RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: Arkansas and the Politics of Mean

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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson declines to sign the state's 'religious freedom' bill, which could've made Arkansas perhaps the most anti-gay state in America.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson declines to sign the state’s ‘religious freedom’ bill, which could’ve made Arkansas perhaps the most anti-gay state in America.

At the stoke of a pen, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican elected last year on a platform of job creation, could have made Arkansas perhaps the most anti-gay state in America with the signing of HB 1228, otherwise known by its innocuous title, the “religious freedom” bill. This morning in a press conference, Hutchinson kicked it back to the Arkansas legislature, calling on them to change and clarify the language of the bill before coming back to him for signature.

How did Arkansas get to this point? The state has such a tremendous liberal and progressive streak familiar to even the most passive student of history. Arkansas elected the first woman, Hattie Caraway, to the United States Senate in 1931. Arkansas gave us Sen. J. William Fulbright and his legacy of statesmanship. And, of course, there’s former President Bill Clinton. But now we have the likes of Asa Hutchinson, who seems perhaps more content with how segregationist governor Orval Faubus occupies his space within the margins of history books rather than that of Fulbright or Clinton.

So what’s happened to Arkansas? The state was perhaps the last of its Southern “solid South” brethren to flip to the Republican column after years of Democratic control. Now, as some states like North Carolina or Georgia appear to be fading back to blue or at least a tinge of purple, Arkansas seems to be at peak red.

Apple has come out against the “religious freedom” bill, and so have other corporations both large and small. But Apple CEO Tim Cook, I’m guessing, doesn’t vote in Arkansas. But lots of Wal-Mart employees do. Will Gov. Hutchinson sign the bill? It all depends on how badly Gov. Hutchinson wants the “cultural warrior” label hung on his office door. Allowing the bill to become law may very well produce short-term political gains for him and his party, but it will do long-term harm to both the state and its citizens, gay and straight alike.

Read more: Indiana Religious Freedom Bill Discriminatory — and Bad For State Business

Arkansas’ “religious freedom” bill is similar to that signed into law last week by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Pence pointed to several other “religious freedom” laws that have been on the books for some time in other states. And Pence lied when he said his law is just like those. The truth is, the bill Pence signed is broader in its application in that citizens can invoke “religious liberty” when dealing with other citizens, not just the government. Another key difference, those laws Pence pointed to were passed years ago and in a different time when it was still politically safe, essentially, to beat up on gays and lesbians for political gain.

The Arkansas electorate has long been considered “bread and butter” voters, meaning it’s the politics of the kitchen table — the cost of living, the price of a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and such — that drives people to the polls. But let’s add another dynamic to the table: Scores of people have come to terms with whatever internalized homophobia they once carried. Gay marriage is now the norm, though not yet in Arkansas. But there, people are increasingly aware that to discriminate against a gay or lesbian person or to vote in office those who advocate for that, may very well mean staring at the receiving end of that discrimination when they look across the dining room table at dinner. 

An example, my brother, Michael — a deer hunter, a red-blooded Republican and, like me, a proud Arkansan. He went down to the governor’s office and stood with LGBT Arkansans as they rallied to fight against HB 1228. He did so without any encouragement from me. When I asked him why he went, he said simply, “Well, hell, I don’t agree with it. And you’re my brother, and that’s what counts.”

He’s come a long, long way. But then again, so has Arkansas. Michael’s simply sick of the mean spiritedness of it all. And he’s not alone. Hundreds of people are standing up for themselves, their friends, their family and their state during this time. During this morning’s press conference, Hutchinson said that “this is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,” adding, “but these are not ordinary times.” Thank God for that.

Will the politics of mean carry the day in Arkansas? Perhaps. But not right now. Not today. And perhaps we can rest easy that eventually love will win out within its borders.

Brock Thompson is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.

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