In the next year and a half, the question is going to be asked again and again until the Republican candidates come up with a winning answer. If Jeb Bush is at one podium and Hillary Clinton at another, we may be sure that George Stephanopoulos will begin with it:
Governor Bush, do you think it’s okay for businesses and employers to discriminate against homosexuals?
Secretary Clinton has a one-word reply: “No!”
What is Bush’s answer?
He and the others on the right better craft a neat and effectual one soon, because the Democrats and their backers in the media know that the issue makes Republicans feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. They won’t let it go.
My friend Dan, a lawyer, offers this solution:
I don’t think it’s okay to discriminate against anybody in those situations. But we do have a First Amendment that guarantees religious freedom.
Clear and straightforward, yes, but that probably won’t settle the point. More questions will follow, and they will likely be just as accusatory as the original. When such charges (in the form of questions) are thrown at you, it may be necessary to turn it around and send it back in stronger form.
Tell me, George, do you think that the Catholic Church should be outlawed? And what of Orthodox Judaism? Islam, too?
Or, perhaps, instead of confronting the questioner, the Republican should put the issue in perspective. How about this:
At this moment in time, given all the things happening in our country and the world, I find that an odd question, George. Let’s set your question alongside what’s happening in the energy industry right now and how it’s affecting jobs and prices; and the situation in the Middle East; the plight of people living in the shadow of ISIL; the price of higher education and student debt; the immigration crisis; on and on. Now, with all those things transpiring, you want to highlight this situation: a gay couple enters a florist shop and asks for a wedding job—the florist politely declines on religious grounds, but refers the couple to a florist a half-mile away who will provide the service. Do you really think that this is a greater concern than what to do about our borders? Have you completely lost your sense of urgency?
Who knows which type of response proves most effective? The critical political calculus comes down to the impact they have on two groups. The first one is the base: Will the Republican candidate’s answer inspire them so that they come out in larger numbers on voting day? The second one is independents: Will the answer draw a few more of them over to the conservative side?
One answer will probably serve best in the primaries, another in the national election. But until a solid and satisfying answer is forthcoming, it’s going to be a frustrating season.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.