Dog-Whistle Bites Man: Mike Pence and “Religious Freedom”

RGBStock Pack of Hounds

Wikipedia defines dog-whistle politics as “political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.” It’s a time-honored tactic used by politicians of all persuasions. But, as Indiana governor Mike Pence learned on March 29 under intense questioning by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, sometimes it calls out unintended dogs.

Pence stammered and prevaricated, refusing to answer Stephanopoulos’s simple, pointed, yes-or-no question: Does Indiana’s new “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” protect business owners who claim religious motivations for refusing service to LGBT customers?

Pence’s difficulties stem from the law’s dog-whistle purpose. That purpose isn’t to protect religious freedom, either in general or with respect to a purported obligation of businesses to not discriminate. It’s to signal “Christian” (dog-whistle for “anti-gay evangelical”) voters, donors and interest groups that Republicans are on their side.

Prior to last week, Pence generated continuous, if minor, buzz as a dark horse prospect for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. If he did indeed aspire to that crown, his klutzy defense of the new law almost certainly put it beyond his reach.

Even the ugly truth — that conservatives think the anti-gay vote is still a major electoral factor which might put Republicans over the top in 2016 — would have served Pence better than his live-on-national-TV meltdown.

Better yet, at least in terms of supporting American values of individual freedom, he might have laid down the libertarian line that business owners should be free to serve, or to not serve, anyone they please for any reason. That might have cost him votes, but it would at least have possessed the virtue of being right.

Personally I find it refreshing when a politician blows the dog-whistle and finds himself (or herself) surrounded by snarling pit bulls instead of the cuddly, eager-to-please puppies he expected.

I’d love to hear the baying of bloodhounds any time a progressive appeals for “access to” (dog-whistle for “I’ll make someone else buy it for you”) contraception, abortion, health care or housing.

When a bought and paid for politician calls for increases in “defense spending” (dog-whistle for “more corporate welfare for Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon”), I long for the appearance of a veritable pack of rabid wolves.

I’ve heard it said that the truth will set us free. I have my doubts. But it’s preferable to dog-whistle politics.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.



  • Tom wrote, “I’d love to hear the baying of bloodhounds
    any time a progressive appeals for “access to” (dog-whistle for “I’ll
    make someone else buy it for you”) contraception, abortion, health care
    or housing.

    Except that rarely, if ever, happens. Does it? Most of the media protect progressives so would avoid any mention that might bring out the bloodhounds.

    • Fred,

      Most of the “liberal” media protects progressives.

      Most of the “conservative” media protects conservatives.

      Most examples of both types of media swear up and down that they are neither “liberal” nor “conservative” but rather “objective.”

      One of the problems with this law is that the people who passed it can’t really defend it. The reason they can’t defend it is because it has no real content.

      It says that Indiana’s government can’t substantially burden someone’s exercise of religion without a “compelling interest.” But that’s nothing new. It’s been the legal standard for damn near forever. And whenever the state wants to do something that it wants to do, it announces that it has a “compelling interest” in doing that thing, and the courts say “well, okay then, now that you put it THAT way …”

      The people attacking the law because it “legalizes discrimination against LGBTQ people” don’t have a leg to stand on either (it says no such thing — and in any case discrimination against LGBTQ people was already legal in Indiana) … but they’re getting their claim accepted because there is no counterclaim. The law’s defenders keep saying “it doesn’t do that,” but when asked what it DOES do, all they can do is stutter and stammer, because it does only one thing.

      The one thing it does is signal to social conservatives that the GOP is on their side and should get their votes. That’s it. That’s all. That’s what it was intended to do, that’s what it does, and that’s ALL it does. Which is a piss-poor basis for a law, and which is also something the law’s supporters don’t want to admit they’re doing.

      • Socrates Wilde

        On the nail.