Jindal on Religious Liberty: Contradiction or Revelation?

I’m really pleased to see Peter Beinart go after Bobby Jindal with an analytical scalpel, because I’m tired of being semi-alone in viewing the Louisiana governor as especially cynical and dangerous. No, I don’t think he’s going to win the presidential nomination, but right now he’s a cinch for a Cabinet post if Republicans regain the White House, and as Chris Rock would say, “That ain’t right!.”

In any event, Beinart focuses on the rather problematic relationship between two of Jindal’s big themes: “religious liberty” for conservative Christians, which he defines as sanctioned non-compliance with secular laws they don’t like, and hostility to Muslims for alleged refusal to assimilate to secular American customs.

[L]et’s imagine a scenario. A devout Christian emigrates from Nigeria to a progressive American college town, where she takes up work as a pharmacist. She quickly finds herself at odds with the dominant culture around her. Co-workers mock her modest dress and her insistence on interrupting work to pray. When she calls homosexuality a sin, they denounce her as a bigot. Ultimately, her employer fires her for refusing to dispense contraception.

Based on his speeches at Liberty University and the Reagan Library, Jindal’s advice to this woman would be clear: Wage “silent war” against the culture that oppresses you, even if you’re a minority of one. If necessary, “establish a separate culture within” the dominant one so you can raise children who fear and obey God.

Now imagine that our devout Nigerian is a Muslim. Suddenly her resistance to the dominant culture makes her not a hero but a menace. Jindal supporters might resist the analogy. Christians, they might argue, don’t kill cartoonists or establish their own separate legal systems. But Jindal’s point in London was that the problems with Muslim immigrants go beyond issues of violence and law. The core danger, he insisted, is their refusal to assimilate into the culture of the countries to which they immigrate. And since Jindal has already declared that American (let alone European) culture is secular, any immigrant who refuses to assimilate into it is, by his definition, a threat. Our Nigerian pharmacist should never been given a visa.

Why point out the contradiction between Jindal’s heroic portrayal of Christian non-assimilators and his demonization of Muslim ones? Because it exposes his lofty talk about culture and identity to be an elaborate ruse. The only principle he’s really defending is anti-Muslim bigotry.

I agree with the conclusion, but differ in one respect. Embedded in Bobby’s idea of the conflict between conservative Christians and secular America is the belief that America should be conservative Christian. I don’t know if he’s specifically used Sarah Palin’s useful “Real America” distinction, but it’s implicit in his approach to issues ranging from same-sex marriage to education. So that’s also implicit in how he talks about Muslims, who are in his view a threat to both secular and “real” Americans. Different religions can’t be held to the same standards because some are “American” and some aren’t. And ultimately secular Americans will have to bend the knee just like Muslims. When you look at Jindal’s views from that perspective, It’s not so much a contradiction as a revelation.

UPDATE: Conservative WaPo columnist Michael Gerson also goes after Bobby today for “extremism,” which is especially interesting because Gerson is himself a conservative evangelical. Gerson, of course, has to end his column with a graph assuring us that plenty of people on the Left are just as nasty, but it reads like boilerplate. Wouldn’t it be nice, chirrens, if Jindal ended his presidential bid not only broke and stuck at 2% in the polls, and out of office (he’s term-limited at the end of this year), but with his wonky reputation shredded? It could definitely happen.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.