The hullabaloo over Sen. Rick Santorum is another one of those flaps that deeply upset people in newsrooms and faculty lounges but that don't seem very controversial out in the real world. Santorum, it seems to me, made three strong points in his April 7 interview with the Associated Press: (1) The Supreme Court has created a right to privacy found nowhere in the Constitution. (2) The senator believes in the traditional male-female version of marriage and thinks homosexual acts, adultery, and bigamy are "antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family." (3) The Supreme Court is preparing to rule on a Texas law that forbids gay sexual acts. If the court says there is a constitutional right to consensual sex, Santorum says, "then you would have the right" to bigamy, polygamy, adultery, and incest.
All three points are obvious. I would say they are blindingly obvious. First, it's a fact that the Constitution says nothing about privacy. Point 2 is an orthodox Roman Catholic position, and since Santorum is an orthodox Roman Catholic, nobody should be surprised that he believes this. Point 3 is nearly as orthodox in current legal thinking as Point 2 is at the Vatican. The Supreme Court will very likely strike down the Texas law that criminalizes gay sexual acts (why else take the case?). If it does, no matter what principle it relies on--privacy, consent, equal protection--that principle will inevitably be legally applied to many other sexual acts and arrangements. Lots of gay activists believe this, too. Why Santorum can't say it is a mystery.
The court ruling in the Texas case will probably be a patch job designed to protect the sexual privacy of gays without opening other doors, at least not right away. The patch job will prevent the country from erupting now. But given what our legal culture is today, a great many sexual laws will face big trouble.
Falling laws. Here is Clayton Cramer, an Internet blogger and historian: "Sen. Santorum is right. Once the Supreme Court strikes down Texas's sodomy law (as I expect that they will), there will be no defending laws against polygamy, bigamy, incest (at least, if both parties are adults) or adultery. All will fall before the legal academy's fierce contempt for the religious beliefs of 90 percent of the population."
You don't have to agree with Cramer to understand that there is a serious issue here. But instead of dealing with the issue honestly, our cultural elite has converted it into yet another sensitivity violation that calls for groveling, not argument. Many people insisted that Santorum's words were a Trent Lott moment. This would mean that a traditional western and Judeo-Christian view of homosexuality is now to be regarded as the equivalent of wishing a racist had been elected president in 1948.
Senator Lott's comment is not a good comparison. A better one is the huge fuss over the allegedly antigay joke Bob Kerrey is supposed to have told Bill Clinton during the 1992 primaries. Actually the joke wasn't antigay at all, but the sensitivity police extracted a whimpering apology from Kerrey anyway.
The New York Times, always a bellwether of elite spin, started its account of Santorum this way: "In the long and conflicted history between gays and Republicans, Sen. Rick Santorum--caught in a storm over his remarks equating homosexuality with polygamy and incest--is writing a new chapter."
Reference to the "long and conflicted history" is a nice touch--it connects Santorum's harmless and issue-oriented remarks to sorry gay-bashing by Republicans in the past (e.g., Dick Armey referred to Democratic Rep. Barney Frank as "Barney Fag," and Lott likened gays to kleptomaniacs). The line "equating homosexuality with polygamy and incest" is especially dishonest. Santorum didn't "equate" them. He said they would be put in the same legal category.
The fallback position of those determined to avoid dealing with what Santorum actually said is this: that he spoke in a kind of code that enabled him to slur homosexuals without seeming to. The evidence here is slim. In the remarks considered the most incendiary, Santorum said: "In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be." The senator might prefer to rephrase this passage. It's crude, but there's no horrible slur here, no code words, nothing sly or devious.
In my high school, the Jesuits used to tell us that in debate, we should do our opponents the honor of going to the heart of their arguments--no nickel-and-diming about poor phrasing, tone, slips of the tongue, or faulty juxtapositions. This would be a revolutionary approach in Washington. But they might want to try it there anyway.
This story appears in the May 5, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.