Johnson ’14: Culture war aggressors

Opinions Columnist

Here at liberal Brown in liberal Rhode Island, we often feel immune from the nationwide struggle with social politics. Personally, I watch the news and feel relieved to live in a place that is — relatively — socially progressive. Like last week, when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed SB 1062, a measure that would have allowed companies in the state to discriminate against people in the name of religious freedom. While the bill was broadly worded, most agree that it was a targeted measure aimed at allowing Arizona businesses to refuse service to gay individuals. Due to immense political pressure from Democrats and Republicans, Brewer rejected the proposal.

But in many ways, her veto was actually meaningless. In Arizona, the gay population is not protected against discrimination by state law, and there are still no such federal laws in place. So even with the dismissal of this bizarre piece of legislation, businesses in Arizona are still free to turn away people who are gay, are divorced, eat shellfish, have tattoos or in any other way disobey the Bible. Thank God for freedom!

SB 1062 is part of a larger, nationwide phenomenon that has been going on since the 1970s and has only accelerated in recent years. It is often called the “culture war,” but it is the strangest war I have ever seen — there is only one side. Groups on the extreme right periodically put out legislation like SB 1062, claiming that their values “are under attack.” The problem with this stance is that no one is attacking them. They are the aggressors in this fight.

Those of us who believe in marriage equality, abortion rights and non-discrimination are not attempting to change or destroy anyone’s religious beliefs. If you belong to a religion that says gay individuals should not be able to marry, go ahead and keep believing that. I won’t even mention the fact that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. But please know that your religious views have no place in our secular country’s laws. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about Christianity — your religion is not the religion of the country. So when we pass laws guaranteeing equal rights for all Americans, we’re not touching your religion. We’re preventing your religion from touching us.

And let’s drop the pretense that you are protecting “religious freedom.” Can anyone say with a straight face that these Arizona Tea Partiers would be up in arms if a Muslim business owner were sued over not serving a woman whose hair was uncovered? Their fight is about protecting their perceived right to govern America as a nation under Christianity. They are the only aggressors in the culture war. The rest of us are just trying to protect the rights of all Americans.

Remember in 2011 when the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property came to Brown to protest Rhode Island’s consideration of marriage equality legislation? As I recall, nobody went to TFP’s headquarters demanding that it, as a private group, recognize gay marriages. While Brown’s counter-protesters may not have been the most respectful group, there is no debate over who the aggressor was in our campus’ battle in the “culture war.” The marriage equality legislation, which eventually was passed and signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17, was a defensive measure in the “culture war.” Marriage, as it relates to the government, is an economic and legal issue. To guarantee that all citizens have the right to marry is to say that no group’s beliefs are more important than our equality as Americans.

Yet for some strange reason, groups on the far right continue to view themselves as the victims of some unnamed combatant who wants to strip them of their views and beliefs. CNN’s Anderson Cooper had an incredible and revealing interview with Arizona State Sen. Al Melvin (R), who voted for SB 1062 and is running for governor. Melvin told Cooper, “All the pillars of society are under attack in the United States.” When Cooper pressed him, Melvin was unable to name one instance in which an Arizona business had its values “attacked.”

The interview also served to show the central, seductive delusion of the right wing. During his conversation with Cooper, Melvin claimed that he doesn’t know of “anybody in Arizona that would discriminate against a fellow human being.” So according to Melvin, discrimination no longer exists in his sunny, utopian state. The supreme irony of this falsehood is that, while denying the existence of discrimination, Melvin was attempting to pass a law legitimizing it.

The effort of pro-discrimination conservatives in Arizona to codify anti-gay discrimination shows us the nationwide strategy of the conservative base of the Republican Party. The crux is to attack the rights of society’s marginalized while they claim to be attacked themselves. These policies serve only  to prevent those who have been marginalized over the course of our history from gaining equal treatment as Americans.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that these folks act this way. After all, their economic policies are designed with exactly the same aim in mind. Socially and economically, the “culture warriors” want to protect the rights of the few to control the laws and government of the many. Why? Because that’s the way it has always been.


Garret Johnson ’14 is currently attacking the pillars of American society and is a former Herald opinions editor. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays. He can be reached at

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  1. TheRationale says:

    I wince ever so slightly at anti-discrimination laws. Really? People haven’t ensured the complete social failure of racists etc. by themselves? We have to force people to be nice… are they even nice then? My point isn’t that the laws are bad, it’s that I’m sad they’re needed.

  2. Scott Lloyd says:

    Hi Garret,

    I will take you up on your challenge.

    “Can anyone say with a straight face that these Arizona Tea Partiers would be up in arms if a Muslim business owner were sued over not serving a woman whose hair was uncovered? ”

    Yes. Emphatically, yes. A Muslim business owner has the right *not* to do business with anyone.

    You have mis-characterized the Tea Party and people of faith. First, we are not necessarily the same groups. More importantly, we, the “Tea Partiers”, the radicals for freedom, believe that people should not have to compromise their beliefs and be forced to do business or associate with anyone they don’t want to serve.

