacting as though Indiana did something utterly unprecedented and unspeakable. Instead of calling it a “religious freedom law,” it is being described as an “anti-gay bill,” even though the words “gay,” “homosexual,” and “marriage” never show up anywhere in the law.

This is troubling—and not just for the reasons you might guess. It’s not because I think everyone should agree with this law. On its substance and wisdom, I think honest people can disagree. What’s troubling is the emotional virulence with which people are reacting to this particular law, when it is identical to protections offered in thirty other states and in the federal government. Indiana is just playing “catch up” here, legally speaking. We usually want states to offer legal protections roughly equivalent to those offered by the federal government. So why the uproar in this case?

Again, it’s fine for people to express disagreement with the law—if they know what’s in it. What I’m worried about is the single-minded, narrow, largely uninformed, self-righteous prejudice of those who are furious with the “bigots” that are assumed to live in Indiana and the glee with which they are welcoming the hysterical reactions against the state. “I’ve never been so ashamed to be from Indiana,” wrote a friend of mine on Facebook. Really? Nothing else was more shameful? Not the Indian massacres, not the popularity of the KKK right up through the 1920s, not the lynching of black men? The mayor of Seattle has banned all official travel to the state of Indiana. How about to any of the other thirty states that have nearly identical religious freedom protections?

This reaction is clearly being driven by one-sided media presentations of what’s happened in Indiana. What’s especially disturbing—and dangerous—is the degree to which Americans are showing themselves to be susceptible to the panderings of the crassest forms of political propaganda. A stable, vibrant democracy depends crucially upon its people’s ability to recognize and resist the allure of political propaganda.

Our Unexamined Metanarratives

French post-modern theorist Francois Lyotard is perhaps most famous for defining the postmodern age as one involving “incredulity toward metanarratives.” If only that were true.

Quite the contrary, it seems that we all have our own small group of metanarratives by means of which we interpret all news events. “White cops mistreating black men.” “Anti-gay homophobia.” “Male oppression of women.” “Threats against American security.” “Murderous Muslim fanaticism endangering the West.” These are just a few of the “grand narratives” into which we “fit” all big news stories: they are the “lenses” through which we interpret events. Lyotard would have been more accurate if he had said: “The postmodern condition can be characterized as a near-absolute domination by a series of largely unexamined metanarratives.”

One of the most dangerous aspects of being dominated by unexamined metanarratives is that political propagandists can use them to pull our strings. They pipe the tune, and we dance. They rejoice in pitting us against one another, because that is the way they consolidate their power. As the founders well understood, mob hysteria is one of the quickest ways of undermining a democracy. Mobs are characterized by undisciplined outbursts of emotion. People will do things as part of a mob that they would never consider doing as individuals.

And in the midst of the anarchy and disorder that usually accompany such hysteria, what often enough follows is some sort of tyranny. The mob gives itself over to some person or group that portrays itself as embodying what Rousseau used to call “the will of the People.” It doesn’t really matter what the people think; no one takes a vote. The mob just knows: it has a mind of its own. And what it “knows” is that it somehow represents “the Spirit of the Age.” You don’t want to be on the “wrong side of history, do you?” people ask. Or more menacingly: “Those people can’t be tolerated any longer; they’re getting in the way of the progressive march of history.”

To be honest, when I look back at many of the “grand movements” of history—the ever-increasing glory of the Roman Empire, the divine right of kings, “Manifest Destiny,” nationalism, eugenics, etc.—personally, I think I would have preferred to have been “left behind.”

Discrimination, Toleration, and Government Compulsion

Back to Indiana for a moment. A comment I saw on Facebook read: “Let’s DISCRIMINATE against those who DISCRIMINATE.” The author seemed to have very little sense of irony.

Be that as it may, this is exactly what this person ought to do. If this person judges that a certain business is engaged in conduct that is immoral, then he or she should refuse to do business there.

