Liberals, moderates, and libertarians are often accused by conservatives of demonizing the so-called "religious right," likening it to the dictatorial mullahs of radical Islam and spreading needless alarmism about its influence in the Republican Party. But the recent flap over Senator Rick Santorum's remarks about homosexuality, sodomy laws, and the right to privacy suggest that the alarm is not exaggerated. Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, was talking to an Associated Press reporter about his view that liberalism takes power away from families while conservatism empowers them. As an example of policies that undermine families, he cited the push to have sodomy laws (at least ones that single out same-sex behavior) struck down by the Supreme Court.
Sodomy laws, said Santorum, were there "for a purpose": "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… Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does."
After gays were justly outraged by the comparison of homosexual sex to incest and adultery, the Pennsylvania Republican defended himself against charges of bigotry, saying that he was speaking only in the context of Supreme Court precedent and the states' right to regulate sexual behavior.
But the full transcript of his interview shows him making even more disturbing parallels. After saying that no society's definition of marriage has ever included homosexuality, he added, "That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be." He also said that the abuse of teenage boys by priests was "a basic homosexual relationship," and that those who believed in the right to privacy would presumably see nothing wrong with it if it was consensual. (Santorum apparently forgot about the "adults" part in "consenting adults.")
Of course, Santorum's analogies don't stand up to logical scrutiny. Bigamy and polygamy are about public sanction for multiple sexual relationships, not merely about private behavior. Even adultery—not a crime in most states—arguably involves breaking a publicly recognized contract. Child abuse is the very opposite of a victimless crime.
Yet the text of Santorum's remarks makes it clear that he doesn't just believe states have the right to outlaw sodomy; he believes that they should. ("If New York doesn't want sodomy laws… I wouldn't agree with it, but that's their right.") He didn't specify whether he thinks these prohibitions should also apply to oral or anal sex between heterosexuals. He did say that while he has "absolutely nothing against anyone who's homosexual," he has a problem with homosexual acts and with gays acting on their sexual orientation.
As the always insightful Andrew Sullivan notes in Salon, this isn't a question of labeling someone a bigot for opposing gay marriage or hate crime laws. Santorum's position even goes beyond the supposedly "tolerant" notion that homosexuality is OK as long as it's kept invisible: He believes the state should be able to jail people for having the "wrong kind" of sex in their bedrooms. Furthermore, likening same-sex relationships to child molestation and bestiality implicitly denies the very humanity of such relationships. These are truly odious views.
Beyond antigay prejudice, there is also the issue of Santorum's beliefs about privacy. While the specific sexual prohibitions he endorses target homosexuality, he also deplores the right-to-privacy doctrine established by the Supreme Court in the 1963 Griswold v. Connecticut ruling, striking down a ban on the use of contraceptives, even by married couples. Perhaps Santorum doesn't actually believe that the states should ban birth control, but it seems that he doesn't see anything wrong with the states doing so. He explicitly believes that it is the proper role of government to curb "individuals' wants and passions."
When a leading member of the party that controls both the White House and Congress espouses such radical views (I wouldn't call them conservative, since they are quite at odds with the conservative belief in limited government and individual freedom), that's troubling. When Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist comes to his defense and describes him as a "voice for inclusion and compassion in the Republican Party," that's scary.
Correction: In my column on the "Fidelistas" last week, I wrote that filmmaker Steven Spielberg describes his meeting with Fidel Castro on his trip to Cuba last November as "the most important eight hours of my life." I have been informed that the quote, which appeared in Damien Cave's article in The Washington Monthly, is a fake that originated in the Cuban press.