For a fleeting moment late last month, Rick Santorum, the junior senator from Pennsylvania, was Penn's political bad boy, whose intemperate remarks on homosexuality might have made him a Republican pariah. In an interview with the Associated Press, he denounced "homosexual acts" and condemned sodomy, along with polygamy and adultery, as "antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family."
Unlike Trent Lott, whose praise for the racist 1948 campaign of Strom Thurmond led to his political downfall, Santorum has retained his standing in the Senate and has not even apologized for the enormity of his remarks. Santorum has survived because he disparaged homosexuals, the last acceptable target for mainstream bigotry in America. But his religious rationale for his animus towards homosexuality reveals deeper conflicts.
Until recently, Santorum's biggest claim to fame was his hypocrisy, fortunately for him a venial sin. In a real-life instance of the quasi-libertarian motto of "I've got mine, so [expletive] you," he has supported a limit of $250,000 on legal awards for pain and suffering, yet his wife won a $350,000 award for pain and suffering in a medical malpractice case in 1999.
In a press release, Santorum explained that he was "a firm believer that all are equal under the Constitution" and that his comments were not "a statement on individual lifestyles." It is easy to dismiss Santorum as just an antigay bigot. After all, he believes that individual states have the right, even the obligation to jail their homosexual citizens if they act upon their sexual orientation. Santorum was clearly talking about "individual lifestyles" when he disagreed with the concept that "the state doesn't have rights to limit individuals' wants and passions."
But Santorum is more than that. He was not just worried that the Supreme Court might rule that gay and lesbian Americans have the right to consensual sex with their own homes. He was worried that any Americans have the right to sexual privacy. Santorum is not just worried that the Supreme Court might overturn Bowers v. Hardwick: he wants the Supreme Court to overturn Griswold v. Connecticut, the decision that prevented governments from banning contraceptive devices for married couples. Griswold v. Connecticut established the precedent of a right to privacy, a right that "doesn't exist" for Santorum. For conservative Christians like Santorum, sex without procreative intent should be illegal. If that proscription consigns homosexuals to a life of either abstinence or criminality, so be it.
A few Republicans called for Santorum to apologize for his remarks. These included Lincoln Chafee, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe from the dwindling ranks of moderate Republicans in the Senate. Chafee, Collins, and Snowe represent states in which moderate stances win votes. Also calling for an apology was John McCain, who shows glimmers of the libertarianism that sometimes surfaces in Arizona (the only gay Republican in Congress is Jim Kolbe, from Arizona). But Republican leaders in Washington supported Santorum, albeit in cautious tones.
It is still right and proper in much of America to justify hatred of homosexuality, particularly in religious terms. Today, calling dark-skinned persons evil or unworthy or cursed is the mark of the lunatic fringe in American politics, but some important religious organizations used to promote such thinking. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, came into being because its founders felt that chattel slavery was God's will.
Political times have changed dramatically in the past 150 years, so today, overt animus toward African-Americans is imprudent, even for the most conservative of national politicians. But animus toward homosexuals is still a winner for conservative politicians. In much of the country, discrimination against homosexuals is perfectly legal. Consensual homosexual sex is still illegal in 13 states. Private employers can legally discriminate against gay and lesbian employees in 37 states. And in no state can a homosexual couple marry and enjoy the protections and benefits that heterosexual couples take for granted.
The Republican party is seldom shy about displaying its hatred of homosexuality for all to see. The platform of the Texas Republican Party, for example, calls for the state to take children away from homosexual parents, and even to drop criminal prosecution of those whose actions against homosexuals are guided by "faith." And the platform is moderate by Texas Republican standards: conservative delegates wanted its tenets to be binding on Republican officeholders. Republicans often rail, in the platforms and in real life, about the intrusiveness of big government. They hate rules and regulations that keep industry from polluting the air, water, and land that we all rely on. They hate laws that aim to use the treasury to aid the least fortunate in society. But they love big government if it keeps people from having sex the wrong way.
Santorum is an avowed fan of the Opus Dei movement, a politically active conservative movement within the Roman Catholic church, although he is not a member. Opus Dei is an influential and secretive worldwide network of fundamentalist Catholics. Santorum has criticized Catholic politicians who espouse liberal views on social issues, while praising President Bush as "the first Catholic president of the United States." Bush is a Methodist, unlike former President John Kennedy. He cannot receive Communion in a Roman Catholic church. He is, however, an unwavering conservative, and that is good enough for Santorum.
Santorum is free, as he should be, to use his religious beliefs to guide his political beliefs. His problem is that the complete tenets of Roman Catholicism are awfully hard to reconcile without some cognitive dissonance. If Santorum took a hard line against abortion and euthanasia and homosexual acts, but also against the death penalty and nuclear weapons and wars of retribution, as do "seamless garment" Catholics, then his views on sexuality and homosexuality would reflect the odd amalgam of radical and puritanical within the teachings of his church.
But Santorum is hardly a critic of the death penalty or of any war. Like many Catholics—and many non-Catholics—he has chosen from his religion's dogma what he wants to hear and ignored the rest. He may not want to admit that he, too, is a cafeteria Catholic, but his public pronouncements belie him. Ultimately, Rick Santorum is no better a Catholic than myriad Catholics who attend only Christmas and Easter services. The members of the Birth and Resuurection Society do not pretend to be the alpha and omega of religious truth.
Santorum's views on homosexuality and sexuality resonate with the conservative Christians who dominate the Republican Party in many states. Indeed, Santorum's views on social issues are hardly outside of the main current of thinking within the Republican caucus in the Senate. The Republican Party has few moderates and almost no liberals left to take offense at yet another attack on the rights of the public against the government. But the libertarians within the party might do well to take note of the aftermath of Santorum's remarks. He not only belied the notion that the Republican Party is one of inclusiveness, but he also belied the notion that Republican leaders really care about personal liberty.