Do as I say, not as I do: The mixed messaging of Montana’s leaders

April 8, 2021 5:32 am

The Montana state capitol building in Helena. The statue in front of the capitol is Thomas Francis Meagher, an Irish revolutionary hero and the second territorial governor of the state. (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan)

Forgive me for being naïve. A career spent covering politics should be enough to prove to me that ideological consistency has never been a hallmark of American politicians.

How often do we hear variations of the question that goes something like this: How can a party that wants to legislate that life begins at the moment of conception, and works for decades to protect that life, seem so cavalier when it comes to the death penalty? Or, how does the party that believes in local control want to dictate how city and county governments can zone, operate health boards, or treat transgender students?

Hypocrisy? Maybe.

More likely, though, politicians hold both diametrically opposing views because Americans don’t demand a functional, rational, well constructed political approach from their leaders. Instead, those elected officials spew a torrent of soundbytes, which include position policies that can be reduced to a quip on a television broadcast or a tweet on Twitter.

For the life of me, I do not understand the Montana Legislature and the governor.

On nearly the same day as Gov. Greg Gianforte was signing into a law a bill prohibiting sanctuary cities in Montana, of which there are none, lawmakers were leading the charge to stop law enforcement officers in the state from acting on firearm or ammunition restrictions imposed by the federal government.

With absolutely no sense of irony, Gianforte said, “We are a nation of laws, and immigration laws will be enforced in Montana.”

So we’re a nation of law-abiding, rule-following citizens when it comes to outlawing sanctuary cities where people might take refuge, but when it comes to cracking down on ammunition or assault-style weapons, we’re suddenly not so hip to those laws.

Meanwhile, we absolutely must protect our First Amendment by establishing a state religious freedom bill, despite the freedom being enshrined in the state and federal constitutions. Apparently, freedom to practice and live your mostly deeply held beliefs are under siege, while at the same time, these same lawmakers want to dictate how doctors treat those who are transgender or who believe abortion is acceptable and legal. Belief about God needs protection, belief about who you are needs outlawing.

Nope, no irony to see here.

The party that once billed itself as the defender of personal freedom is OK with plenty of guns, lukewarm on marijuana, and ice cold when it comes to letting a person with a terminal illness choose when they die rather than lingering, suffering and meeting a prolonged death. There’s tearfelt testimony about the sanctity of life when it comes to abortion and pregnancy while at the same moment, so little regard for current human life that masks to protect against a, ahem, pandemic are government intrusion.

I’ll repeat: I don’t get it.

While an entire column could be written about the double standards of our state lawmakers, that’s not the point. Proving that politicians are hypocrites or inconsistent is not novel or even difficult.

However, if the party that speaks so frequently about its values and convictions is going to have any credibility, it has to stand by the principles, not just concoct policies on a case-by-case basis.

It’s no test of freedom to virtually outlaw abortion in a Legislature that has a near-supermajority of Republicans. The phrase “rubber stamp” comes to mind.

But if, as these Montana legislators have claimed, their convictions are so deeply and passionately held, then it’s imperative that they’re lived out. In other words, if you truly believe in enough freedom to protect religious views, then these same lawmakers must carve out enough protections from people who believe that same freedom allows them to be unencumbered by any religious viewpoint.

If, for example, Jesus was right and the meek are blessed, then lawmakers must show more concern about those who have been tormented for who they are because they’re gay or transgender. You would think that those religiously inclined people would be the first to stand up for them because they recognized their savior’s call to protect the weak and those who have been shunned.

If only these same lawmakers who so passionately and vehemently protect the life rights of several-celled embryos would recognize the threat that firearms pose as potential life extinguishers, then maybe they’d require more than just background checks. If they’re going to force women who want an abortion to get an ultrasound, maybe they should consider having any potential firearm purchase be conditioned upon watching videos that depict the carnage from mass shootings. Guns are the ultimate pro-death instruments, and the mine-mine-mine selfishness of the gun rights advocates should be an affront to folks who have seen the awesome destructive power of firearms and have enough respect for them to want to do everything possible to avoid another bloodbath.

The problem really is one of values. And, it’s not about Republicans having one set of values and the Democrats having another. We have confused values with political positions. In other words, when politicians speak about what they believe, they’re confused. They’re not talking about their values, they’re talking about their politics.

Values are something that compel a person to act in a certain way, regardless of outcome, fallout or popularity. They only mean something when they’re put to the test; when they could easily yield to expediency.

So many times this session our lawmakers’ values have been tested.

And so many times, they’ve failed.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.