Along the Tracks

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Santorum’s sharia

It’s hard (okay, impossible) to beat Andrew Sullivan on the issue of Senator Rick Santorum’s comments about the power of government to police consensual sexual activity. He shines a spotlight on the deep divide between traditional conservative principles and the kind of government activism Santorum is endorsing. I’d like to look a little more at the overall political impact this issue may have.

As I wrote yesterday, I believe the “real” issue Santorum’s stated position raises is one of leadership and direction inside the Republican Party. But this does have the potential to spill over into a wider condemnation of the GOP as a whole - just as the Trent Lott affair had that potential before the president stepped in.

As previously posted, right now, Democrats and liberals are focusing on the issue of homophobia and a perceived insult directed at gays. Frankly, Santorum’s laundry list, and the position it implies, was so encompassing, teenagers in backseats and old guys who hang out at strip joints then go home for “a little privacy” should be equally “insulted.” The “insult,” I believe, was not intentional; Santorum was merely laying out his moral worldview as it relates to sexual activity - and if you are “insulted” by being lumped in with hill folk who marry their cousins and chase sheep, you need to work on your sense of humor. It’s like a guy who plays poker with his kid for toothpicks getting worked up because some TV preacher equates it with betting the farm lease on a football game. The legal implications of Santorum’s statement are important, and from my point of view, frightening; “insult,” however, is based on both intention of the speaker and interpretation of the recipient.

No, the potential political problem here is how the “real” issue - an internal, likely divisive, debate inside the GOP - translates into a opening for Dems to portray the Party of Lincoln as the Party of Mullah Omar. It’s not about what you believe, in moral terms. People have a right to add or subtract to their own personal list of no-no’s, and a right to go around trying to convince others their list is the best one. They even have a right to do so when they are elected to represent a district, state or nation. Where political “morality-specialists” create problems is when they propose policy initiatives to implement their view of right and wrong - and police compliance with the power of the state. That is certainly against the spirit of America’s founding documents; a good legal case can be made that such policies are against the letter as well.

Santorum’s sharia, if you will, would call for state-imposed penalties for violations of a moral code - violations which do not have “victims,” other than some supposed, and ill-defined, “societal costs.” That is precisely what “implementing the sharia” means in nations where Islamism is on the ascent. And it is hard to argue that “this is different.” The sharia is largely in line with Old Testament/Torah codes - the very codes upon which Santorum appears to be basing his legal philosophy.

In other words, the Republican Party, when it entertains such notions of government enforcement of morality, really does accept under its tent a “Taliban wing.” Democrats making the accusation would be correct. That does not bode well for the GOP - any more than anti-Americanism on the left bodes well for the Dems. These are really two sides of the same coin: A corrupt America must be reigned in. The only differences between these positions are strategic.

Presidential politics probably won’t be affected by this debate, as moderate forces are almost certain to choose a patriotic liberal from among the Dems now vying (There are at least two Dems I would characterize, based on their oppositional attitude toward founding values, as “anti-American.” But they are guaranteed losers.). President Bush clearly puts forth the “new face” of Republican conservatives - moral in outlook, but not in favor of government enforcement of such codes.

Nevertheless, there are geographic pockets across the U.S. in which either the left or right version of the philosophy mentioned above does hold a plurality or even majority, which keeps those viewpoints in the public eye. The constituency which successfully transfers the opponent’s “problem philosophy” into a generalized taint on all members of that party is likely to make substantial gains in Congress.

Santorum’s continued position of leadership in the GOP makes the Democrats’ job that much easier.

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