In this election we have a candidate who has said some incredibly ignorant things that run counter to the long established principles of the party that he represents. Huge numbers of people that might otherwise be inclined to vote for him are baffled by the fact he's going out of his way to alienate them, and lots of sympathetic political observers are tearing their hair out over why he isn't learning from his mistakes.
Oh, and Donald Trump has said some pretty dumb things as well.
For months, Libertarian party candidate Gary Johnson has been pooh-poohing the idea of religious liberty, saying that he has no problem with private business owners being forced by the government to participate in gay nuptials that run counter to their religious beliefs. How a "libertarian" would be in favor of the government telling cake bakers, florists, and wedding photographers that they must participate in religious ceremonies they don't believe in is simply baffling.
What I don't understand is that not only does Johnson fail to understand America's religious liberty debates, but over time his articulation of his position has become even worse. Last week, the Washington Examiner's Tim Carney asked Johnson about religious liberty again, and Johnson said this:
I mean under the guise of religious freedom, anybody can do anything. Back to Mormonism. Why shouldn't somebody be able to shoot somebody else because their freedom of religion says that God has spoken to them and that they can shoot somebody dead.
This is a foolish argument, not only substantively but as a matter of practical politics. As blogger Ace of Spades put it, "Apparently the right to have someone bake a cake endorsing your sexual choices lies on the same plane as the right to be free of unwanted religiously-motivated murder, and both situations compel the same analysis and conclusion."
As a matter of practical politics, the Mormon example is an incredible blunder. A poll in June had Johnson at 16 percent in Utah, with both Trump and Clinton polling below 30 percent. It's not inconceivable that Johnson has a chance at winning the state, and he hauls off and suggests Mormons would justify killing people in the name of religion? It's a bit of a sore spot, because early Mormon history did involve armed conflict with a number of political authorities. But obviously that's not representative of Mormons 150 years later at all—even though their faith is still unfairly stigmatized by some. Naturally, the Salt Lake Tribune has gone big with the story: "Libertarian Gary Johnson's comments on religious freedom and Mormons may hurt in Utah."
Johnson, in an attempt to repair the damage, has written an op-ed for the Deseret News, a newspaper affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But rather than clean up his mess, the piece shows that Johnson still hasn't gone out of his way to try and understand the basic details of the religious liberty debate. There's some throat-clearing by Johnson trying to explain his inarticulate answer, and then he uncorks this:
I want to be clear. I believe we can, and must, strike a balance between our shared American values of religious liberty and freedom from discrimination. My concerns lie with the possible consequences of politically-driven legislation which claims to promote religious liberty but instead rolls back the legal protections held by LGBT Americans. This does not in any way diminish my respect for and commitment to the legitimate protection of the right to believe, to practice and to express deeply-held religious beliefs. When it comes to civil rights and the LGBT community, states are best served when they take an inclusive approach of "fairness to all." Interestingly and commendably, Utah did just that last year with the passage of the so-called Utah Compromise. At a time when several states, including Indiana under Governor Mike Pence's leadership, took a divisive approach by introducing religious freedom bills that were clearly aimed at LGBT individuals, Utah took a different path. The goal was fairness for all: Fairness for people of faith seeking to live their religion, and fairness to the rights of gays and lesbians.
So Johnson wants to "strike a balance between our shared American values of religious liberty and freedom from discrimination." Seems reasonable. That's all religious liberty advocates want as well. But then he says Pence "took a divisive approach by introducing religious freedom bills that were clearly aimed at LGBT individuals."
This is a mischaracterization of what Indiana attempted to do, which was pass a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act at the state level. The federal RFRA passed in the 1990s under Bill Clinton with overwhelming bipartisan support. Twenty-one states already have state-level RFRAs.
John McCormack has an in-depth explanation of RFRAs and what they do, but in short, the legal term of art for legislation such as RFRAs is that they are a "balancing test." RFRA provide that the state must have a compelling interest for restricting religious freedom and that requires they use the least restrictive means possible. If someone charges that their religious freedom is impeded, they make their case in court, and there's no guarantee they will win. To date, there hasn't been a single RFRA case over compelled participation in gay marriage. And the statute has been used for many broader religious freedom purposes, such as authorities trying to seize ceremonial eagle feathers from Native Americans under the guise of the Endangered Species Act.
Far from RFRAs being "clearly aimed at LGBT individuals," it's exactly the vehicle for achieving the balance between religious liberty and freedom from discrimination that Johnson claims he wants.
Johnson is a sharp guy, so what's the problem with his understanding this? One likely possibility is that the pendulum has swung so far and so fast on social issues in this country that Johnson doesn't get that religious believers have a pretty credible claim to statist oppression. If being conservative on fiscal issues and liberal on social issues seemed like a good, quick definition of libertarianism once upon a time, well, attacking religious freedom has scrambled that definition quite a bit.
The media coverage of religious freedom has been terrible, and lots of people misunderstand the issue. But Johnson doesn't have any excuses. It's not just that his religious freedom rhetoric undermines his credibility as a viable candidate in a year where a third-party option could finally be welcome in American politics—it's that what he's saying isn't at all libertarian.