So Gov. Bobby Jindal has chosen Liberty University — Jerry Falwell’s old stomping ground — as the place to deliver a ringing defense of First Amendment rights. Isn’t that a little like debuting a spring fashion collection at a Marine Corps boot camp? Odd choice.
Liberty University, despite its name, and despite being a de rigueur stop for many a Republican presidential hopeful, is an evangelical Christian school with an ultra-strict Honor Code that limits unapproved speech. For example, students at Liberty must get prior approval from the administration if they want to demonstrate, petition, or distribute literature. (What would Martin Luther say?) And if you’re a guy who wants to wear his hair long (like a famous Nazarene), or one who likes to dance, or wear T-shirts with controversial views, or express romantic feelings with a kiss — you better choose another school.
When a Virginia newspaper reported the school had nabbed a half-billion in federal financial aid (so much for the school’s conservative, small-government agenda) Liberty University blocked internet access to the newspaper’s web site. They said they didn’t have to explain their decision, because they’re a private school.
Liberty even kicked a Democratic Party club off campus — not because of any incident, mind you, but because the university felt the ideas of the national party were anathema to the school’s evangelical mission.
For those too young to remember, Falwell*, the university’s founder, was a blowhard homophobe who founded the once politically potent Moral Majority. Put it this way: Liberty U may be sacred ground for Republicans of a certain stripe, but it is no place for an open mind.
No matter. Jindal felt right at home. A Hindu-turned-“evangelical Catholic,” he knew how to package his First Amendment defense for maximum appeal to clean-cut Christian conformists. Anti-gay bigotry was recharacterized as an expression of traditional Christian views. Discriminating against homosexuals by denying them jobs or goods and services — that’s simply practicing one’s religion.
As the demons in this travesty of New Testament theology, Jindal ominously evoked a vast liberal elite, intolerant of religious-based speech that also happens to be anti-gay. You see it’s the free speech crowd — not the censors at a place like Liberty U — who are the small-minded one in Jindal’s world. The “politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with,” he opines in a press release from the governor’s office. (Your tax dollars at work!) It’s a switcheroo tactic he used to defend anti-gay comments by Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, much like the “liberals are the real racists” meme that the right has been peddling so hard recently. Bigotry seems more justified if you see yourself in the oppressed group.
Progressive blogger Lamar White summarizes these tactics best in a recent post at his Cenlamar blog:
To Jindal, “religious liberty” actually has nothing to do with religion or liberty; it’s catch-all code language used to provide cover for conservatives who believe in state-sanctioned bigotry and discrimination.
Then White reminded us of the repercussions:
Meanwhile, in Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana, legislators recently refused to strike down the state’s unconstitutional anti-sodomy law, ensuring that homosexuality remains, at least technically, illegal. Meanwhile, Louisiana continues to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples who want to exercise their fundamental right to marriage. Its laws promote discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans in workforce and housing opportunities. Louisiana refuses to protect school children against bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or disability. It denies the children of gay and lesbian couples the dignity of having their parents legally recognized as “parents.”
Once you remove the liberal-bashing partisanship and ideological victimhood in Jindal’s speech, what he’s really talking about is “the freedom” to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. Pure and simple — just like we continue to do in the Pelican State. That’s the core “idea” here that Jindal has steadfastly defended throughout his political career.
These days Jindal is bursting with solutions to every national issue, while leaving his flacks to handle questions about the increasingly dire condition of the state budget. He coyly deflects questions with non-answers about whether he’ll run for president. This cute little dance has become tiresome, as is his use of the top state office as a partisan soapbox to get national attention for his ideas.
And one of his ideas, which is not negotiable for many of the conservative Christian voters upon whom Jindal pins his presidential hopes, is the right to discriminate based on sexual orientation. He should own it, instead of veiling it. File some lawsuits and settle the constitutional question, already! And if he sincerely thinks our discriminatory laws make Louisiana a haven of religious liberty, then why not promote that fact during his ceaseless travels? I think he knows it would be bad national politics.
So Jindal continues to dance around the real issue, at a school that doesn’t allow dancing. He implies that a private college audience is actually a cabal of oppressed freedom fighters. In doing so, he tries to camouflage old-fashioned bigotry as a defense of free speech, at a school that discriminates against gays and clamps down on free speech.
*Correction: As first published, the column mistakenly described the late Jerry Falwell as a former presidential hopeful.