Politics & Policy

Keep America Weird

Apple CEO Tim Cook (Justin Sullivan/Getty)
A truly diverse and free-thinking nation wouldn’t criminalize Christians who follow Apple’s advice to “think different.”

Indiana has just enacted a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that has been used elsewhere to protect goat-gutting Santeria priests, hippie-haired kindergarteners, ceremonially daggered office workers, incarcerated Chia-chins, eagle-feathered powwow dancers, and hallucinogenic tea-tipplers.

Since Bill Clinton signed the federal version of the law in 1993, Religious Freedom Restoration Acts have encouraged Americans to tolerate those odd ones among us who believe that their religions requires them to be what we might call eccentric. Against the forces of blandness, conformity, and suspicion, RFRA has been keeping America weird.

At one time, the law enjoyed a broad level of bipartisan support. The federal version of the law — drafted in response to the firing of some peyote-smoking Native Americans — was passed with bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Barack Obama voted for a version of the law while he was serving in the Illinois state legislature.

Disagreement set in when it became clear that the law would also protect bakers, photographers, and florists who had religious objections to participation in gay weddings. Is such a person an agent of Bull Connor–style discrimination? Or an artist of conviction who should be allowed to express her own view of the world and not anyone else’s? How you answer probably determines how you think about RFRA.

Apple CEO Tim Cook takes the former view. In the Washington Post, he argues that laws like Indiana’s “go against the very principles our nation was founded on, and they have the potential to undo decades of progress toward greater equality.”

Cook is the head of one of the most profitable and prestigious American companies. His voice counts because he’s not just another tycoon, but instead the embodiment of a company that stands for beautiful, individual design, for going your own way, for the ability to “Think different” — the name of an Apple advertising campaign that reestablished the brand’s counterculture appeal and coincided with the revival of Apple’s fortunes.

Which is why it’s so notable that when it comes to gay marriage, Cook wants to use force of law to make all Americans think the same. His company has built its success on the fact that commerce and art can be combined; witness Apple’s awards for design. He nonetheless denies that a florist or photographer is an artist with the right to determine how his or her talents are used. People should think different — so long, of course, as they think exactly like Tim Cook does.

Why can’t Americans simply agree to disagree on gay marriage, as they already have on issues such as the religious uses of goats, goatees, and grass? The answer has to do with the nature of marriage, which has long been an inherently public act requiring public proclamation and wide — even unanimous — social acknowledgment. Recall the medieval practice of “reading the banns,” a requirement that impending marriages be publicly announced so that members of the community could offer either civil or canonical objections. And at weddings today we often still hear the traditional invitation to “speak now or forever hold your peace.”

These practices indicate a deep intuition: Marriage really exists only when it is publicly acknowledged. There is space, of course, for secret weddings, for the guilty violation of vows, even for pretense à la Days of Heaven. People will probably never rest content with a form of marriage denied by half of society — to expect that they will is sheer wishful thinking. This is why gay marriage could never be the practice of merely a few churches. It needed the force of law to compel agreement.

One of the most powerful rhetorical appeals of gay rights has been its promise of a more beautiful, strange, and diverse America, a country with room for more types of people than the ones that came before. A truly weird America would be able to tolerate both fabulous gay couples and florists whose views resemble those of a Flannery O’Connor character. Gay marriage is the kind of proposal that inevitably forces our wacky disagreement into an all-or-nothing either-or standoff.

Tim Cook, I suspect, gets this. That’s why on this issue he doesn’t think it is possible for Americans to “Think different.” And neither should we. Those who want to keep America weird should realize that gay marriage won’t be of much help.

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