    We respect individuals first. We reject groupism and the concept of “protected classes” of people. If you accept the premise that it is OK for government to force you to serve others who are offensive to you, then you believe in slavery — provided that it is for the common good.

    Just don’t make the claim that the Tea Party are hypocrites on the issue of religious freedom. We are consistent. You are not.

      • Scott Lloyd says:

        Disinformation. Mark Williams can say what he wants, but he is no “Tea Party Leader.”

        • New Yorker says:

          So they kicked him out for making fun of lincoln and slaves but they were cool with him saying muslims worship a monkey god. Definitely proof that the tea party values muslims.

      • Scott Lloyd says:

        Here is Glenn Beck’s take on the issue. He is closer to a “Tea Party Leader” than Mark Williams ever was:

        Glenn, argued that in a truly free society businesses should be allowed to refuse service to anyone they wanted for any reason, but in doing so they will expose any underlying hatred or ugliness and people can and most likely will choose not to support them. If people really want to live in a world with less government and more personal responsibility, the burden is on the individual to support the businesses that are in line with their values and expose the people and businesses that don’t share those values.

        “I don’t like that world where businesses say ‘I don’t want to serve your kind’, but that’s freedom. Freedom is ugly,” Glenn argued. “I know who people are. They aren’t wearing a mask all the time.”

          • Scott Lloyd says:

            More disinformation.
            You are deliberately mis-characterizing criticism of Islamic fundamentalism with the false accusation that Muslims are not part of the movement. I know at least two Muslim men and one Hindu woman among Catholics, Protestants, and atheists in the Tea Party meetings I attend here in Rhode Island. While it is true that some would like to push social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, no one speaks ill of any religion. Instead we all recognize the threat that statism poses to free speech and freedom to practice as you choose.

          • New Yorker says:

            I know at one tea partier who has down syndrome. Does that mean I can classify the whole movement as mentally handicapped?

            Maybe since RI is so liberal it has people who actually use their brains, but the vast majority of the Tea Party movement cares about freedoms for christians and christians only. Don’t kid yourself that this bill was about anything other than protecting the dominant christian majority and that if the shoe were on the other foot that these people wouldn’t immediately be crying out to be a protected class.

          • Scott Lloyd says:

            You are evading the point of my comments. So called “anti-discrimination” laws are restrictions on free speech. I have a right to discriminate against anyone for any reason. I don’t have hate in my heart for people of color or gay people, but that is my decision to make, not yours to impose.

            Falsely characterizing the Tea Party, which is not a formal organization, and has millions of followers, as “Christian”, and by implication bigoted, is an invalid assertion and doesn’t belong in this discussion.

            So, are you, New Yorker, an intolerant anti-Christian?

          • New Yorker says:

            You misunderstand the discussion I am trying to have (and that the author of this article was with the quote you pulled out). You and many supporters of SB1062 claim that this is simply about religious freedom but that is because most of the backers of this law are of the privileged majority class who stand to benefit from this law.

            There may be a small minority who believe we should be legally justified in discriminating against people based on whatever we please but I believe, based on the comments from many within the Tea Party leadership and the supporters of SB1062 that this is not actually what the law is about. The law is about asserting the authority of christianity and the ability to discriminate based on its principles.

            If SB1062 had initially been proposed by a minority group, it would not have gotten as far as it did. The war on christmas comes to mind as proof of this. Where is the tea party outrage over christmas being a national holiday? What about people who don’t celebrate christmas?

          • Scott Lloyd says:

            My last comment on this.

            Garret Johnson is attacking the Tea Party and Christians for trying to protect religious freedoms on the basis that both groups are lying about their intentions and really trying to reassert Christian social dominance and oppress gay people. This is the “culture war” to which he refers.

            While some people on both sides may see it that way, Garret is wrong in his central thesis. He is using a “straw man” argument to mischaracterize the thinking within the Tea Party so that he can demonize them and doesn’t have to deal with the central question of government control of free speech and free trade, which he obviously thinks is a good idea.

            I am an active “Tea Partier” and I can testify that you and Mr. Johnson are wrong in these negative characterizations. When you deal with the facts and not your imagination, you will understand what you really support: mind management and social controls.

          • New Yorker says:

            Civilized society needs social controls. Like the old ruling, you have the right to swing your arm up until my nose begins. I don’t agree that we have a right to discriminate people based on anything our heart desires; ironically, that comes from an idea that is present in pretty much every religion and even those free of religion: do unto others as thou would do unto thyself. In fact it’s in the bible:

            I don’t think business owners should have the right to refuse service for any reason that is not proximal to conducting the business at hand. Refuse service to someone who can’t pay the whole price up front? Sure. Refuse service to someone who wants to book two competing vendors for the same event and make them work together? Sure. Refuse to serve someone in your restaurant because they like BDSM? Refuse to tutor black kids? Refuse to photograph blondes? That doesn’t sound right to me.

            That honestly sounds like the opposite of a free society. Rather than having the freedom to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we’re left wandering around trying to find someone who won’t discriminate against us.

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