I am grateful to Hugh Hewitt for bringing up the religious liberty issue in the last GOP debate at all. I share with The New York Sun editors and Quin Hillyer a sense that the candidates really missed an opportunity in the way they answered. Here is how Hillyer saw it:
The only candidate who actually tried directly to answer moderator Hugh Hewitt’s questions on the subject was Ohio Governor John Kasich, but he got the answer so wrong that it he seemed to barely appreciate the actual premise of the issue. (More on Kasich in a moment.) Alleged billionaire Donald Trump, meanwhile, was utterly incoherent, as if the very words “religious liberty” were from a foreign language, half Chinese and one-third Swahili, with a little Star Wars Wookiee dialect thrown in.
Asked twice, quite directly, about religious liberty, Trump first talked about judges refusing to rule Obamacare unconstitutional and then spoke about how important it is for “somebody to make deals.” Asked a third time, he segued into yet another discussion of Planned Parenthood, which he was for funding via federal taxpayers before he was against funding before he was for funding before he was critical of it for providing abortions but still for funding all the mammograms (that it doesn’t actually do). Not a word of what he said, of course, had a single thing to do with religious liberty.
And even Senators Cruz and Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson, who at least appear to understand what the issue is, addressed it only obliquely before changing the subject.
Kasich shamefully sided with the Left to deride and demean those Christians losing their livelihoods. Trump used the issue to say Cruz is bad at picking judges because he didn’t attack Bush nominee Roberts — who is great on religious liberty, by the way. Rubio deflected to the question of who we trust to pick judges — and nobody spoke for millions of Americans who grow increasingly concerned that government power is being used to punish, stigmatize, and delegitimate gay marriage dissenters.
How do we frame this debate so we can win it? In my view, as I outlined in National Review last Friday, the most important thing we can do is put the face of the victims forward, and ask the Left — and the other candidates — how we can stop the juggernaut unfolding.
Kasich gets away with his shamefully demeaning answer, to the extent he does, because he mischaracterizes the issue in a way that ridicules the people who have had the courage to stand up to the Left’s push to redefine Christian views of marriage as bigotry.
Someone on that stage needed to turn to him and say, “Gov. Kasich: Melissa Klein doesn’t want to deny a cupcake to a gay person, or any other kind of person. Barronelle Stutzman had warmly and lovingly served the gay couple whose wedding bouquets she did not want to create. Elaine Huguenin is asking only that we make room for her in the great American circle of tolerance: Don’t force her to use her creative talents to celebrate a gay wedding. A gay wedding is not a person. It is a choice. And whether or not you agree with that choice, we can and should agree that America is big enough for people who believe different things about that choice — that government taking away your right to earn a living is way too big and way too unnecessary a penalty to pay for being a gay-marriage dissenter.”
Kasich is standing up with Big Left and Big Corporate America against the basic decency of the American people. I know Kasich is so far down in the polls that there was little reason for one of the other candidates to take up the gauntlet he threw down. But I wish they would. I wish somebody would. To win this fight, we need a champion who puts the face of the victim before the American people, with love and courage.
Author’s Note: The above post was partially adapted from the National Review column available here.
Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project.