Why Republicans Have Declared War on Sex

At a time when birth control has become so much a part of the fabric of daily life that there are commercials for contraceptives on TV, why have so many Republicans vested their hopes in Rick Santorum?
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At a time when birth control has become so much a part of the fabric of daily life that there are commercials for contraceptives on TV, why have so many Republicans vested their hopes in Rick Santorum? Santorum believes that non-procreative sex is "deeply, morally wrong"; he is so opposed to birth control that he paradoxically blames it for teen pregnancy. Obama -- who believes in infanticide, according to Newt Gingrich -- has become the lightning rod in this newest and possibly the weirdest outbreak in the culture war.

"This was an unexpected gift," Ralph Reed, Chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said of the controversy set off by Obamacare's family planning policies. But a gift to whom? Santorum decisively lost the Catholic vote in Michigan. You'd think that Evangelicals who wear their religion on their sleeves would be more mindful of seeming Pharisaical; Jesus did not look kindly on hypocrites, after all.

But hypocrisy, it seems to me, is what this is all about -- or to put it more charitably, cognitive dissonance, the feeling of discomfort you get when you try to hold two or more contradictory beliefs in your mind at the same time. Believing that it is intolerable when government intrudes in financial matters but not the most intimate spheres of life can't but chafe the brain; it is mentally and spiritually irritating to listen to the thrice-married Newt Gingrich defend marriage -- or for that matter, warn that America is on the road to becoming "a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists." Mitt Romney has been tasked both to protect the prerogatives of the very rich and to appear "ordinary"; Ron Paul is a libertarian on every issue except reproductive freedom. The pronouncements of people who live in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance often have a distinctly hysterical edge.

"I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama," Romney declared in the Republican debate last Wednesday. If he had been talking about the so-called anti-Jihadist movement in his own party (the people who are leading the charge to ban Shariah law from American courtrooms and prevent Islamic communities from building mosques in American cities), he might not have been too far from the mark, though the anti-Mormon attitudes that led his own family to cross the border into Mexico a century ago were surely worse.

But it has ever been thus. I saw this kind of thing time and again when I was researching The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right. It didn't matter whether the hysteria was inspired by Masons, Mormons, Abolitionists, Catholics, Jews, blacks, gays, immigrants, or women; the same totalizing, absolutist condemnations were heard.

And there's nothing new about the obsessive focus on sex, either. You don't have to be a Freudian to recognize that prudery and prurience go hand in glove. Nineteenth-century Nativists avidly read sensational accounts of libidinous priests and their harems of cloistered nuns; one writer about the "Mormon Seraglio" declared that "forgery, perjury, theft, robbery, burglary, arson, treason, and murder, are very little things in the eyes of the Mormons."

"We should recall," the historian David Brion Davis wrote of stories like those, "that this literature was written in a period of increasing anxiety and uncertainty over sexual values and the proper role of women. As ministers and journalists pointed with alarm at the spread of prostitution, the incidence of divorce, and the lax and hypocritical morality of the growing cities, a discussion of licentious subversives offered a convenient means for the projection of guilt as well as desire. The sins of individuals, or of the nation as a whole, could be pushed off upon the shoulders of the enemy and there punished in righteous anger."

To say that we live in a time of economic uncertainty and changing mores ourselves is to state the obvious. And clearly, the values-driven right is feeling increasingly frustrated. Griswold v Connecticut was decided almost half a century ago; Roe v Wade will celebrate its fortieth anniversary next year. It's been two decades since Dan Quayle delivered his Murphy Brown speech and now more than half of American women under thirty who give birth are unwed. Only about 20 percent of American households consist of married parents with children under 18; almost half (49 percent) of U.S. adults are single.

Gays haven't imperiled marriage; heterosexuals have done the job all by themselves. A generation ago, embattled conservatives could deplore the immorality of the underclass and blame it on welfare or gays or the Hollywood elites. More and more today, they are passing judgments on their own families and communities.

It must come as a profound relief to them -- indeed, as an "unexpected gift" -- that, at least for the next eight months, they can shovel all the blame onto Barack Obama.

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