Abusing a Voice of Reason
When Senator Rick Santorum explained to an interviewer the logic of the argument against Texas’ anti-sodomy law—later to be abolished by the Supreme Court in one of its dimmer decisions—the usual voices rose in wrath to strike him down. The editors of the New York Times declared: “Hear ye, hear ye: Senator Rick Santorum feels obliged to offer gratuitous guidance to the Supreme Court in the form of an ad hoc, highly unlearned ruling that equates homosexuality with bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery.” Others were ruder. The White House and the Republican leadership avoided supporting him, with answers of the “Hey, Rick is a good guy” and “This is certainly a difficult subject” sort.
But the senator had made perfect sense, and the reaction he endured tells us much about the difficulty of speaking reasonably about homosexuality in the public square.
All He Said
Let us look at what Senator Santorum said. He (1) explained where the innovators’ argument leads, then (2) pointed out that the Constitution does not in fact include it, and then (3) described its effect upon the traditional family.
First, the explanation. Santorum said that “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. You have the right to anything.”
If you have the right to do in your bed anything you like with anyone who agrees to it, you can do it with your sister, your brother, your son, your daughter, your father, your mother, your cat, and, if he agreed before he died, your best friend’s corpse. And with any married man or woman you know, and with any number of people at a time. So broad a principle flings open the door and then bolts it open.
Suppose you live in a historic district and a neighbor challenges a zoning law that limits to pastels the colors he may paint his house. He argues that he has the right to do anything he wishes with his house, as long as it does not endanger the neighbors. You, believing in freedom and trusting his taste, sign a petition supporting him. The law is overturned and he paints his house a tasteful Dresden blue. A blow for liberty has been struck, and the neighborhood still looks like a postcard. And then your neighbor across the street takes advantage of the new law to paint his house in orange and black tiger stripes with fluorescent lime green trim. You may hate it, but having granted the principle that he may do with his house what he wishes, you have agreed to look at a house that glows in the dark. You would have been wiser not to have accepted so broad a law.
This is all Santorum said. He knew that the principle (the right to consensual sex in your home) leads to practices that most people still believe ought to be illegal, and tried to make them reconsider the principle by pointing out what it led to. He is not a bigot for pointing out that opening the door to one thing opens it to everything else. He is a man capable of thinking.
Second, the constitutional point. Santorum argued that the argument against such laws depends upon “this right to privacy that doesn’t exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution.” He argued that the Supreme Court created this right in the Griswold decision, the 1963 ruling that granted married couples the right to use contraceptives, and in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that granted any woman the right to abort her child.
One cannot pick up the text of the Constitution and find anything remotely like a “right to privacy.” Until 1963, the law of the land had let states prevent married couples from contracepting. Even in 1972, the Supreme Court’s Eisenstadt v. Baird decision accepted the authority of the government to ban fornication, adultery, and other private, consensual acts. The justices of the first 200 years of the Republic did not believe in that absolute right to privacy that Santorum’s critics treat as self-evident. If Santorum is right, much that the moral innovator values may be a public good, but it is not a constitutionally protected good.
This is all Santorum said. He did not deny the need to protect the individual from government intrusion, but maintained only that the document to which Americans submit their public life does not include the principle now asserted. He is not a bigot for pointing out that the Constitution does not say what it does not say. He is a man capable of reading.
Third, the principle’s effect. The senator noted that “this freedom actually intervenes and affects the family. You say, well, it’s my individual freedom. Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that’s antithetical to strong, healthy families. Whether it’s polygamy, whether it’s adultery, whether it’s sodomy, all of those things are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.”
This is a more difficult argument to prove, simply because laying out the abundant evidence takes time, in a way interviews and editorials do not allow, but it seems self-evident. A traditional family grows from the union of two people whose children are the fruit of their loins, who have pledged to each other their sexual fidelity, which is both a sign and a guarantee of their fidelity in all other matters and in the self-sacrifice a marriage and family require.
Bigamy and polygamy deny the uniqueness and exclusivity of the commitment. Adultery breaks the fidelity the partners have pledged to each other. Sodomy denies the possibility of children who are the fruit of the parents’ sexual union. Sexual disloyalty is obviously antithetical to the traditional family.
The moral innovator may think that the definition of “family” should be expanded to include homosexual couples, but he ought to admit that he wants something significantly different from the traditional family. And more to the point, he ought to admit that any principle he presents for expanding the definition of the family will expand it to include a lot of sexual alternatives besides homosexuality, like bigamy, polygamy, and adultery, and incest and bestiality for that matter. He may not like them (or he may), but he approved of them.
This is all Santorum has said. He did not say anything about homosexual people and their sexual arrangements, but only noted that the idea of “freedom” argued against Texas’ law is a freedom that undermines the family as traditionally understood. He is not a bigot for pointing out that a traditional family cannot easily survive actions it by definition excludes. He is a man capable of seeing.
To be a reasonable man in national politics means to be abused whenever you speak reasonably about some group’s pet cause, especially if that pet cause includes what they do with their genital organs, and especially if those genital organs are not used for generation. The reasonable man will face the wrath of degraded minds, from the editors of the New York Times on down (or up), if they feel him worth the attention.
I think, judging from long observation and my youthful leftism, that they cannot abide reason because reason reveals the ends to which their causes lead, and these ends they do not want to admit to themselves, much less to the public. They want to approve homosexuality, but they do not (yet) want to approve incest or “man-boy love.” Unfortunately, the principle they assert to justify the first also justifies the second. It’s the best argument they can think of, but it is not a good one. At this point, as the famous joke goes, they read in their manuscripts, “Argument weak. Yell.”
Or, in the mode of modern liberalism, “Argument weak. Abuse anyone who points this out.” Such abuse as Senator Santorum suffered seems built into the way things are done today, when so much that powerful people value cannot easily be defended. Those of us who still believe in reason should not lose the chance to salute a man who spoke reasonably anyway. It is too rare.
—David Mills, for the editors
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Abusing a Voice of Reason” first appeared in the September 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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