But here’s the rub. Let’s say that someone gets the government to pass a law that says, in effect: “You may not discriminate against that business for doing as they have chosen to do.” I imagine this person is going to be very angry, because now he or she is going to be forced to do business with someone they consider to be engaged in an immoral practice. Most people generally don’t like this. Getting the compulsory powers of the state involved hasn’t helped the conflict; it has worsened it.

I may not like the fact that you sell cigarettes and/or contraceptives in your store; I may even think it is morally wrong for you to sell cigarettes and/or contraceptives. Given the right circumstances, we might even be able to have a mutually illuminating discussion about the morality of selling cigarettes and/or contraceptives. But once the state enters in to force me to buy either cigarettes or contraceptives for myself or others, then we no longer have the proper matter for a moral discussion. Instead, we have the stage set for a pitched battle with stakes that are very high indeed, where the very integrity of each moral agent is at stake.

It’s one thing for the state to ask people to tolerate the existence of things in the society they consider morally wrong: pornography, strip clubs, contraception, war, capital punishment. It’s another thing altogether for the state to insist that its citizenry must take part in activities that they consider morally wrong: to force them to fight in a war if they’re pacifists, for example, or force them to send an escaped slave back to their so-called “owners” in the South when one was morally opposed to slavery.

Forcing a person to take part in or cooperate in something he or she has judged to be morally wrong is to create a crisis in conscience. The state is forcing the person to choose between obedience to the state and obedience to his or her moral convictions. Many people in this situation will conclude: if the state is requiring me to act contrary to my conscience, then the state has no more right to my special protection and concern.

Minimizing Crises of Conscience

Now it may well be that in certain instances, this conflict simply can’t be avoided. But if the state is wise, it will do what it can to minimize such crises as much as possible. This is why we have a long tradition in this country of allowing conscientious objectors to be exempted from the obligation to serve in the military, even when the nation is at risk.

When we allow for such conscientious objectors, we understand two things. First, that the person disagrees with us about the morality of war—period. He doesn’t think any of us should be fighting in a war. The state obviously does not agree, so it does not agree to cease its war activities entirely. But by the same token, the state recognizes that it depends heavily on the personal moral consciences of its citizenry, and that to force them to violate that conscience is to pollute the very wellspring of the common moral life of the state: namely, the personal moral conscience of each individual within the state. The state would do well not to go that route often, if ever, especially if it can be avoided.

I believe in the justice of the Second World War, and I am happy to honor the men who fought it. But I am also happy to live in a country where Quakers and other pacifists were able to get “conscientious objector” status. Although they and I disagree about war, I also believe it is a very good thing for a country to continue to have this discussion and debate. If change is to come, it should come by changing hearts and minds. And this is precisely why, although I think it is acceptable to ask them to tolerate war, I have no interest in forcing them to engage in an activity that they judge to be morally abhorrent. To do so is to violate the respect due to each party in a moral discussion.

Compulsion on the part of the state, especially under the influence of a mob, does not change hearts and minds. It hardens hearts and closes minds on both sides.

This law might—depending on the venue and the circumstances—allow a few vendors not to take part in gay marriage ceremonies. But this is the same law that has allowed Native Americans to take part in religious ceremonies using peyote; the same law that has compelled a state corrections department to allow a Muslim man to grow a beard; the same law that is likely to protect Muslim women who choose to wear a head scarf. Wouldn’t it be tragic to deny these people protections against the compulsory powers of the state and its tendency to overreach to attain its goals simply because this law was swept up into the narrative of anti-gay bigotry, just as the Ferguson shooting was swept up into the “white cops hate black men” narrative, and so many stories of gang-related violence get swept up into the “Hispanic immigration is dangerous to America” narrative?

People are free to disagree with this law, as they are with any government action, but we must not allow ourselves to be manipulated by political propagandists into mob hysteria. We owe our neighbors better than that—especially those whose convictions are different from our own.

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

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