Back in 1959 Vice-President Nixon got into an impromptu discussion with Soviet Premier Khrushchev on the merits of capitalism during the opening of an American exhibition in Moscow. If that has gone down in history as the "Kitchen Debate," since it took place in a model American kitchen, then today may be remembered as the day of the Barbecue or Grill Debate between Senator Cruz of Texas, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and the actress Ellen Page, an open lesbian. Cruz reportedly didn't know he was being questioned by a celebrity, but after having to share a stage with Donald Trump the senator might be excused for feeling he was the star on this occasion. Perhaps taking a, ahem, page from the Black Lives Matter playbook, the actress was determined to, err, grill the candidate on the issue of gay rights. She sought specifically to challenge his narrative of gay-lobby persecution of Christians for their principled opposition to gay marriage. Page contends that homosexuals here and abroad remain more subject to "persecution" than Christian homophobes here, while Cruz insists that it's unfair for devout bakers to lose their livelihood for refusing to accommodate homosexuals. He challenged Page with a theoretical opposite case: what if openly gay bakers refused to prepare a cake for an openly Christian wedding because they deemed Christianity homophobic? Both disputants took consistent positions: Cruz argued that the gay bakers should have a right to refuse service on conscientious grounds, while Page implicitly denied such a right.
The modern progressive claim of a right to service that trumps any moral or quasi-moral objections is an interesting debate subject in its own right, but Cruz moved to another, more bizarre line of argument. He argued that compelling religious homophobes to provide service to gay weddings was morally equivalent to compelling rabbis or imams to perform Christian wedding ceremonies. Was he implicitly equating the gay-rights movement with a religious denomination? Was he equating service to homosexuals with apostasy or blasphemy? That's how many homophobes seem to see it, but I still think that's the weak point of their argument. Had Page been more limber-minded she might have asked Cruz the key question: do you think the bakers would go to hell if they had baked the damn cake? Does Christian salvation in the 21st century depend on resistance to gay marriage? If Cruz or any other homophobe answers with anything less than "yes" then they have no case -- but then again my notion of what the First Amendment protects is fairly narrow, not going beyond a believer's right to live without condemning himself to his religion's particular form of damnation. So if Cruz demands constitutional protection for homophobia he should get some pretty solid theological authority, for believers at least, to prove that his salvation depends on not baking a cake.
Still seeking stronger ground, Cruz suggested that Page, a typical liberal, was either practicing a double standard or was being a coward by focusing on such petty business as American homophobia when the evildoers in the Middle East were executing gays as a matter of policy. Page sought to remind Cruz that violent homophobia was not an exclusively Islamic phenomenon. She mentioned homophobic violence in Jamaica but could have mentioned all sorts of shenanigans in Africa, perhaps the most homophobic continent regardless of religion, as well as recent homophobic legislation in India. Cruz, not seeming to understand that Page was talking about violence, took the typical Republican scandalized tone at her "moral equation" of Jamaica, a country that simply had different values from hers ("They're not going to have a gay-pride parade"), with the evils perpetrated by Iran and its enemy, the self-styled Islamic State. I suppose Cruz wishes all us Americans could come together on delenda est Islamism and forget our selfish identity politics, but Page rejected the idea that her desire to talk to the President about homophobic persecution in Islamic lands meant that she agreed with Cruz on something. By this point Cruz had gone several minutes beyond the point at which he'd told Page that he didn't want to have a back-and-forth debate, but by this point, I suspect, he also realized that he would get an extra sliver of media time on a day when Trump was scheduled to hold his biggest campaign rally to date. A practiced politician, he would say he won -- as do his supporters online -- but to this admittedly biased observer he did not demonstrate why the homophobia of bakers or other businesspeople merited the respect of ordinary citizens, much less the protection of the arbiters of the U.S. Constitution. I'm tempted to say that he has little chance against his fellow candidates if he can't even win a debate with an actor, but for one thing that would make an unjustified assumption about the relative wits of actors and politicians, and for another -- though this merely amplifies my first point -- all his rivals are Republicans, too.