Stephanie Grace: Jindal’s message seems out of step

On Saturday, an American governor made a clear, concise and powerful statement about tolerance.

The governor was Jay Nixon, of Missouri. The medium was Twitter, so the message was necessarily short but sweet.

“A heartfelt congrats to #MizzouMade @MikeSamFootball, drafted by our own @stlrams,” Nixon wrote. “A talented athlete of courage & character.”

In truth, there wasn’t much more to say. The St. Louis Rams had made history by drafting the NFL’s first openly gay player, and the leader of the state let Michael Sam know he was not only accepted but fully welcome.

Also on Saturday, another American governor — ours — spoke out too, but he offered a very different message.

In his commencement address at Liberty University in Virginia, Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke at length about his personal faith. So far, so good.

But then he took a detour into the culture wars. Jindal declared, as he had in an earlier speech at the Ronald Reagan Library, that religion is under attack in America and that the elite forces of tolerance and secularism are somehow imposing their will on the faithful. Among his examples was the move toward full rights for gay and lesbian Americans, including the right to be married — not in the eyes of any particular religious institution but in the eyes of the law.

“These days, we think this diversity of belief is tolerated under our law and Constitution. But that’s wrong,” Jindal argued.

Specifically, Jindal invoked a proposal in Illinois that would supposedly penalize churches for refusing to open their facilities to same-sex marriages. He didn’t mention the part about how the law that ultimately passed exempts houses of worship from public accommodation laws. He was too busy invoking a “bigger threat, the assault on your freedom of expression in all areas of life.”

Inevitably, Jindal circled back to his “aggressive” defense of “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson’s right to voice his religiously based aversion to homosexuality and compare it with other “sins,” including male prostitution and adultery, not to mention slander and swindling. The comments, published in GQ magazine last year, prompted the A&E network to briefly suspend the show. (In the interview, Robertson also had some choice words about African Americans, insisting that they were happier “pre-entitlement, pre-welfare,” and living under harsh Jim Crow laws).

How any of this might help Jindal in the long term is a little hard to figure.

Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell, is a required stop for politically ambitious Republicans, and Jindal’s speech surely played well there. But the ideas he expressed are becoming more marginal by the day — not because the “elites” are pushing an agenda but because overall attitudes are rapidly shifting.

Nixon’s a Democrat, and Missouri is a classic swing state, one that Mitt Romney won handily in 2012, but it’s unlikely that the governor’s gracious tweet will come back to bite him. In fact, many senior Republicans are fretting that the perception of hostility toward gay people is killing the party’s reputation among young voters.

Meanwhile, celebrities with deep Louisiana roots, such as talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and “Good Morning America” regular Robin Roberts, remain hugely popular with mainstream audiences — never mind that both happen to be openly gay. And last week, after a judge overturned the state’s same-sex marriage ban, the first legal gay wedding ceremony was performed in Arkansas. That’s right, Arkansas.

Jindal, of course, is a skilled, deliberate politician, and he’s been oh-so-careful to defend the free-speech rights of those who express anti-gay sentiments rather than espouse them himself.

But he’s equally careful not to offer any hint that he might personally disagree; all he said of Robertson’s comments, for instance, was that they were indelicate.

Jindal’s also gotten more cautious about invoking the First Amendment — which guarantees the right to express unpopular views but not to have your own reality show — as he did when Robertson’s fateful GQ interview was published. He now acknowledges that his beef here isn’t with big government but, ironically, with a private enterprise for reacting to what it perceived as market forces.

Still, he made it clear Saturday that he has no trouble empathizing with Robertson and others who squirm at the inevitable march toward full cultural acceptance and legal equality.

Which actually brings us back to Sam. Nobody who watched the video of him getting word of his selection could have missed the emotional punch. How terrifying it must have been for a young man, a fresh college graduate just like the students Jindal addressed Saturday, to wait for the world to pass judgment on him. How much of a relief it must have been to learn that he’d passed muster.

Watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder: Does Jindal ever try to imagine himself in Sam’s shoes?

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.