Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 24, 2003
POLITICS/RELIGION: Santorum, Sodomy, and the (Back)Lash
WELL, there's certainly been plenty of commentary on Rick Santorum's controversial comments on the Texas sodomy case presently before the Supreme Court. Predictably, critics like the New York Times disapproved, without bothering to explain why Santorum was wrong. Let's go through this in some detail.
What did he actually say?
The San Francisco Chronicle helpfully reprints the whole interview, and before you jump to criticize Santorum -- or to defend him -- I'd suggest you read it all.
We start after Santorum broaches the subject in answering a question about the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandals and why they can be tied to an 'anything-goes' culture:
SANTORUM: In this case, what we're talking about, basically, is priests who were having sexual relations with post-pubescent men. We're not talking about priests with 3-year-olds, or 5-year-olds. We're talking about a basic homosexual relationship. Which, again, according to the world view sense is a a perfectly fine relationship as long as it's consensual between people. If you view the world that way, and you say that's fine, you would assume that you would see more of it.
AP: Well, what would you do . . . should we outlaw homosexuality?
SANTORUM: I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts. As I would with acts of other, what I would consider to be, acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships. And that includes a variety of different acts, not just homosexual. I have nothing, absolutely nothing against anyone who's homosexual. If that's their orientation, then I accept that. And I have no problem with someone who has other orientations. The question is, do you act upon those orientations? So it's not the person, it's the person's actions. And you have to separate the person from their actions.
Up to this point, Santorum is making a moral distinction between orientation and acts, a distinction that is entirely consistent with the Catholic Church's teachings. Does that matter? Well, one link I found states that:
A devout Catholic, Senator Santorum regularly attends Mass. He is also a weekly participant in the Senate Prayer Breakfast and Senate Chaplain's Bible Study. In 1997, the Catholic Campaign for America presented Senator Santorum with the Catholic American of the Year Award.
So far, he's basically taking a moral position that is consistent with his faith, albeit one that's hugely controversial in society as a whole. (More on that later).
AP: OK . . . so if somebody is homosexual, you would argue that they should not have sex?
SANTORUM: We have laws in states, like the one at the Supreme Court right now, that has sodomy laws and they were there for a purpose. Because, again, I would argue, they undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family.
Here's where things get dicier: a lot of conservative Catholics, myself included, would basically agree with the moral argument (personally, I believe that any sex outside marriage is wrong, but I well recognize that I am very much in the minority in hewing to that traditional position, and if you take that view, you learn early that you will have to accept people who don't live by it or you're not gonna have any friends). Of course, as Andrew Sullivan frequently points out, this view leaves gays with no realistic option but celibacy, and I'm not unsympathetic to the bind that leaves them in. It's not an easy question.
But Santorum argues, taking a position I wouldn't touch and nor would most conservatives these days, that the sodomy laws are actually a good thing: that even allowing homosexual sex to be legal is bad because it undermines the family to permit people to have sex outside it.
This is too far; while I'm somewhat ambivalent about some of the related legal issues (there are too many questions about how conservatives should approach gay rights issues to address in one post), sodomy laws are mostly stupid and pointless, and any uses they might have can easily be remedied by more specific laws directed at particular problems. In a free society, a free conscience should be given the room to commit sin, not least because in a free society people can reach different conclusions about what is and isn't sinful.
On the other hand, the wisdom of sodomy laws are a state-level concern; Santorum's opinions on them don't amount to a hill of beans. Let's pick him up where he left off:
And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does. It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn't exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution, this right that was created, it was created in Griswold [v. Connecticut] -- Griswold was the contraceptive case -- and abortion.
Strangely, this has become the most controversial excerpt, but what Santorum is saying here is, as Eugene Volokh notes, a perfectly legitimate "slippery slope" argument: that if we start saying the constitution protects homosexual sodomy, we may wind up at the bottom of the slope having no principled way to ban incest and bestiality (or, as Ramesh Ponuru notes, prostitution). I think there's more than a few counters to that, but there's a lot of wisdom in noticing that once the question of what is "constitutional" no longer has any relationship to the actual Constitution, you can wind up in a heap of trouble. Griswold is the perfect example of this: hardly anybody cared much that Connecticut couldn't outlaw contraceptives anymore, but the Court had broken free of the Constitution's text, and it would use that freedom 8 years later to enact a revolutionary ban on laws against abortion. And for conservative Catholic politicians, the folly of the abortion decisions is always the starting point of constitutional analysis.
