A textbook case of how NOT to do so played out in Washington last week, when Rick Santorum was publicly accused of bigotry for arguing that Texas sodomy laws are not unconstitutional.
Now of course, it is not surprising that gay advocates forcefully disagree with this position. All Americans have a right and duty to speak the truth as they see it, and doing so is a healthy part of democratic debate.
What is troubling is the next step: the concerted and partly successful effort to portray Rick Santorum's remarks as a verbal gaffe, a violation of civil discourse, as evidence of bigotry. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina called the remarks "disturbing and inappropriate." Gov. Howard Dean called them "insensitive." Human Rights Campaign Executive Director Elizabeth Birch pronounced Sen. Santorum's remarks "deeply discriminatory" and "antithetical to bringing people together."
Here is my question: Is there any difference between disagreeing with the Human Rights Campaign's vision of sexual ethics and hate speech? Apparently not.
What Sen. Santorum actually said was: "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything."
Of course, he is correct: The creation of a constitutional right to sex will have ramifications far beyond the actual case before the court. Is this why opponents apparently feel the need to shut down this line of argument, to make it literally unspeakable in public discourse?
It is one thing to insist that we debate our deepest differences in a civil manner that respects the human dignity of every person. It is quite another thing to demonize people when they try to do just that.
Like many Americans, I find the idea of criminalizing private sexual conduct troubling. At the same time, I know I do not want to see sex elevated to a constitutional right. Decisions about how to regulate sexuality should be governed by the normal democratic process, not by the weird values of people who go to law school.
Moreover, I do not understand how anyone can seriously entertain the idea that the act that generates human life has no intrinsic social or public dimension. Sen. Santorum has an important point: Inserting the core ideas of the sexual revolution into our Constitution by judicial fiat will pose serious problems, including for the idea of marriage as a special legal status.
If sexual expression is a core constitutional right, on what grounds does Elizabeth Birch object to consensual incest or polygamy or adultery? Why is her favorite mode of consensual sex more sacred that anybody else's? For that matter, what gives Ms. Birch the right to act as a self-appointed guardian of public morals by shutting down discourse she happens not to like?
Surely people of good will can come together to say, enough: Democracy is for grown-ups. Tolerance does not mean suppressing our deepest disagreements but engaging them in a civil and respectful way.
Disagreements about homosexuality are not going to go away because (unlike racism) they are not based primarily on prejudices, fear or animus but on profound disagreements about the meaning, purpose and function of human sexuality. I believe that men and women are made for each other, that we are a two-sex species designed for sexual, not unisexual, reproduction. You may disagree. That is fine. I am surrounded by people who disagree with me on sexual matters. We can live together in civil society without hating or oppressing one another.
We can, that is, unless you believe Sen. Santorum's name-calling critics, who suggest we have to choose between tolerating gays and lesbians and tolerating common sense (not to mention Catholicism) in public life. Aren't there enough grown-ups around to do both?