Sodomy is bad for Republicans. Marriage is bad for Democrats.

I'm speaking, of course, not about their personal lives but about the politics of gay rights. The more the debate is about anti-sodomy laws--i.e. criminalizing gay sex--the worse it is for Republicans. If the debate becomes more about gay marriage, then Democrats become vulnerable.

Putting aside the (more important) question of whether the decision was wise, it does seem that the decision will scramble the politics of gay rights. To see how and why, look at another volatile issue, abortion. In both cases, a big group of Americans is now in the middle and resistent to extreme-seeming positions on either side. Activists, therefore, spend much time trying to cast issues in ways that make the other guy seem like an extremist.

Banning abortion completely is no longer popular or feasible, so pro-life forces sought to draw a different line in the sand. They have emphasized "partial-birth abortion," which is viewed by most of the population as gruesome since it involves removing a fetus in the late third term, in part by destroying its skull. It's an issue that has utterly flummoxed pro-choice forces, who don't want to overtly defend fetus-skull-crushing but view partial-birth-abortion bans as the beginning of a larger power grab.

On gay issues, religious conservatives once again had gained the political advantage, in this case by focusing on the "gay-rights agenda," including the movement toward gay marriage, rather than attacking homosexuality per se. The Democrats rightly dread the issue of gay marriage because it's strongly supported by activists but not yet backed by the majority of public opinion. On "Meet the Press," former Vermont Governor Howard Dean squirmed when Tim Russert questioned him about Canada's decision to allow gay marriage. Pols like Dean remember vividly how Clinton's decision to tolerate gays in the military hurt him.

Gay-rights supporters haven't had any comparable way to make conservatives look like radical homophobes--until now. They got their opportunity when the Court struck down the criminalization of gay sex--and religious conservatives attacked the decision. These conservative activists may now come off like anti-sex storm troopers rather than warriors for morality.

Sociologist Alan Wolfe explains the nuanced nature of public opinion homosexuality:

Not only has public hostility toward homosexuality softened [in recent years], but Americans have also traditionally made an important distinction between positive and negative tolerance. "Don't ask me to go out of my 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.

Religious conservatives have reacted to the Court's decision the way pro-choice groups react to partial birth abortion -- by saying what's important isn't the issue at hand but the larger principle that will now be eroded. Banning late-term abortions, pro-choicers argue, will lead to a broader reduction of women's rights. Banning anti-sodomy laws, religious conservatives argue, will lead to adoption of a broad "gay agenda." Notably, the headline on the Family Research Council's statement on the court case was not an attack on sodomy but rather, "FRC Says Supreme Court Ruling Will Embolden Same-Sex Marriage Advocates." Focus on the Family said the decision removed the boundaries that prevent "sexual chaos in our culture."

In fact, it's striking the extent to which religious conservatives didn't actually condemn homosexuality itself. Commentator Chuck Colson decried the ruling too, but didn't say what was wrong with homosexuality. Instead, he wrote, "If that is now the law of the land, how are we going to outlaw bigamy or polygamy? The polygamist, after all, has all of his wives together, and whatever he does with them he does alone in his bedroom. It is private, consensual sex. I do not see how, in the light of today's decision, we have any rational, constitutional basis to ban bigamy or polygamy."

Surely they have problems with homosexuality itself, so why don't they lay out their concerns? To some extent it's because they are even more scared of the slippery slope toward ratifying what they view as even worse things, like gay marriage. But some of their caution is simply political. They know that a frontal assault on the morality of homosexuality would run smack into public opinion, so they shift the conversation onto more favorable ground.

The only official public statement I could find that criticized homosexuality per se was from the Traditional Values Coalition, which cast it as a public health issue. "Millions of dollars are spent each year to deal with AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases contracted through homosexual sodomy. Yet the Court has elevated anal sex over the right of a state to protect its citizens from a serious public health crisis."

Isn't it interesting that even a very conservative religious group like this chose to emphasize a public health rather than a moral argument against homosexuality? I'm guessing we won't be hearing George Bush making the anal-sex-costs-the-Treasury-money argument in a presidential debate.

The sodomy issue shares another trait with partial birth abortion: both are almost entirely symbolic. There are very few partial birth abortions and very few prosecutions based on anti-sodomy laws. But in both cases, the topic seems tremendously important.

Before today, the Republicans had some good gay rights issues to use against Democrats. Now the Democrats do, too. President Bush has an interesting challenge: coming up with a position on this that satisfies his base of religious conservatives without actually supporting the substance of anti-sodomy laws. I'm guessing we'll start to hear him talk more about his opposition to gay marriage.

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