And now we're just extending it out. And the further you extend it out . . . You say, well, it's my individual freedom. Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that's antithetical to strong, healthy families. Whether it's polygamy, whether it's adultery, where it's sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.
Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that's what? Children. Monogamous relationships. 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. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality _
Back to the 'threat to the family' stuff, which Glenn Reynolds mocks. Personally, I think the threat is more indirect - what Pat Moynihan referred to as "defining deviancy down," in the sense that at some point, failing to say "no" to so many things leaves us paralyzed in the face of genuine and direct threats.
At this point, the reporter - this has to be a rookie reporter here, not somebody who smells a front-page story - gets cold feet:
AP: I'm sorry, I didn't think I was going to talk about "man on dog" with a United States senator, it's sort of freaking me out.
(Tim Russert would've been thinking, "Senator talks about 'man on dog' - I'm leading the news cycle with this one")
SANTORUM: And that's sort of where we are in today's world, unfortunately. The idea is that the state doesn't have rights to limit individuals' wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire. And we're seeing it in our society.
AP: Sorry, I just never expected to talk about that when I came over here to interview you. Would a President Santorum eliminate a right to privacy -- you don't agree with it?
SANTORUM: I've been very clear about that. The right to privacy is a right that was created in a law that set forth a (ban on) rights to limit individual passions. And I don't agree with that. So I would make the argument that with President, or Senator or Congressman or whoever Santorum, I would put it back to where it is, the democratic process. If New York doesn't want sodomy laws, if the people of New York want abortion, fine. I mean, I wouldn't agree with it, but that's their right. But I don't agree with the Supreme Court coming in. (emphasis added)
I'd be interested to know if Santorum has supported the Human Life Amendment, which would contradict what he says above about leaving abortion to the states, but that's neither here nor there.
Anyway, there's been plenty of commentary. James Taranto was dismissive of the controversy. Lileks argued that this was dumb politics, and Calpundit called for Democrats to make hay from it, although the answer may be that most Americans don't live in Minnesota or California. Jacob Levy disagreed with co-blogger Volokh on whether the moral and constitutional arguments were legitimate points or beyond the pale of discussion.
I have to disagree with people who think that even discussing the morality of homosexuality is beyond the pale; they tend to be the same people who generally refuse to provide justifications for their own opinions.
And if they do take this view, then they damn well better never take issue with anyone's religious beliefs, which is similarly on the line between 'immutable characteristics' and 'chosen beliefs/conduct'. Basically, if you find Santorum's opinions wrong and dangerous, criticize him; if you think his stance on this is that important, don't vote for him. But don't tell me that no civilized person may be permitted to speak such opinions. That way lies France, where serious dissent on major issues is all but nonexistent and nothing ever changes, or worse, the Netherlands, where the speaking of uncomfortable truths is justification for shooting politicians. Even gay politicians.
The 'this is bigotry and hate speech' position really underestimates the American public, if you ask me. Santorum stuck doggedly to the Catholic Church's "love the sinner/hate the sin" dichotomy, and he laid out a reasoned argument. You can disagree with that, but this is just not the stuff of hate and violence; it's the very essence of people trying to have a civil disagreement over fundamentally differing worldviews.
Turning to a related issue . . . speaking of immutable characteristics, by the way, I think on some level that everyone from gay rights advocates to fundamentalists is deeply afraid to definitively resolve whether homosexuality is genetically determined or not. Both tend to want it both ways (so to speak). For example, if somebody like a Jerry Falwell says being gay is a sickness, he gets attacked. But if the orientation is genetic, then on some level it is like a "sickness" or "disorder", except for the normative weight of those terms; it's certainly the same in the sense that any genetic deviation from the norm is a sickness or disorder. (The fallacy that some conservative Christians fall into on this point is in assuming that what is 'natural' or 'unnatural' determines what is good. If our morals were nothing but the sum of our natural impulses, we wouldn't be human. The irony is that this kind of moral reasoning is essentially Darwinian, which you don't expect to hear coming from creationists).
And, of course, if it's genetic, we can test for it, and anti-gay abortions can follow. Nobody can think this is good.
But if the preacher says it's a sinful choice, they get mocked. But if it's not genetic, then on some level it is a choice. Either that, or the orientation is the product of environment. Nobody wants to go there either, since 'environment' ties into the question of gay parents.
Like I said, it's not just the Left that seems to fear answering that question; I think the implications of either position are frightening to people who have strong feelings on all sides of these issues. They stare into the abyss, and they turn away. And we end up having fights over whether politicians can even skim the surface of the issue.