Beliefnet
At first, the question in political circles was: will Senator Rick Santorum be punished politically for his comments supporting laws that ban "homosexual acts." On the contrary, it turned out that few Republicans wanted to punish Senator Santorum, and some praised him. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay called him a man of principle, while President Bush's spokesman called him a champion of "inclusiveness."

Indeed, by backing Santorum, President Bush and most other Republicans have apparently concluded that, as conservative activist Gary Bauer put it, Santorum's views reflected the American mainstream.

All this, in some ironic way, should please me. In 1998, I published a book called One Nation, After All. Based on interviews with 200 middle-class Americans from all across the country, I showed that we had become a tolerant people unwilling to make judgments, with one notable exception--the issue of homosexuality. When I hear Santorum and his allies speak, I tell myelf that perhaps they read my book carefully and came to the conclusion that there are no political costs to be paid for treating homosexuality as a moral transgression to be attacked rather than a lifestyle to be defended.

But perhaps my book is, well, not wrong--but overtaken by events. There is now considerable evidence that public opinion concerning gays has been softening in recently years:

  • The percentage of Americans who object to homosexual relations, according to the General Social Survey, was over 70 percent in the early 1990s before declining to under 60 percent in the last two to three years.

  • According to a 2001 Gallup poll, there has also been a shift in attitudes about the legality of homosexuality, with a majority of Americans--54 percent--saying that "homosexual relations between consenting adults" should be legal, compared to 43 percent who felt this way in 1977.

  • A plurality of adults support the legalization of same-gender sexual relations, and even one-third of born again Christians support this aspect of gay rights, according to research conducted by the evangelical Barna Research Center.
  • Beyond the numbers, there have been several telling moments of cultural acceptance. Father Mychal Judge, the openly gay priest who was killed giving last rites to a firefighter on September 11, was hailed as a hero. And nobody raised even an eyebrow when the Republican Party nominated for Vice-President a man whose daughter, Mary Cheney, took no steps to hide her sexual orientation.

    Many factors are responsible for this, including the movement for same-sex marriage (which negates the image of gays as ultra-promiscuous) and the ubiquity of programs on television featuring marriages offered as rewards for money or sexual attraction (which perhaps reminded everyone that heterosexuals are as crudely hedonistic as anything in popular images of gay culture).

    Although some attributed the crisis in the Catholic Church to the pernicious influence of homosexual priests, for many Catholics, even conservative ones, it become difficult to retain the belief that homosexuality is the most venal of sins when pedophilia and cover-up were among the competitors.

    Not only has public hostility toward homosexuality softened, but Americans have also traditionally made an important distinction between positive and negative tolerance. "Don't ask me to go out of way to give support for homosexuals by allowing them to marry," many of those I interviewed would say, "but if someone wants to do something behind closed doors, that's none of my business." This distinction helps explain why, for example, Americans tend to believe that homosexuality should not be taught in school but that there is nothing wrong with homosexuals being teachers, so long as they keep their sexuality to themselves.

    Such libertarianism led the conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly to say that "America does not need a sex police." It may also lead Americans who are not especially fond of homosexuality to worry that people like Santorum would, if they had the chance, criminalize conduct that does no harm to other people. His comments, after all, were not about denying gays "special privileges," but rather about making homosexual acts criminal.

    Join the Discussion
    comments powered by Disqus