Paul Greenberg: Fear Is Big Again

Posted: Apr 13, 2015 5:00 PM

"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself . . . ." --Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933

Both here in Arkansas and in Indiana, additional laws have just been passed to assure that people of conscience are not obliged to violate it. Both statutes, like those in effect in many another state, were carefully phrased, then refined, to make sure they were in accordance with federal law designed to both protect freedom of religion and assure that the state must have a compelling reason to compromise it when necessary.

There's nothing radical about such legislation. American courts have a long tradition of weighing laws in the balance and, when necessary, adjusting them. Yet both new laws set off dire warnings from both sides of the political spectrum. Each was said to be an invitation to disaster -- if for diametrically opposite reasons. They either (a) endangered the rights of homosexual Americans or (b) didn't do enough to protect religious liberty. Choose your equal-but-opposite fear. Both are baseless.

It's easy enough to draw parallels between today's hysterics and the fear-filled political climate that Franklin D. Roosevelt inherited as he was being sworn in as president of the United States when the Great Depression was deepening its hold. The new president had to compete with fearmongers challenging him from every direction.

Uncertain times are the health of demagogues. On the right in the fearful Thirties were formidable orators like (the one and only) Huey Long out of Louisiana, his eloquent aide Gerald L.K. Smith, and Father Coughlin, the radio priest. On the left were Norman Thomas' socialists and, further left, the Communist Party -- led alternately by William Z. Foster and Earl Browder, depending on which one Comrade Stalin preferred at the time.

Today those on the devout right don't want their conscience violated by order of the state. Consider the case of the photographer who's told she will join in celebrating a homosexual union whatever her conscientious objections.

Then, on the other side of the fear spectrum, you can count on somebody like Rita Sklar with Arkansas's branch of the American Civil Liberties Union to drum up panic about a war on homosexuals and every other minority in the state. Even if she has to invent the most outlandish scenarios. For example: "This law gives a person ammunition to say ... that I don't need to serve a Muslim person ... it gives you an argument in court."

Goodness. This doesn't sound at all like what Arkansas' sane and sensible governor, the lawyerly Asa Hutchinson, had in mind when he carefully reworded the final version of this state's law to make it dovetail with the federal version.

Ah, but this "new law injects uncertainty," explains the ACLU's spokeswoman. Yes, but doesn't any new law add something new for the courts to consider and, if necessary, change? Isn't that the genius of the English (and American) common law? That it is not written for all time, as if its framers assumed they could anticipate every future development in society. The way, say, the Napoleonic Code does. Talk about hubris.

So could we all just settle down? Because the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.