By Thomas J. Whitley
On Monday the state of Indiana hired the public relations firm Porter Novelli. This will not come as a shock to many, especially given the negative attention the state received nationally for more than a few news cycles over the passage, and subsequent amendment, of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (I wrote more about that bill here.) I was once told by an agent for major sports athletes that all press is good press. This makes sense in the world of sports. The large segment of this country that hates Duke basketball, for instance, will often tune in just to pull against Duke and in hopes of seeing Duke lose. Duke and their advertisers could not care less why you’re watching, buying tickets, etc.; they only care that you are.
This is not the case, however, when it comes to bad political publicity, particularly when the narrative implicates an entire state. Indiana has taken steps to rectify this, to improve their image, and, most importantly, to bring business back to the state or to keep it from leaving.
The Indiana Economic Development Corp. announced Monday it was collaborating with the Indiana Office of Tourism Development in hiring the Porter Novelli firm to strengthen Indiana’s reputation “as a welcoming place to live, visit and do business.”
Just so we’re clear, “live, visit and do business” equals money. I am not so crass or cynical as to believe that the state only cares about money. However, as I often tell my students, it does almost always come back to money and power.
A sizable portion of the initial opposition to the bill which I saw made this very point: businesses will leave the state and we will lose money. Even if only from an economic perspective, let alone the civil rights angle, this is a bad bill. Indeed, Apple, Angie’s List, and numerous other large corporations spoke out against the bill and indicated that they were willing to put their money where their mouth was (Angie’s List, for instance, threatened to halt a 1,000 job expansion in the state). A few states even banned state-funded travel to the state. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pulled their General Assembly from the state (they have since selected Indianapolis as the host for their 2017 meeting). In a very real sense, The RFRA controversy was costing (or very nearly cost) Indiana a lot of money.
The walking back of the initial bill and the state’s newfound intolerance for discrimination against the LGBT community, then, can be explained as an economic decision as much as anything else. Indeed, as Bruce Lincoln, Professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says in this recent interview, institutions and communities and lives are shaped by religious discourse. In other words, regardless of where we may stand as individuals on the merits of another’s religion, religious freedom, or religious persecution, the ways in which we talk about religion cannot be divorced from the very real consequences that discourse has in the “real world.”