Though liberals often like to imagine our history as an unceasing if often slow forward march toward more understanding, more openness and more inclusion, the truth is somewhat more complicated. It’s also possible to see a cycle of steps forward and back in which every advance is followed by an often furious reaction.
Which may be the best way to understand some fascinating and disturbing new findings from the Public Religion Research Institute on the question of whether businesses should be able to refuse service to certain kinds of people they don’t like:
Three in ten (30%) Americans say they think it should be permissible for a small business owner in their state to refuse to provide services to gay or lesbian people if doing so violates their religious beliefs, while two-thirds (67%) say they should not be allowed to do so.
Support for religiously based service refusals have increased across virtually every demographic group since 2014, when only 16% of Americans said small businesses should be allowed to refuse service to gay or lesbian customers because of religious beliefs, and 80% said they should not.
What’s important here is that support for discrimination against all the groups they tested has increased: discrimination against gay people, transgender people, Jews, Muslims and atheists. Here’s a striking graph:
In many cases, support for discrimination has either stayed steady or increased slightly among Democrats and independents, but it has increased hugely among Republicans over just that five-year span. While there are certainly levels of support for discrimination among Democrats and independents that are disturbing enough, the real action is among Republicans:
Support for discrimination against gay customers among Republicans more than doubled from 21 percent to 47 percent. Support for discrimination against atheists went from 19 percent to 37 percent. Support for discrimination against Jews went from 16 percent to 24 percent.
What could have caused this change? I’m going to argue that it was the Supreme Court and the Republican Party.
In particular, in response to expanding protections for gay Americans, the GOP adopted a set of specific policy ideas and promoted them in a particular way. This sent a signal to its voters that they should adopt those positions too, even though the issue of whether businesses should be able to turn potential customers away if they don’t like the kind of people they are is something many of us hadn’t thought about since that whole thing was supposedly settled by the Civil Rights Act.
This is a process of elite signaling that political scientist John Zaller explained a quarter of a century ago: When a new issue or idea emerges, at first people aren’t too sure what to think, but once the parties coalesce around positions, eventually the masses figure out where they’re supposed to stand as people see their party’s representatives tell them what to believe.
In this case, the key event was the Hobby Lobby case, which was decided in 2014. While it wasn’t about turning away customers — it concerned whether Hobby Lobby and other privately held corporations could exempt themselves from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that health insurance cover contraceptives — it established an important principle, namely that businesses could decide which laws they want to obey if they can come up with a religious rationale for disobeying the ones they don’t like.
In practice, as everyone knew, the businesses that were going to take advantage of that newfound right would almost all do so in the name of conservative Christianity. And the Republican Party vigorously embraced the cause of “religious freedom” in this form.
Then, in 2015, the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal everywhere in the United States, making conservative Christians feel even more that their values were being left behind by the larger culture. That made it particularly urgent to carve out a sphere of “religious freedom” in which they’d be able to decide which laws they wanted to follow.
The critical follow-up to the Hobby Lobby case was the Masterpiece Cakeshop case about a baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple in violation of Colorado’s civil rights laws. Without going into the somewhat complicated Supreme Court ruling, what matters for our purposes is that, once again, pretty much every Republican politician loudly proclaimed that, in the name of “religious freedom,” bakers should be able to refuse service to gay people.
This sent an obvious message to rank-and-file Republicans, one that may well have bled over into increasing support for the right to discriminate against not just gay people but Muslims, or Jews, or atheists as well. It essentially replaced the old story about businesses refusing to serve people with a new story. The old story, the one you learned in school, was about the civil rights era, about sit-ins at lunch counters and racist business owners. The new story is about god-fearing business owners besieged by angry liberals trying to destroy their way of life and banish Jesus from America.
And then, of course, we have Donald Trump, who rode to the White House on the politics of backlash, a message to white voters that their struggles and problems were the fault of people not like them: immigrants, racial minorities, outsiders of all kinds. Not only did Trump embrace the religious right agenda, including the right to discriminate, he also told Republicans that it is no longer necessary to be nice to people you don’t like.
That doesn’t mean that the arc of history doesn’t still bend toward broader inclusion. But sometimes we move backward, too.