Indiana Religious Freedom Law: A Frightening and Fascinating Insight Into America

04/01/2015 04:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

The Indiana political eruption is simultaneously fascinating, disturbing, sad and causes me to pause and reflect on its broader meaning. I think the events of the last week related to the "religious freedom" law Gov. Mike Pence signed in Indiana that some say facilitates discrimination is symbolic of a deeper situation in the United States today.

We all understand the divides that exist in America at so many levels -- from politics or economics to personal viewpoints. But days go by and we think things are settled down or calm, just like a pool of water looks serene and without ripple. Then, if you drop dry ice in that same pool and it all bubbles over and becomes a torment. Similarly, this is what happens in America today. You drop an issue like the Indiana law into our body politic, or events in Ferguson, or a law on immigration, and the political pool becomes a raging body.

A big part of the reason for this is because we compartmentalize our beliefs and we associate less and less with folks of divergent lifestyles or opinions. And then we don't seek to try and understand where someone else is coming from. Not that we have to agree with them or adopt their belief system, but we don't even try to see who they are, why they believe what they do, what led them to that, and what some shared values might be.

So many of us want to live a life of integrity in the midst of all the political back-and-forth, and we want to believe that we are open-minded and loving, but we have a hard time practicing that in our day-to-day lives. We all struggle to integrate what we think, what we say, and what we do in peaceful and deep alignment. Is this because we are afraid or feel under attack, or because our behaviors are reinforced by others of like mind and no one calls us on our hypocrisy?

Let me give some examples of what I mean on a lack of integrity in the midst of the Indiana disruption.

  • Being a person of faith myself and a regular churchgoer, I don't quite understand some Christians who profess a belief in Jesus and The Way, but lack a level of tolerance or love for folks who may not follow their creed. Jesus dined and consorted with prostitutes, thieves and criminals nearly 2,000 years ago, but some Christians today won't make a cake or deliver flowers to a gay couple. Jesus sought to understand others, see others and love them as part of a community, but many today isolate their communities from folks they don't like or agree with.
  • So too, some progressives look at people of faith and those that attend church regularly as if they are some strange throwback kind of animal. They judge them as inherently judgmental and ignorant, and can't see the important values at the core of many people of faith. There are many on the left who want to be accepted for who they are, but won't accept people of faith as intelligent compassionate people. There are many people sitting in churches and kneeling at pews who are some of the most loving and tolerant people I have ever met.
  • I have watched many businesses speak out against the Indiana (and Arkansas) law, and either harshly criticize or say they won't do business in that state. And then, at the same time, they engage in business with some of the most reprehensible human rights-violating countries in the world such as China and Saudi Arabia. Or they have business practices that circumvent our tax laws or don't treat their employees in the most loving way. It is time those businesses quit practicing an ends-justify-the-means model for profitability.
  • There are so many leaders in the midst of all this who complain about dysfunction, bitterness and misunderstandings in our politics especially in Washington, D.C., and who are calling for a different way to act, but who in the course of this line up pointing fingers at the other side and treating those with opposing views as enemies. The only way we fix the bitterness in D.C. is if each of us practice compassion and understanding more in our own circles of our lives, as well as in the way we react to events like the new law in Indiana.

I could come up with many more examples, but this gives an idea what we face in our country today. I am hopeful in the aftermath of events like this that leaders will emerge that seek to bridge the divides and not exacerbate them. We need more people who are willing to stand up and say, 'Yes, faith is a strong underpinning of our country,' but so too is freedom, tolerance and compassion.

We are hungry for leaders who can say we need both anti-discrimination laws as well as laws to protect people's religious freedom -- and who make the argument that those don't have to be mutually exclusive values. In fact, they go together, as Jesus taught us long ago.

The most interesting aspect of all this is that Jesus spoke out against hypocrisy more than anything, and two millennia later we still haven't learned this lesson. Over the years, leaders like St. Francis, Rumi, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have reminded us of this same trap. Let's learn that while dry ice dropped in water can be a scary thing it can also inform us about some underlying truths and understanding.

As that famous philosopher Johnny Cash said, "I wore black because I liked it. I still do, and wearing it still means something to me. It's still my symbol of rebellion -- against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others' ideas." Let us all rebel against compartmentalization and the close-mindedness of our politics today. And wear black if you want.

There you have it.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.