In the Bedroom

Rick Santorum wants to regulate your passions.

If congressional leaders had to resign every time they said something that offended people, the top positions would rotate every few days. That might not be such a bad thing, if the constant turmoil prevented Congress from passing laws.

Still, it's not surprising that members of Congress are reluctant to adopt this rule. By now it's clear that Rick Santorum will not share the fate of Trent Lott and Jim Moran.

Lott, a Mississippi Republican, lost his post as Senate majority leader after he declared, at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, that the country would have been better off if his esteemed colleague from South Carolina had won the presidency in 1948, when he ran as a segregationist. Moran, a Virginia congressman, was forced to resign as a regional whip for the Democrats after he suggested at an anti-war rally that Jews control U.S. foreign policy.

Both men apologized profusely and repeatedly, and both caught unremitting flak from both sides of the aisle. Santorum, by contrast, has stood by his controversial remarks about homosexuality, and his fellow Republicans, with few exceptions, have stood by him. The other day Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said the Pennsylvania senator "has the full, 100 percent confidence of the Republican leadership" and "absolutely" will retain his post as conference chairman.

Offending gays and lesbians seems to be less risky than offending blacks or Jews. The difference is partly due to an ambiguity that Santorum brought out during his now notorious April 7 interview with the Associated Press.

"I have nothing, absolutely nothing, against anyone who's homosexual," he said. "If that's their orientation, then I accept that....The question is, do you act on those orientations? So it's not the person, it's the person's actions."

By hating the sin rather than the sinner, one could defend Santorum's position against homosexuality, as many conservatives have, while disclaiming any bias against homosexuals as people. But this is a dodge.

Santorum concedes that homosexuality is a matter of "orientation," suggesting that it's not simply a "lifestyle choice." Yet he expects gays and lesbians to resist their sexual inclinations because acting on them is "antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family."

Santorum is saying, in effect: Deny your nature, and you can be a fine, upstanding citizen like the rest of us. Follow your heart, and you will be treated like a public menace, hauled from your bedroom by police and tossed in jail for choosing the wrong sexual partner. Nothing personal.

Santorum did not simply argue that the wisdom and fairness of bans on homosexual behavior should be judged by elected legislators rather than the Supreme Court. As a matter of constitutional law, such a position is perfectly defensible.

Santorum also insisted that, as a matter of policy, regulating private, consensual sex is justified because "deviant" behavior in the bedroom undermines "strong healthy families." He never really explained why this is so, and his analogies did not clarify matters.

Santorum averred that "the right to consensual sex within your home" would cover polygamy, incest, and adultery as well as homosexuality. He also suggested that such tolerance leads to sex between priests and choir boys, and he grouped homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality as examples of relationships that society cannot afford to legitimize.

Santorum did not explicitly equate all of these activities, but neither did he try to distinguish them. It's not clear why polygamy, sanctioned by the Bible, does not qualify as "traditional" in Santorum's book. In any case, the practice entails not just private sexual conduct but public recognition of plural marriage. The correct comparison in this case would be sex with more than one partner, which Santorum (as far as I know) is not proposing to ban.

Adultery, unlike homosexuality, involves both a betrayal of trust and a contract violation. Sex with minors involves an abuse of authority and implicit or explicit coercion. Bestiality involves cruelty to animals. Incest is taboo for sound genetic as well as psychological reasons.

Not only did Santorum fail to acknowledge such moral distinctions; he seemed to assume that all immoral behavior ought to be illegal, which would be a recipe for totalitarianism. "We [politicians] absolutely have rights," he declared, "to limit individuals' wants and passions"—not only to protect people from aggression but to guard against unspecified "consequences."

Santorum, unlike Lott and Moran, clearly thought before he spoke. That fact makes his remarks more disturbing, not less.

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