What We Should Learn After Religious Liberty Fight in Missouri
By Gregg Keller
By now you’ve likely read or heard of the knock-down, drag-out fight that we had at the Missouri legislature on Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 39. If passed by simple legislative majorities, SJR 39 would have placed a ballot question on either the August or November ballot pertaining to religious liberty.
Missouri voters would then decide if government should be prevented from punishing (through adverse tax treatment, revocation of licensing, court fines and other means) clergy and small business owners connected to the wedding industry (wedding planners, bakers, etc.) who refused to take part in gay weddings as a result of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
After a 40-hour filibuster by Democrats in the Missouri Senate, the measure moved to the relevant House committee, where it continued to be a source of tremendous attention and controversy.
I was among the most frequent and vociferous supporters of SJR39 on social networks and learned several lessons that might prove useful to fellow conservatives who take up such a fight in the future.
1) Yes, the culture wars have moved this far, this fast. Get over it.
I’m old enough to have worked on George W. Bush’s campaign in Missouri in 2004 when we also had on the ballot a pro-traditional marriage initiative. It passed 71-29. I was as incredulous as most people in Missouri when I realized our House might balk at SJR 39. This fight is coming to a state legislature near you, if it hasn’t already. Get your incredulity out of the way now.
2) Both sides are 100 percent committed to the idea of their own righteousness.
I’ve never worked on a public policy issue where both sides were so entrenched about the righteousness of their position. I’ve always found that liberals take politics far more personally than conservative—they take this issue especially personally. If you engage on this issue and have liberal friends, be prepared to lose some of them.
3) Your friends in business aren’t committed.
Remember those generous business people who fund the Republican campaigns you’ve spent so much time around? Well, they think you’re a troglodyte on this issue and they’d prefer you just go back to the phone bank room now, thank you.
4) The other side’s public officials want this fight more than ours.
Missouri’s elected Democrats were in absolute lockstep in opposing SJR39. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we’ve beat them so badly over the years in House and Senate races that there’s only a handful of them left and they’re confined to the city centers.
Their people not only were in total agreement on the matter but desperately wanted to take this fight on. We had some committed Republicans on our side, particularly in the Senate. But among House Republicans some were for it, some were against it. But the most common refrain among House Republicans was that they’d vote for if they had to but they really didn’t want to have to go against the donor and business communities.
5) We can’t allow our surrogates and supporters to become the story.
I remember well the exact moment that I realized we were going to lose the battle over SJR39. I had been texting with a House Republican who matter-of-factly referred to the head of a statewide conservative organization by a nasty nickname. It was immediately apparent to me that, after attacking him incessantly on social networks for days, our opposition had succeeded in making this leader the issue. They had turned him into the face of our effort, and a caricature at that. Remember that every post you do to social networks could become fodder for the other side; choose your words carefully.
6) Social networks matter. A lot. And the other side is using them much better than we are.
Many of our House and Senate Republicans were glued to #SJR39 on Twitter during the debate and it was a critical platform to changing hearts and minds. I can’t tell you how many people mentioned tweets of mine to me after the fact. So engaging in this way is critical. But generally speaking, pro-SJR39 voices were swamped by the opposition on social networks. Particularly when hearings were being conducted. The population as a whole agrees, but they’re not making it known where and when it matters most.
7) Don’t wait for the cavalry, it isn’t coming.
On the day that SJR was to be decided I spent most of the day driving to and from appointments, listening to Rush Limbaugh on KMOX in St. Louis. If he mentioned a word about this critical cultural vote going on in his home state that very day, I managed to miss it. That was my experience with national conservative and religious leadership as a whole—they just didn’t show up. So when this battle comes to your state, don’t incorporate outside support into your plans – plan for them to be absent.
8) You have to try to find a way to be winsome if you’re going to win hearts and minds.
In the days following this battle I found myself exhausted by it all and not a little bit glad the fight was over for the time being, even if we did lose. As a committed, emotionally involved activist, you must constantly try to keep your cool in this battle when all others around you are losing theirs.
You can’t win hearts and minds with vinegar—only with honey. In the month-long battle I failed myself on this a couple of times and it’s among my greatest regrets about the whole episode.
Gregg Keller is the principal of Atlas Strategy Group and a former National Executive Director of the American Conservative Union and the Faith & Freedom Coalition.