In spring of 2015, anti-gay conservatives were nervous. The Supreme Court, it seemed, was poised to affirm gay people’s fundamental right to marry. In left-leaning states, same-sex couples were using LGBT nondiscrimination laws to sue the Christian business owners who refused to serve them. In marriage equality states, Christian clerks were resigning to avoid issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. There was, it seemed, a conflict between the right of gay people to live free from discrimination and the right of anti-gay Christians to discriminate. And gay people were winning.
So conservatives in North Carolina decided to do something about it. The heavily Republican state legislature proposed an Indiana-style “religious freedom” bill (or RFRA) that would effectively legalize anti-gay discrimination and nullify any existing protections for LGBTQ people. Although the bill was obviously designed to protect the Christian business owners eager to refuse service to gays, it was pitched as a general law protecting all forms of religious liberty. Republicans in the state favored it by a large margin. Ultimately, the bill fizzled—though conservative legislators succeeded in passing a similar law allowing anti-gay magistrates to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples. (Republicans are currently attempting to revive their RFRA in a modified form by repealing nondiscrimination measures across the state.)
Why is this history important? Because for all that North Carolina Republicans ranted and raved about the urgent necessity of broad protections for religious liberty, 40 percent of Republicans in the state think the practice of Islam should be outlawed.
It should come as no surprise to close observers of the “religious liberty” debate that most conservatives were only ever supporting religious liberty for anti-gay Christians. Portions of the GOP remain startlingly Islamophobic; one in three Iowa Republicans, for instance, also believes Islam should be criminalized. During the RFRA kerfuffle, GOP leaders and commentators had to walk a careful line, pretending they wanted to do more than just disadvantage gays without dwelling on the rights of Muslims. They accomplished this equivocation by pontificating generically about the importance of religious liberty, while issuing dog whistles to demonstrate their bills’ true intent. (Case in point: When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed his state’s RFRA, he tweeted a picture of devout Christians and anti-gay activists at the signing ceremony.)
The truth, however, is that most anti-gay conservatives don’t care much about the rights of Muslims—except when they can be used as a political pawn. Tea Party water-carrier the Federalist provides a nice example of this phenomenon. Before the RFRA brouhaha, the magazine published two quasi-defenses of Islamophobia. One, titled “Stop Pretending Terrorism Has Nothing To Do With Islam,” alleges that the religion has a higher “propensity for violence” than other religions (including, implicitly, Christianity). Another, alarmingly titled “Is Islam A Terrorist Religion?”, claims that “Muslim societies” are predisposed to “tyranny, oppression, misogyny,” and so on.
Then the Indiana backlash began, and the Federalist became a righteous defender of Islam. A Federalist article by my old friend Matthew Schmitz asked, “Why Are Indiana RFRA Opponents Fanning The Flames Of Islamophobia?” Schmitz accused progressives of engaging in “a wildly irresponsible attempt to exploit fear of the ethnic and religious other” because they noted (sardonically) that, if taken at face value, RFRA would allow Muslims to discriminate, too. The magazine which previously asked, point blank, whether Islam is “a terrorist religion” was, thanks to RFRA backlash, suddenly concerned with (nonexistent) anti-Muslim rhetoric.
American Muslims seem to understand that the GOP only considers them useful as political football. Over the last 15 years, Muslims have scampered swiftly away from the Republican party: In 2000, 78 percent of Muslims supported Republicans; by 2011, 70 percent identified as Democrats, and only 11 percent leaned Republican. Muslims are leaving the GOP en masse, and the party’s base seems as intolerant of Islam as it is of gay rights. For many of them, “religious liberty” means little more than the freedom to kick a gay couple out of your store.