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Santorum’s Gay Marriage Conundrum

Yesterday, Rick Santorum was jeered when he told a crowd of college students in Concord, New Hampshire, that legalizing gay marriage was no different from legalizing polygamy. The exchange brought into focus the former Pennsylvanian senator’s strength of convictions and solid powers of reasoning. But it also illustrated why his social conservative views that were so helpful to his solid performance in the Iowa caucuses may be a liability in a general election.

In the course of a question-and-answer session with students at New England College, Santorum asked a student who criticized his opposition to gay marriage if it was okay for two consenting adults of the same sex to marry, why not three or five? The students didn’t seem willing to concede the logic of his reasoning, but even if he’s right, given the sea change in mainstream America about gay rights, Santorum was making a stronger argument for legalizing polygamy than banning gay marriage.

Santorum was correct when he said if society changes the definition of marriage from one man to one woman to one that is accepting of other definitions, then it is hard to argue that some new definitions of marriage are more acceptable than others. If the decision to marry of any two people, regardless of sex, should be legal, then there is no secular legal principle that I know of that ought to forbid marriage between any number of persons so long as the relationship(s) is consensual.

There was a time not so long ago when that assertion would have closed the discussion about gay marriage. But though acceptance of this change is far from universal, all Santorum’s logic gets him here is a “Big Love” style appeal for legalizing polygamy. That is, of course, not his intent.  This is a bit less controversial than the former Pennsylvania senator’s infamous 2003 reaction to the Lawrence v. Texas case that overthrew sodomy laws in which he seemed to compare consensual same-sex relations as comparable to polygamy, incest, bestiality and adultery. But the point is largely the same about what he believes to be the danger of throwing out traditional moral standards.

As I wrote earlier today, there is an argument to be made that an authentic conservative who sticks up for his beliefs can win elections, because even if voters don’t share all of the candidate’s convictions, they respect someone who stands up for their beliefs more than one who trims them to win votes (i.e. Mitt Romney). However, it is one thing to ask moderate Democrats and independents to vote for a conservative who is pro-life on abortion or opposed to gay marriage (a stance that even Barack Obama took in 2008), it’s quite another to ask them to back someone who seems to be at war with gays. Granted, the conflict is more about gay anger at Santorum than the other way around, but so long as he keeps emphasizing these issues that is the way he will be portrayed.

As Politico noted in a feature describing the way his 2006 landslide loss haunts his presidential ambitions, Santorum’s emphasis on social conservative advocacy during his second term in the Senate helped sink his hopes of re-election. Whereas in 2000, liberals wouldn’t work for his pro-life, anti-gun control Democratic opponent, in 2006, they enthusiastically supported a Democrat (Bob Casey) with those same credentials. While cultural conservatism provided a link between Republicans and working class Democrats, Santorum’s appeal on these issues came to be seen as excessive. Though he has an opportunity to break out of the pack and become a credible conservative alternative to Romney, exchanges such as the one in Concord will help pigeonhole him as a rabid cultural warrior.



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