Friday, January 06, 2012

Socratic Santorum sidetracks students

Rick Santorum laid a bit of a trap yesterday for some indignant college kids who confronted him about gay marriage at a student convention in Concord, NH yesterday.  David Corn recounts:
Two students asked Santorum how he could justify this opposition with his opening remarks that focused on the guarantee, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that no American shall be deprived of the "pursuit of happiness."


"So anyone can marry several people?" Santorum asked. "What about three men?"
 
Santorum...asked the students to justify gay marriage. When one said, "How about the idea that all men are created equal and [have] the right to happiness and liberty," Santorum asked, Are you saying that everyone should have the right to marry anyone?
The student said yes. And Santorum quickly retorted. "So anyone can marry several people?"

No, the student said.
But what if someone can only be happy if he or she was married to five people? Santorum asked her.

Others in the crowd starting jeering him. "That's not the point," one shouted.

But Santorum, who kept cutting off the students, stuck to this argument. When the students talked about equal rights, he repeatedly interrupted, "What about three men?"

"That's irrelevant," one of the students said.

"No, it's not," he said.

"That's not what I'm talking about," she said.

With a smile, Santorum said, "If we're going to have a conversation based on rational, reasonable thought…if people say it's okay for two, then you have to say why it's not right for three."

Santorum was diverting the students (with some success, it seems; I can't find a full transcript).  He was suggesting that their argument was that the state has no right to regulate or define marriage.   The question is on what basis the state excludes some relationships from marital status. For Santorum, it comes down to God's law:

He noted that for his interlocutors, "marriage really means whatever you want it to be." Many in the crowd applauded—to show approval of that notion.

But then Santorum got to the nut of his argument: "God made man and woman…and men and women come together to produce children." And, he went on, when children do not have both a father and a mother, "we are harming children, we are harming society."

His bottom-line was clear: Gays and lesbians are not good parents for the youth of the greatest country that ever existed. So no marriage for them.

Perhaps some of his interlocutors really do believe that "marriage means whatever you want it to be."  But that need not have been the basis of any focused response to Santorum (that's not what I"m talking about"). The point is not that the state can't deny some relationships marital status: it's that the state must justify its exclusions on the basis of something other than theological assertion.  Because the United States is not a theocracy, much as Santorum would like it to be, the state can only ban a given behavior on the grounds that it harms the larger community -- your rights end where mine begin (or, per the original questioner, your pursuit of happiness).  Santorum might believe that gay marriage harms the community, and that gay parents "harm children," but he has no evidence, and he will convince virtually no one under 30. His allies in this cause failed epically to make the case for harm in the challenge to Proposition 8 heard in the California Supreme Court . 

Whether bigamy leads to some kinds of exploitation or somehow harms the community is a separate question from whether gay marriage does (some of the students might say yes, others no, others might not be sure).  Where the students differ from Santorum, regardless of the extent to which their (presumably various) views of marriage differ or coincide with his, is in their view of homosexuality. They likely have imbibed the consensus in the scientific community that it is not an illness; they are convinced by reason or cultural osmosis and probably their own experience that it harms no one; and they do not accept the Bible's authority, as Santorum does, to dictate otherwise or shape U.S. law accordingly.

Obama has long maintained as an article of his political credo that while it's fine for a politician's values to be informed by faith, and to let the role of faith in her judgments be known, she can only argue for policies that further those values on the basis of universal reason: 
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God's will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all (Audacity of Hope, p. 219).
Santorum too, by his own lights, wants to engage in  "a conversation based on rational, reasonable thought," as he told the students. But for him, the underlying argument is always based on Biblical authority as interpreted by the Catholic hierarchy -- as he thinks U.S. law should be.  That should get him about as far as proposals to ban contraception. He's a story of one month, max.

1 comment:

  1. "..the underlying argument is always based on Biblical authority as interpreted by the Catholic hierarchy -- as he thinks U.S. law should be".

    Well that wouldn't be Sharia law..., but what would one call it?

    Santorum was setting up a straw-man: the students didn't care about polygamy.

    It's truly pathetic just how loathsome this field of candidates can be. And Romney is their best guy? Sheesh.

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