Eric Tanenblatt: In Debate, Appeal to Better Angels Not Base Instinct

Eric Tanenblatt

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

Faith and feelings last week exploded in Georgia in a shameful display when a frustrated lobbyist likened the capitol’s political climate to the religious oppression of Nazi Germany. At the same time, a political rally for businessman Donald Trump devolved into a literal cage match in Illinois.

And yet even as divergent ideology and seven hundred miles separated these dual skirmishes, they were inexorably bound: a demonstration that reasonable persons may no longer disagree in good conscience but must instead now brawl, in either deed or tongue.

We should be ashamed, the lot of us, for allowing that.

When those in public policy facilitate the devolution of debate, as was repeatedly the case last week all across the nation, we all suffer. Political divisions calcify, progress stalls, and our children learn to emulate the brutish behavior of their elders.

Consider the case here in Georgia, where a fractious debate over religious liberty and discrimination of minority communities has roiled the state legislature for three years now with no progress made towards resolution.

To the contrary, this seemingly unending episode—punctuated by claims of legal scholars that the various proposals would in some instances give explicit license to discriminate against gay and lesbian Americans—has served only to diminish the state’s stature.

This is not hypothetical pessimism: existing jobs will be lost and new jobs will never be created if the state is regarded as slipping into the darkness of its Jim Crow past. Corporate giants have warned they would uproot to protect employees and their families while out-of-state blue chips promised to overlook Georgia for possible relocation.

It’s not just companies that have been spooked by this debate. Major sporting events, like the Super Bowl, and conventions that have shortlisted the state’s capital city as a possible host are at jeopardy of going elsewhere—and taking hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue with them.

But to make only a jobs argument is to fail to call upon the better angels of our nature, expressly ignoring the human devastation that such proposals could invite.

No Georgian should worry that their government, for reasons of sexuality or faith, will give license to others to discriminate. And yet today they do – and will, until this nonsense is quieted.

This debate has been a toxic one for some time, but it reached an appalling crescendo when the lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board last week likened state lawmakers to Adolf Hitler.

How might such a comparison foster healthy dialogue on faith in the public square by comparing legislators to, in the words of one lawmaker, “the most despicable person ever to walk this Earth?” What example does that set for the children of Georgia?

Not once since the U. S. Supreme Court ruled last year that same-sex persons have a fundamental right to wed the person of their choosing has a member of Georgia’s clergy been forced against their will to officiate a marriage ceremony to which they object.

No one wants that. Indeed, even if some on the fringes sought it, they would appropriately be stifled. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the one-sentence keystone of the American experiment in liberty that protects the conscience of the pastor opposed to same-sex marriage just as surely as it protects the right of Mr. Trump and his supporters to assemble, is unambiguous on this point.

But whether we’ve directly contributed to the decline of American debate—by throwing a punch or likening your opponents to Hitler—or simply watched in silence as it happened, we all owe a measure of blame here. I won’t watch in silence any longer.

Eric Tanenblatt is a leader of the Public Policy and Regulation practice at the global law firm Dentons.  He previously served in the Administrations of President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, acted as a senior advisor to the late U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell, and served as chief of staff to Governor Sonny Perdue.