I come to the question of homosexuality and public policy from a different perspective than U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. I would like to see sodomy laws abolished, and have said so publicly. I should also note that I am not religious, and do not see homosexuality as sinful. Nonetheless, I am convinced that Sen. Santorum’s recent remarks on homosexuality have been badly distorted by both the Democratic party and the mainstream press. The shameful public response to Sen. Santorum’s statements is a sad and revealing example of liberal media bias at its worst.
The chief charge against Santorum is that he has “equated” homosexuality with bigamy, polygamy, and incest. That charge is a serious distortion of Santorum’s point. In his most widely quoted (and excoriated) remark, Santorum says, “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 incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”
Clearly, Sen. Santorum is making a classic slippery-slope argument here — a fact that has been completely lost amidst the claims that he has “equated” homosexuality with, say, incest. In his statement, Santorum gives a number examples, all different, yet all cases in which he claims that the government has some legitimate interest in regulating sexuality. Sen. Santorum is obviously concerned that, if the Supreme Court rules that the state has no right to regulate sexuality in the case of sodomy, a court might someday deny the state the right to regulate even incest.
This is not a new argument. In fact, it has been ably put forward by National Review senior editor, Ramesh Ponnuru in his essay, “Sexual Rights,” which discusses the sodomy case currently before the Supreme Court. In “Sexual Rights,” Ponnuru makes the following statement, “If all private morals laws are to be held unconstitutional [as the friend-of-the-court brief by the libertarian Institute of Justice asks] it is hard to see how laws against prostitution or, even more, incest could be maintained.” Clearly, this is the same point that Santorum was making. Yet no one claimed that Ponnuru was “equating” homosexuality and incest.
In fact, Ponnuru makes it clear in “Sexual Rights” that, while he approves of incest laws, he opposes sodomy laws, and would vote to repeal them (legislatively, not judicially). Obviously, then, the slippery-slope argument invoked by both Santorum and Ponnuru does not in any way depend upon an “equation” of sodomy and incest. On the contrary, as in all slippery-slope arguments, the implication is that some steps on the slope are more radical than others. And as Ponnuru shows, Santorum’s underlying constitutional point can be accepted either by those who do — or who do not — favor sodomy laws.
THE MEDIA’S STORY
A reader of Wednesday’s New York Times would have found accounts of the Santorum controversy in three places — a news article by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, a short unsigned editorial, and an op-ed piece by Maureen Dowd. Yet in none of these places (most unforgivably, in the news article) was there even a glimmer of an indication of the real meaning of Santorum’s slippery-slope argument.
There is no excuse for this omission. After all, Santorum clearly explained his meaning in the statement issued on Tuesday. According to that statement, “In the interview, I expressed the same concern as many constitutional scholars, and discussed arguments put forward by the State of Texas, as well as Supreme Court justices. If such a law restricting personal conduct is held unconstitutional, so could other existing state laws.” So not only was Santorum’s initial slippery-slope argument misconstrued and distorted by his Democratic opponents, and by reporters, his own explanation of his remarks was — inexcusably — left out of every one of the New York Times’ accounts of the dispute.
We already know that, during the controversial early days of the war in Iraq, the New York Times omitted two critical words from an infamous quote by Lieutenant General William Wallace. Instead of saying that, “The enemy we’re fighting [in Iraq] is different from the one we war-gamed against,” Lt. Gen. Wallace actually said, “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against.” The failure to clearly convey Santorum’s explanation of his slippery-slope argument may not be precisely the same as omitting critical words from a quotation. In my view, however, the journalistic sin of omission in this case is at least as damning, if not more so.
It is true that Santorum also said that, “…all of those things are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.” I will explain in a moment why this statement does not “equate” homosexuality with polygamy or incest. But even if someone wanted to make the argument that this brief phrase did make that equation, they would not be arguing fairly or honestly unless they clearly acknowledged the slippery-slope argument being put forward in Santorum’s supposedly insulting earlier remark. The fact that the press and the Democrats have failed to acknowledge this critical point about the slippery-slope argument — even after Santorum has clearly affirmed it — reveals the bad faith behind their distorted accounts of his interview.
The technique of Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s hit job in the New York Times deserves closer attention. Of course, there’s no hint of Santorum’s claim to be making a slippery-slope argument — and no attempt to confirm or disconfirm that claim by, say, interviewing experts on the constitutional issues involved in sodomy cases. Instead, Stolberg’s piece is built around the claim that the Santorum controversy is just one more in a line of lamentable Republican insults to gays.
Before the Santorum case even gets mentioned, Stolberg sets the reader up for anger against the senator by recalling that Dick Armey once called prominent gay congressman Barney Frank, “Barney Fag.” Then, after presenting Santorum’s controversial quotes — with no real explanation of their meaning — Stolberg goes on to detail numerous cases of rude or insulting remarks by lawmakers — particularly Republican lawmakers — against gays. The effect is to invoke guilt by association, without ever examining, or allowing the reader to consider, the real meaning of Santorum’s remarks.
ARE CHRISTIANS FIT FOR OFFICE?
The truth is, throughout his interview, Santorum was defending two things: the current law of the land (i.e. that sodomy laws, whether advisable or not, are indeed constitutional), and the widely held views of Catholics (and other religious people) about homosexuality. Catholic doctrine holds that individuals with a homosexual orientation are to be loved and nurtured. Yet Catholic doctrine also admonishes against these acts, and considers that homosexual acts, along with other forms of sexual activity outside of marriage, are “antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.” So if the Democrats or the mainstream press believe that Santorum’s remarks mean that he must step down from his leadership position, then they are saying that no traditional Christian ought to hold a position of political leadership in this country.
