The End of the "Ick Factor"

Let it not be said that conservatives have failed to evolve on the question of gay rights. These days, even if you are adamantly opposed to marriage equality, you're required to express a kind of libertarian attitude toward homosexuality itself. Love the sinner, hate the sin? Not anymore. Now it's love the sinner, and as for the sin, well that's none of my business, you do what you like. But this public display of live-and-let-livism is a rather shocking contradiction with the very grounds on which many conservatives base their beliefs about this issue, namely the Old Testament. I give you Mike Huckabee, speaking yesterday at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition: "I'm not against anybody. I'm really not. I'm not a hater. I'm not homophobic," he said. "I honestly don't care what people do personally in their individual lives."

Well hold on there! You honestly don't care? But doesn't the Bible condemn the act itself? Yahweh doesn't say, "Whatever you do in the bedroom is none of anybody's business, just don't think you can get married." Huckabee, a Baptist minister, certainly knows his scripture, and he explained why he can't change on this issue even if public opinion changes:

"When people say, 'Why don't you just kind of get on the right side of history?' I said, 'You've got to understand, this for me is not about the right side or the wrong side of history, this is the right side of the Bible, and unless God rewrites it, edits it, sends it down with his signature on it, it's not my book to change.' Folks, that's why I stand where I stand."

I don't expect anyone to snag Huckabee in a "gotcha" over this contradiction; he's been asked about the question of biblical literalism before, and he deflects it with ease. But a less skilled orator on the Republican side might have trouble reconciling these two premises, on the one hand that God condemns homosexuality, and on the other that they no longer have any objection to homosexuality in and of itself, they're just trying to defend "traditional marriage."

You might recall that for a long time, talk about gay rights inevitably brought up the "ick factor," namely that many straight people couldn't think about gay people's rights without immediately imagining two men having sex, which they found unsettling. Sometimes this was raised with the admission that there was nothing rational about it, but there were some who tried to find in that reaction a core of rationality. Conservative philosopher and go-to Republican bioethicist Leon Kass wrote an influential article in The New Republic in 1997 called "The Wisdom of Repugnance," which argued that when something makes you feel icky it's an expression of deep abiding wisdom that has been passed down through the ages. Though Kass's topic in the piece was human cloning, the argument was broad and therefore reassuring to opponents of gay rights.

But the ick factor is gone—maybe not for ordinary people, but for their leaders. Even in front of an audience of evangelicals, a Republican politician can't cast aspersions on gay people, at least not directly (after all, everything's being recorded). But if you're going to cite the Old Testament as the basis for your beliefs, that's exactly what you're doing, since those passages call same-sex relations an "abomination." On the other hand, there will come a day when most Christians put as much stock in the verse saying that homosexuality is an "abomination" as they do in the nearby passage saying that eating shellfish is also an "abomination."

When Huckabee says, "I honestly don't care what people do personally in their individual lives," I'm guessing that few people on either side of this issue believe him. Supporters of gay rights think he's just putting a false veneer of tolerance on fundamentally intolerant beliefs, while opponents of gay rights think he's just getting the political correctness police off his back, while in truth he's still with them.

If you haven't had enough of this topic, here's something I wrote over at The Washington Post arguing that the influence of evangelical voters on the Republican presidential primary is overrated; here's Ed Kilgore explaining why I'm wrong.

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