Just when you think we can’t become more divided as a country, someone finds a way. I’m referring to the controversial “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” recently passed by the Indiana legislature and signed by Gov. Mike Pence, whom I refer to as “Hoosier Daddy.” (Sorry about that.)

Pence was vehement that the legislation did not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. And yet he signed the bill in a private ceremony with evangelical anti-gay supporters. Not exactly inclusive.

On Sunday, Pence appeared in an exclusive interview on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” (Whose last name belongs in a spelling bee.) Six times Stephanopoulos asked Pence, “Yes or no, does this law discriminate against gays and lesbians?” Each time, and painfully evasive, Pence refused to answer.

That was Sunday. On Monday the firestorm of protest began. The CEOs of nine major companies, including Eli Lily, Anthem and Indiana University Health, went on record opposing the bill. Angie’s List, headquartered in Indianapolis, indicated if the bill were not repealed or amended it would abandon a $40-million expansion in Indiana, which had been in the works for years.

Among others speaking out against this type of legislation were Wal-Mart and NACAR, neither generally known for liberalism. Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he likened the bill to “whites only signs on shop doors and water fountains.” Late night talk show host David Letterman, born and raised in Indiana, featured Pence on his Top 10 list. Clearly saddened by the law, Dave lamented, “This is not the Indiana I remember.”

NBA legend Charles Barkley called for the NCAA to cancel the basketball Final Four scheduled for tomorrow and Monday in Indianapolis. This past Tuesday, on the campus of Duke, which is in the Final Four, officials reported the discovery of a noose apparently as a reminder of lynchings. Isn’t that just lovely? I guess the answer to the question, “Can’t we all get along?” is “not very easily.”

Also on Tuesday, Pence held a press conference. Known for his use of dramatic pauses in speeches, Pence began with 22 seconds of silence. But the microphone picked up his labored breathing, the effect of which was less dramatic than just plain weird. Pence tried to blame the furor on the media’s characterization of the legislation but ultimately admitted the bill needed a “fix.” (As a valley girl might say, “Duh.”)
Predictably, Ted Cruz led the charge in applauding Pence. Not to be outdone in reaching out to the religious right, Jeb Bush jumped in, “I think Governor Pence has done the right thing.” (Ouch!)

But, as the backlash mounted, Jeb has backtracked as fast as his little feet can carry him. Actually, all the Republican candidates for president, declared or otherwise, have said they “stand by Governor Pence,” which as it happens was more than Gov. Pence was doing on Tuesday. Presently, it’s not entirely clear where he stands. (Can you say “confused?”)

While the mainstream business Republicans (chambers of commerce etc.) understand diversity, the social conservatives (religious right) apparently don’t get that the country has thankfully evolved on same-sex marriage. It’s hard to believe, but in 1967 interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states. In 1980, some polls revealed that as many as 80 percent of Americans thought marriage between the races was immoral. Today, 4 percent think that.

As for gay marriage, we only have to go back to 2004 when hatred for homosexuals gave George Bush a second term. How so? Karl Rove put anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot in 11 states, which brought out the haters in droves. Today, a move like that would completely backfire.

In fact, here’s a strange circumstance confided to me by my politically conservative friends. (Both.) Many on the right are secretly hoping that, in June, the Supreme Court rules that anti-same sex marriage bans are unconstitutional.

You see, while they won’t admit it publicly, many conservatives realize that on this issue they’re on the wrong side of changing demographics. So if the court decides seemingly against them, right-wing candidates can go to their base and say “Hey, we tried to be intolerant, they wouldn’t let us.” (Just joking, but many on the right are in fact hoping the court takes the issue off the table to take them off the hook.)

The U.S. has had numerous periods of dysfunctional divisiveness. Obviously, the worst resulted in the Civil War. The disastrous Vietnam and Iraq wars also badly divided the country. And now, sadly, the chasm is as wide as ever.

Who knows, maybe the Indiana law, with business-minded Republicans urging tolerance, could lead to a bipartisan thaw? Wishful thinking? Probably. In the meantime, at least it’s been food for thought for one more column. I hope.

Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth and twitter.com/jackneworth and can be reached at jnsmdp@aol.com.

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