Over the past two weeks, many of the Republican presidential hopefuls have been asked whether or not they would attend the same-sex wedding of a friend or loved one. The question has been mocked for its insignificance, if for no other reason than the fact that the answer does not explicitly clarify a candidate’s political positions — unlike, for example, a question about whether they’d support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Late night comics have noticed the question’s prevalence, like Seth Meyers, who this week mocked Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) as a “freeloader” for only attending a same-sex reception, not a ceremony. But the mere fact that the question is even being asked is informative, and there may be more to the answers than meets the eye.
For most people, attending a wedding is about sharing in the couple’s special day, a demonstration of love and support. For many religious conservatives, however, that attendance represents a different kind of significance. Last October, as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethnics & Religious Liberty Council (ERLC) was wrestling with questions around LGBT equality and marriage, ERLC president Russell Moore specifically instructed the pastors gathered at the conference that evangelical Christians should not attend a same-sex wedding ceremony, because all witnesses to a ceremony are condoning that union.
“I think that what a wedding ceremony is is a gathering of witnesses who by their very presence are saying, ‘We are here in order to support this couple and to walk with this couple forward, hold them accountable and to walk forward,’” Moore explained. “In that case, I would not attend the wedding. Now, I would attend the reception. I think it’s a different thing.” Going to a shower is okay too, but attending the wedding is “involving you in the vows.” Many Catholics similarly recommend against attending a same-sex wedding because it would be invalid under Church doctrine, as do other faith traditions.
Thus, whether to attend a same-sex wedding may be a much more probing question about a person’s religious beliefs and the impact it has on the actions they take. It’s not clear from his answer, but Walker’s decision to only attend the reception may have been intentional based on his own evangelical beliefs. In that sense, Meyers’ joke that he’s a “freeloader” would speak to elements of hypocrisy as well. Unfortunately, candidates who have tried to avoid answering the question or have offered unclear answers have not been pressed with clarifying follow-up questions.
It does not seem to be a coincidence that in 2015, this is the question candidates are being asked instead of just whether they support or oppose same-sex marriage. The surge in public support for marriage equality — 63 percent according to a recent poll — parallels a surge in visibility for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. A poll conducted by the Human Rights Campaign earlier this year found that 60 percent supported marriage equality nationwide, but among those who knew a same-sex couple that had married or held a commitment ceremony (46 percent of them), support for marriage equality reached 75 percent. Polls have long established a correlation between knowing someone who is gay and supporting gay rights.
The fact that the “attend a same-sex wedding” question is so prevalent seems to reflect how the standard has risen for supporting marriage equality. As Jon Stewart pointed out on Tuesday night’s The Daily Show, times have changed, even in the short span since the 2012 election. Voters don’t just want to know how candidates will vote on an issue that affects LGB people — they want to know how they treat the LGB people in their lives. Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s (R) answer demonstrates an attempt to walk this line — arguably unsuccessfully.
Kasich’s answer — speaking about a specific friend’s actual nuptials — is that he would attend the wedding, but that he is still opposed to same-sex marriage. “My friend knows how I feel about the issue,” he told CNN, “but 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.”
There is an obvious contradiction in Kasich’s remarks. Taken at his word, he cares enough about his gay friend to attend his wedding, but not enough to support letting him have one. That discrepancy is arguably much more interesting than his simple opposition to same-sex marriage. It will also be a more relevant point two months from now.
If the Supreme Court rules for nationwide marriage equality, as it seems poised to do, then a candidate’s position on whether same-sex marriage should be legal will be moot. Social conservatives like Ted Cruz who still support a federal marriage amendment will seem all that much more radical, while the rest of the candidates will have to find a new way to frame their opposition to LGB equality. How they are willing to treat gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in a society in which they enjoy a constitutional right to marry — but can still be fired, evicted, or denied service in most states — will become the much more crucial question.