No doubt, this is exactly what many Democrats and members of the mainstream media do in fact believe, although they would never put it so baldly. Then again, maybe they would. After all, Democratic objections to the appointment of Attorney General John Ashcroft, objections to the president’s prayer breakfasts, and objections to Education Secretary Rod Paige’s recent remarks on Christian education, are all part of a pattern in which Democrats do directly complain about traditional Christians in positions of leadership. In the case of Santorum’s remarks, this litany of unfounded Democratic objections to the presence of traditional Christians in government is at least as relevant as Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s litany of Republican insults to gays — indeed, more relevant. The failed and completely illegitimate efforts to force Secretary Paige’s resignation are simply being repeated with Santorum.
Many will claim that the views of traditionally religious folk about social issues should have no place at all in determining public policy. That is nonsense. Throughout American history, public policies of all kinds have been shaped by the religious views of individual American citizens. Naturally, non-believers cannot and should not be swayed by religious arguments. But the fact is, traditional Christian views about marriage and sexuality can be separated from their religious context.
As I argued in my piece on cloning, “Missing Link,” when the pope says that sexual relations not directed toward reproduction within the context of marriage tend to threaten the structure of the traditional family, he is absolutely right. It is not necessary to be Catholic — or religious — to grant the acuity of the pope’s sociological insight. In fact, it is not even necessary to agree with the pope about the need to limit non-marital sexual relations to see the validity of the connection he is making. The truth is, a whole series of non-marital or non-reproductive practices that have gained social approval over the last 30 years — from birth control, to abortion, to premarital sex, to homosexuality — have in fact helped to undermine the structure of the traditional family. That is true, whether or not you are religious, and whether or not you think that these developments have been positive or not.
So when Santorum says that “all these things” (homosexuality, polygamy, etc.) tend to undermine the traditional family, he is absolutely right. And I can agree with Santorum about this, even if I personally happen to believe that the tradeoff in family instability happens to be worth it in the case of sodomy laws, which I think should be abolished. We all need to decide — individually, and as a society — how to balance the complex tradeoff between family stability and personal freedom. But the tradeoff is real, and there is nothing wrong with any individual consulting his religious beliefs to help him decide how to balance these competing goods. In this case, moreover, I believe that Santorum’s religiously derived wisdom contributes to the public debate by reminding naive secularists that there is in fact a tradeoff between sexual freedom and family stability.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, even many gay thinkers believe that there is a tradeoff between social acceptance for homosexuality and the stability of the family. In his book, The Pleasure Principle, gay activist Michael Bronski makes exactly this point. Bronski happens to believe that the traditional family is oppressive and outdated, and so looks forward to the day when increased acceptance of homosexuality will help to put an end to traditional family patterns for everyone, heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. Agree or not, the tradeoff is real.
Nothing in this argument implies that homosexuality is “equivalent” to, say, incest. True, homosexuality, adultery, polygamy, and incest, insofar as they contravene traditional norms, all tend to destabilize the traditional family. They have that in common, but they are still by no means “equivalent.” Legalized group marriage, for example, would be more damaging to the traditional family than gay marriage. But gay marriage could nonetheless put us on the slippery slope to legalized polyamory. There is a relationship here, but by no means an equivalence. And nothing in Santorum’s remarks implies otherwise.
In short, Santorum has made a slippery-slope argument against the abolition of sodomy laws by court order. Many conservatives have offered the same argument, and I happen to agree with it. Unlike Santorum, I would like to see the abolition of sodomy laws by legislative action on the state level. But as Santorum makes clear in his interview, while he may personally favor sodomy laws, he would gracefully accept the decision of any state to abolish such a law. For the rest, Santorum’s statement about the trade-off effect between sexual freedom and family stability seems to me to be entirely justified, even if I would balance these goods differently than he would. And Sen. Santorum’s acceptance of a homosexual orientation, combined with doubts about the act itself, is just a classic statement of “loving the sinner but hating the sin.” I don’t happen to share that view, but it is ludicrous to claim that holding it should disqualify a man from high office.
There is something terribly wrong about the way that the Democrats and the press are treating Santorum. As I’ve argued, much of this stems from partisanship and bad faith. But there is something more. This vexed issue of homosexuality and public policy truly does bring out the worst in our press. The profound ignorance in the mainstream media about conservative arguments on social issues — be these arguments constitutional, sociological, or religious — hamstrings the press’s ability to perform its job with even minimal fairness. Above all, it is the secular character of the mainstream media which is blinding . (For more on this, see the extraordinary piece, “Our Secular Democratic Party,” by Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio, in the Fall 2002 issue of The Public Interest.)
Nowadays, it is fashionable for liberals to complain about the rise of the conservative counter-media. Supposedly, the mainstream media does their best to be fair, while the conservative counter-media are free to be partisan. Had the mainstream media honestly opened itself to conservative reporters, as it has to liberals, things might have turned out differently. But so long as the mainstream media keeps producing the sort of partisan and ignorant nonsense it has deployed in its effort to destroy Sen. Santorum, it will deserve all the criticism from conservatives that it gets.