Idiocy of the week

A star Republican senator's remarks compare consensual gay sex to polygamy and incest -- and it's even worse than it sounds. How will his party respond?

Published April 22, 2003 5:00PM (EDT)

What on earth are we to make of Sen. Rick Santorum's recent outburst about sexual privacy to the Associated Press? Here's the quote from the Pennsylvania Republican in question:

"If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual (gay) 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. All of those things are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family. And that's sort of where we are in today's world, unfortunately. It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn't exist, in my opinion, in the United States Constitution."

First off a simple question: What did Santorum actually say? The reason I ask this is that I don't know anyone who speaks in parentheses. Did the AP reporter add the "(gay)" part to provide context for the quote? But such context could easily be provided by a simple sentence beforehand, while leaving the actual quote intact. From the story, it seems as if reporter Lara Jakes Jordan added the "(gay)" in order to get around her poor sentence construction. If so, she ruined a huge and damaging Freudian slip. Because it's clear from the quote that simply consensual sex -- gay or straight -- is precisely what Santorum wants to police.

But let's examine Santorum's quote in the best possible light, shall we? An optimistic interpretation would be that he is making a constitutional point about judicial restraint. That's fair enough. It's a perfectly debatable proposition whether there is a right to privacy in the Constitution, and it doesn't involve anyone's views of homosexuals, abortion or any other matter. But Santorum must also know that such a right to privacy is now settled constitutional doctrine: It underpins the right to abortion and even the right to practice contraception. If he wants to abolish it, he must surely hold out the possibility of the government once again policing some of the most intimate sexual and reproductive matters imaginable, regulated by nothing but majority opinion. Santorum's position is therefore that there should be no constitutional restraint on the power of government to regulate sexual morality -- even within your own bedroom. The only restraint -- especially against any sexual minorities -- would be mandated by majority decisions.

Worried yet? It gets worse. After the legal argument, there's the political one. In the debate over social mores, much of what we routinely discuss is about public standards of morality. Even libertarians concede that what is publicly regarded as acceptable has an impact on society as a whole. So we debate the question of same-sex marriage, or hate crime laws, or anti-discrimination laws as matters of public concern. It seems to me it's perfectly legitimate to discuss these matters, and because someone disagrees with me doesn't mean they're somehow prejudiced or intolerant. As long as they don't actively try to control my choices in the privacy of my own home, I can live with serious political or moral disagreement. But what Santorum is proposing is far more radical. It is not simply that we should have public standards for morality, but that this can and should be imposed even on people in their private homes. He would not simply assert a social norm; he would enforce it with the power of the state. That's why he not only believes that sodomy laws should be constitutional. He believes they should exist. And if they exist, they should be enforced.

Santorum is actually making a substantive and radical political point under the guise of a serious constitutional one. And that point is the government should have no restraint in enforcing sexual morality -- even if it means knocking on your bedroom door. The ramifications of Santorum's position are particularly vivid when it comes to the actual case he's lamenting, the Lawrence vs. Texas case that is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. You'll note that Santorum seems to be endorsing the laws in Texas on these matters. Those laws, however, already protect consensual sex in private -- with dildos, with rubbers, with latex, slings, swingers, gang-bangs, you name it. In fact, Texas law allows anyone to have sex with their dog in private, if they are so inclined. (In the same year that Texas passed its current anti-sodomy law for gays, it repealed the law against bestiality.) You can even have same-gender gay sex with your dog and the law in Texas will protect you. It's only if you're gay and want to have consensual sex with another adult in private that the law draws the line. Now, recall what Santorum specifically said. His concern was that allowing gay people to have sexual privacy would lead to "the right to anything." Anything. Yep. That means for Santorum, the right to practice bestiality in the privacy of your own home isn't part of the slippery slope toward Gomorrah but a gay couple's private relationship is. And the awful thing is that I don't think I'm misreading him. I think he thinks that a gay man's sex life is the moral equivalent of -- no, worse than -- an animal's. And this is the young face of the Republican Party in the Senate.

Notice one other thing. Santorum also believes it should be legitimate for the government to police adultery. Of course, given the legacy of the infamous Starr Report, this doesn't come as much of a surprise. But an enterprising reporter needs to ask Santorum a couple of follow-ups. Does he back the Texas sodomy law that criminalizes consensual private sex between two adults of the same sex (but allows it for two adults of the opposite sex)? And does he support laws that would ban adultery? Fair questions -- and ones Santorum now has a duty to answer. One reason he will try not to answer is that he knows that the Republican Party clearly has a dilemma on its hands. It's deeply split and he just made the split deeper. It wants to be taken seriously in the modern suburbs of America. It wants us to believe that it isn't controlled by theocrats, trying to drag the country back to the 1950s. It claims to uphold the principles of limited government, individual freedom, tolerance and inclusion. It wants to be a bulwark of what Grover Norquist has called the "leave-us-alone" coalition. Yet one of its leading lights believes that the government should be able to come into your bedroom, determine, again in the privacy of your own home, the legality of your consensual, adult sexual life, and use criminal sanctions against you if it sees fit. And it believes there is nothing in the Constitution to stop this. Again, this isn't about public matters of marriage rights or military service or hate crime laws. It's something much more basic: the right to be left alone. It's about whether conservatism is about freedom from government or subjugation to it.

We now know where Santorum stands. But what about his party?

By Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own Web site.

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