Let me begin with this: I’m not going to be discouraged from voting for Gary Johnson because his vice president would be Bill Weld. Even if the worst about Weld turns out to be true—even if he’s sworn in and immediately starts frothing all over the carpet with Brady Campaign slogans and Project for a New American Century talking points—he’s still only the vice president, not even second-in-command. As Hubert Humphrey once said of his office’s relationship to the presidency, “You are a choice in a political marriage, and he expects your absolute loyalty.” If America can endure eight years of Joe Biden rattling around in its vice presidential attic, surely it can survive the merely libertarian-ish-ish Weld.
Besides, the last vice president to be elected president was George H.W. Bush in 1988. A Libertarian Party formidable enough to elect and reelect Johnson will be more than able to primary Weld.
I’m far more concerned with the man of the hour—and in this wacky election year, our possible next president—Gary Johnson. The Libertarian nominee is about to enter a general election relatively unbloodied against perhaps the two weakest major-party nominees in American history. I never thought in my lifetime I’d type the clause after this semicolon: the LP might actually have an impact this year.
And as the capital-L Libertarian nominee at such an advantageous time, Johnson can use his perch to stick up for small-L libertarian values. That doesn’t mean refusing to ever compromise, but it does mean generally promoting liberty where applicable and even when it’s unfashionable. That’s where Johnson’s libertarian check-engine light switches on.
Asked about his contention at an LP debate that Christian bakers should be forced to provide services at a gay wedding, Johnson said the following:
I think if you discriminate on the basis of religion, I think that that is a black hole. Look, I think you should be able to discriminate for stink or you’re not wearing shoes or whatever, but I’ll tell you what, if we discriminate on the basis of religion, to me, that’s doing harm to a big class of people. …I think Muslims right now in this country would be banned from all sorts of businesses right now because it would be the popular thing to do.
Challenged by fellow candidate Austen Petersen as to whether that meant a Jewish baker would have to prepare a cake for a Nazi wedding, Johnson said, “That would be my contention.” At a later debate, Johnson said that religious freedom laws, recently passed in several states, are “really just a way to discriminate against gay individuals.”
Johnson’s position here conflates so many separate issues into one tiny answer that it’s a wonder the debate stage wasn’t promptly consumed by a Type II supernova. First, he wasn’t asked about discriminating on the basis of religion, which is already prohibited under Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but about a business’s decision to decline a service that fundamentally violates the religious beliefs of its proprietors. Given the robust RFRA laws that already exist and, of course, the Supreme Court’s broad interpretation of the First Amendment, this is a right that’s already codified into law.
The issue here has nothing to do with the LP or the government discriminating against gays out of hatred, but with businesses discriminating against gays out of conscience. Perhaps that’s an ugly sentiment, but it’s also perfectly legal and consistent with any libertarian understanding of individual freedom. And even if government is going to intervene in the choices of individuals, one of the currently enforced standards per the RFRA is that it needs a compelling interest to do so. Can Johnson point to some widespread epidemic of Muslims being denied services from “all sorts of businesses”?
Of course not, and given his prior call to ban the headscarf, it’s difficult to take that concern seriously. So why does he think it justifies the government aggressing on private companies?
This blog post is more tough lough than takedown—Johnson’s record as New Mexico governor is commendable and I’ll almost certainly vote for him. Better to advance a pro-liberty agenda incrementally than wait for a purist Godot to come along. But Johnson’s position on religious liberty is more than just an unchecked item on a list of litmus tests; it suggests he’s only a fair-weather constitutionalist. It’s easy to stump for legal pot and decry endless war—doing so is fashionable and commands popular support. Standing up for a quietist minority passed by the cultural consensus long ago, that takes political courage.