A video from the Iowa State Fair went viral last week, but the headline on the share you may have seen on Facebook depended on whether your “friends’ trend left or right. If your feed is generally liberal, your introduction to a “debate” carried on across a pork barbecue read something like, “Actress Ellen Page exposes Ted Cruz’s bigotry.” If it trends conservative, it read something like, “Watch Ted Cruz School Clueless Actress.” The fact that both sets of readers probably think the headline they read was accurate tells us a lot about the bifurcated nature of American politics these days. Liberals and conservatives don’t generally watch/listen/read the same media. When they actually do view the same material, they interpret it differently. The problem that the Cruz-Page encounter illustrates is that religious conservatives and liberals don’t merely disagree; they aren’t listening to each other even when they speak. Nor does there seem much appetite for finding common ground even when the opportunity to do so is obvious.
Page is an Oscar-nominated actress who came out as gay last year and is now roaming the world filming video for a cable show called “Gaycation” that supposedly illustrates differing attitudes toward gays. Her purpose in showing up at Cruz’s pork stand was clearly not to carry on a reasoned dialogue about Cruz’s beliefs. Rather, it was to confront him and then wink and nod at her viewers as they snicker at what they consider to be the Texas senator’s antediluvian beliefs rather than engage with them.
However, when Page demanded that the Republican presidential candidate account for discrimination against gays, she got an earful about the way conservative Christian florists can be forced out of business for not wanting to participate in gay weddings. The result was, in one sense, a dialogue of the deaf since Page didn’t seems to think that such a desire to avoid involvement in things their religion opposes is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow segregation. Cruz made an impassioned and reasoned case not against gay rights but for tolerance of those whose faith opposes gay weddings, but it was not one that Page had come there to hear.
Instead, she wanted to talk about discrimination against gays and, in particular, harped on incidents in Jamaica. In response, the former college debate champion pointed out that if she wanted to talk about genuine persecution of gays, she should be complaining about Iran and ISIS, which are both publicly executing gays. Page weakly disputed the idea that the left was silent about these atrocities. Cruz correctly rejected Page’s attempt to pose a moral equivalence between Christians not accepting gay pride in Jamaica and Islamists murdering gays. Nor did she have much to offer in response when Cruz pointed out that the Obama administration she supports is sending $100 billion to the same government in Tehran that hangs homosexuals.
So if anyone got schooled, it was certainly Page who sullenly refused to accept the idea that she and Cruz agreed about anything, even if it was that murder was wrong when Cruz cut off the conversation after about five minutes of one-sided debate.
But the key to understanding how messed up the conversation over these issues has become is that although it is possible to be concerned about equal rights for gays without engaging in a culture war in which those who aren’t supporters of gay marriage are hounded out of business, the finding of common ground wasn’t something either side was much interested in
If Page’s goal were to remind us of the many places where persecution of gays is either enshrined in law or tolerated, then that is something that no principled conservative ought to oppose. But in the United States, supporters of gay rights have won the day. Not only are gays fully accepted, the U.S. Supreme Court has no invalidated all state laws that treated marriage as only between a man and a woman. But that isn’t enough. Now they are determined to treat any opposition, even in such a marginal matter as providing flowers and cakes for such weddings, as illegal.
Page’s attempt to conflate flowers and cakes with the segregationist era in which shopkeepers could refuse service to blacks is dead wrong. Certainly, anyone gay or straight, black or white, should be allowed to buy a plant or flowers from a florist or bread and cake from a bakery. Yet, when you ask store owners to put together arrangements for ceremonies they don’t wish to be part of, they are not denying a public accommodation but rather simply asking to opt out of something beyond their normal business.
But a country where people just scream at each other from across the political aisle or try to ambush opponents on video doesn’t seem capable of accepting, let alone understanding such a subtle but yet cogent argument. Perhaps Page might have been more receptive to Cruz’s arguments had he framed them in a way that made it clear that he opposed discrimination against gays. But that wasn’t something he wanted to do because that isn’t the message he is interested in putting out as he seeks to be the favorite of evangelical voters in Iowa.
The truth is, this is a moment when LBGT advocates should be reaching out to conservatives to join with them to do something to combat the rise of fundamentalist Islam that is slaughtering gay people, among others, in the Middle East. But liberals are seemingly too busy fighting religious wars of their own to bother. It is a strange worldview that sees evangelical florists as a deadlier threat to gay rights that Iranian hangmen and ISIS throat-cutters. But that’s apparently where we are right now in terms of American discussions. Your Facebook feed is either telling you that Ted Cruz is indifferent to gays or it’s reminding you that left-wingers like Page aren’t willing to treat Iranian atrocities against gays as sufficiently important to cause them to oppose President Obama’s nuclear deal with the Islamists.
One can stand up for religious freedom, even the freedom of conservatives not to be part of gay weddings, while also standing foursquare in defense of the human rights of gays. It would have been great if Cruz and Page could have found a way to shake hands on that stand. But if they had, the Cruz-Page debate video would not have been as useful for both right and left to abuse each other. Alas, in 2015 pop culture common ground on human rights and religious freedom may not be the kind of thing that can go viral.