Popping the Question

Advice to Republican presidential candidates on how to answer the question, “Would you attend a gay wedding?”

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is interviewed at the Reuters He,U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is interviewed at the Reuters Health Summit 2014 in Washington April 1, 2014.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is interviewed at the Reuters Health Summit 2014 in Washington D.C., April 1, 2014.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters.

If you’re a Republican running for president, prepare yourself. The next reporter who corners you at a diner might pop the question. No, she doesn’t want to marry you. But she might ask whether you’d attend a gay wedding. In the last week, that question has been posed to at least five candidates: Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Govs. Scott Walker and John Kasich, and former Sen. Rick Santorum. In general, their answers have been weak. Here’s what they’ve said, and how you can handle the question better than they did.

1. Don’t duck. This is a personal question. If you try to change the subject to law or policy, you’ll look like you’re trying to hide something. That’s what happened to Cruz on Thursday, when conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt pressed him:

Q: If you had a loved one or a friend getting married in a same-sex ceremony, would you attend it?

A: I haven’t faced that circumstance. I have not had a loved one go to a—have a gay wedding. You know, at the end of the day, what the media tries to twist the question of marriage into is … a battle of emotions and personalities. … So, for example, they routinely say, “Well, gosh, any conservative must hate people who are gay.” As you know, that has nothing to do with the operative legal question. And, listen, I’m a Christian. The scripture commands us to love everyone … and all of us are sinners. But … I’m a constitutionalist, and under the Constitution, from the beginning of this country, marriage has been a question for the states …

Ugh. Bad answer. Take it from the top, where Cruz starts to say that no one in his family has gone to a gay wedding, and then in midstream changes his formulation. Has somebody in his family attended a same-sex marriage ceremony? Is that OK with him? Is it not OK? Why is he trying to narrow the question? Then, instead of answering the hypothetical, he blames it on hostile reporters, even though the guy who asked it, Hugh Hewitt, is a flaming conservative. Then Cruz reaches for the “operative legal question.” He sounds like Michael Dukakis, who whipped out a similar policy lecture when he was asked whether a guy who hypothetically raped and killed his wife should be executed. Dukakis came across as a cold-blooded geek. So does Cruz.

2. Find a middle ground. When Hewitt posed the same question to Santorum on Thursday, the former senator flatly said no:

Q: Would you, Rick Santorum, attend a same-sex wedding of a loved one or a family friend or anyone who you were close to?

A: No, I would not.

Q: Well, why not?

A: Because … as a person of my faith, that would be something that would be a violation of my faith. I would love them and support them, but I would not participate in that ceremony.

Santorum gets points for candor. And he draws the approved Christian distinction between loving and condoning. But for listeners who have gay friends or family, Santorum seems to offer nothing. Compare his answer with this one, delivered by Walker on Saturday night:

Q: Would you attend a gay wedding?

A: Well, in terms of—that’s certainly a personal issue. For a family member, Tonette and I and our family already had a family member who’s had a reception. I haven’t been at a wedding. But that’s true even though my position on marriage is still that it’s defined between a man and a woman, and I support the constitution of the state. But for someone I love, we’ve been at a reception.

Doesn’t that sound better? Substantively, Walker gives no more ground than Santorum does. He opposes legal recognition of same-sex marriage, he’s never attended a gay wedding, and he isn’t saying he ever would. But for people who disagree with him, he can say—and does say—that he’s been to a reception. Apparently he’s referring to his wife’s cousin, who married another woman last year. According to the New York Times, “The governor was away on business when the wedding occurred, but he later attended a reception for the newlyweds.”

See how nicely that works out? Schedule your travel to miss the wedding but make the reception. Then you can sound like a decent guy without losing support on the religious right.

3. Listen to yourself. On many gay issues, including marriage, the visceral feelings of millions of people are changing. You might be one of these people without even realizing it. Listen, for example, to Kasich’s answer on Sunday:

Q: How would you deal with it personally if you had close friends, a same-sex couple, that invited you to their wedding. Would you go?

A: Sure. I mean, if they were people that I was very close [to] … In fact, I have a friend who’s gay who asked me if I would go to his wedding. And I said, “Well, let me think about it.” And I went home, and I said to my wife, you know, “My friend’s getting married. What do you think? You want to go?” She goes, “Oh, I’m absolutely going.” I called him today and said, “Hey, just let me know what time it is.”

Q: So what brought you to that decision, even though you are opposed to same-sex marriage?

A: Well, just because you’re opposed to something doesn’t mean that you don’t care about your friends, other human beings. You know, my friend knows how I feel about the issue. But, you know, I’m not here to have a war with him. I care about my friend, and so it’s pretty simple for me. I don’t need to be making big statements about any of this. I’m not going to change my position on it. We’ll see what the court does. But, look, it’s pretty simple. I care about him. He cares about me. He invited me to something. I’m gonna go do it. It’s not that complicated.

It’s one thing to say you don’t want to have a war with your friend. It’s another thing to say you “don’t need to be making big statements about any of this.” If you’re the governor of Ohio, and you’re running for president, and you seriously believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, isn’t it your job to make a statement to that effect? Isn’t that the whole point of the anti–gay-marriage position—that our culture needs clear affirmations from political leaders about the nature of marriage?

Look, John. If you’re going to your friend’s wedding because you care about him and you don’t want to make a statement by not attending, that should tell you something. Don’t block millions of people from being legally married just so you can claim that you’re morally opposed to same-sex marriage when, in fact, you aren’t.

4. Sort out your morals. Many conservatives think homosexuality is a question of sexual morality, like promiscuity or adultery. They’re wrong. Homosexuality is an orientation, not a lifestyle. Their failure to recognize this distinction has perverse effects. In the case of marriage, it leads them to concede more than they have to. Here’s what Rubio said on Wednesday:

Q: If someone in your family or your office happens to be gay, and they invite you to their wedding, would you go?

A: Yeah. If there’s someone that I love that’s in my life, I don’t necessarily have to agree with their decisions or the decisions they’ve made to continue to love them and participate in important events. You know, I’m a member of the Catholic faith. It teaches that … if you’ve been divorced, you can’t be remarried. And yet, people attend second marriages all the time. Ultimately, how you treat a person that you care for and love is different from what your opinion is, or what your faith teaches marriage should be. … If someone that you care for and is part of your family has decided to move in one direction or another, or feels that way because of who they love, you respect that, because you love them.

Ouch. I can see thousands of priests cringing. Rubio has gone way beyond what the question entailed. He’s not just saying he’d attend a gay wedding. He’s saying he’d attend the wedding of someone he cares for, regardless of that person’s behavior. It doesn’t matter if the person has “decided to move in one direction or another.” It doesn’t matter “what your opinion is” or “what your faith teaches.” Not only must you tolerate your friend’s choices; you should “respect” those choices by showing up.

Rubio gives divorce as one example, but you can imagine others: a cousin who’s leaving his wife and kids for his secretary; a family friend who’s marrying somebody half his age; a serial divorcer who wants you to attend his fourth wedding.

You can attend a friend’s same-sex wedding—and you should—without having to accept any of that. The difference, as Rubio partially understands, is that homosexuality isn’t a choice and doesn’t bear on any of the values—fidelity, commitment, consent—that we apply to sexual relationships. By failing to articulate this difference, Rubio ends up espousing a far more radical position on marriage than he has to, or ought to.

So far, those are the lessons worth taking from the candidates’ responses. As other politicians are asked the question, there will be more answers and more mistakes. But Republican governors and senators can’t complain. For years, they’ve insisted that marriage is a public institution, not just a private matter. Now they’ll have to stand up and tell us how they deal with it personally.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.