Religious Right Stages a Skirmish to Win in a War It’s Losing in Mississippi

According to the stark red-state vs. blue-state narrative that shapes news media coverage of contemporary politics in the U.S., conservative places are becoming redder and progressive places are becoming bluer with each passing election cycle.

But in the tightly interwoven political and religious cultures of the Deep South, a right-wing legislative victory can belie a deeper leftward trend in the region’s zeitgeist.

Take, for example, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill heading to the desk of Republican Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi. The measure—which would allow business owners to discriminate against LGBT customers on religious grounds as well as add the phrase “In God We Trust” to the State Seal—trades on conservative interests like those that motivated a similar piece of legislation recently vetoed by Jan Brewer, Arizona’s Republican governor.

Most mainstream news outlets—including USA Today, TIME, the Guardian and the Los Angeles Times—cast the Mississippi initiative as Arizona manqué (disaffecting the NFL isn’t a big concern in Mississippi, but even the bill’s opponents concede that its fangs are smaller by comparison). That said, enactment into law seems likely, countering a conservative setback in Phoenix with a victory in Jackson.

This analysis is thorough only if news consumers tacitly accept the premise that all politics is national—an expression, even at the state and local level, of the priorities of party officials and their allied lobbyists in Washington. But scratch a little bit beneath the surface of the story and Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act looks less like an affirmation of the state’s commitment to the broader conservative movement and more like the scorched-earth strategy of a political faction that sees its fortunes shifting in the trenches.

Since the beginning of the year, three Mississippi college towns—Starkville, Oxford and Hattiesburg—have passed “inclusivity resolutions” affirming the “dignity and worth” of all citizens, including LGBT people. While these resolutions lack the force of law and are therefore unlikely instruments for the undoing of legislation at the state level, they do reflect demographic trends that dim the long-term prospects for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A Human Rights Campaign poll cited by the Mississippi Business Journal determined that 64 percent of all Mississippians back workplace nondiscrimination policies for LGBT employees, and roughly 60 percent of those under 30 support marriage equality.

As Sarah Goodyear observes in the Atlantic, moves at the local level say much more about where Mississippi is ultimately heading than does the legislation awaiting the governor’s signature in Jackson. If that conclusion isn’t exactly an indictment of the accuracy of other mainstream news coverage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it does expose another instance in which the “liberal media” often elide context and nuance in a way that favors a more conservative angle on the news.

About Nick Shindo Street

Nick Shindo Street was most recently Senior Writer at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, where he reported on Pentecostal and charismatic religious movements in the global South. Previously, he served as a contributing editor for LGBT issues at Religion Dispatches and as a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal. His reportage on science, religion, sexuality and culture has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Global Post and L.A. Weekly. He is a student at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles.
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