Matthew Yglesias’s “Rob Portman and the Politics of Narcissism” in Slate criticized the Ohio Republican for a “lack of compassion and empathy.” Yglesias asked “if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn't he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don't happen to touch him personally?” What would the senator’s attitude be, Yglesias wondered, if he had a son who was denied health coverage because of a preexisting medical condition? Might that encourage him to change his opinion on Obamacare?
William Saletan responded, again online in Slate, “It isn’t Portman who’s having an empathy problem. It’s his critics.” Saletan does some fancy verbal dodging in his piece, claiming at one point that Portman didn’t endorse discriminatory policies on hiring gays during an interview a year ago -- after learning his son is gay -- but rather “ducked the question.” Ducking doesn’t equal a profile in courage, but Saletan does make some other, more salient points.
Portman’s defenders, including Saletan, are right to note that public attitudes toward same-sex marriage have shifted rapidly in recent years. Certainly, Portman is not alone in having “evolved” on the issue. President Obama -- who as a progressive ought to have moved quicker -- was dilatory on gay marriage, waiting until it was politically safe and moving only after Vice President Biden forced his hand.
Saletan goes beyond the issue of evolving attitudes on gay rights. He says Portman’s critics are “baffled by religion,” unable to accept the senator’s longtime opposition to same-sex marriage as “rooted in my faith tradition.” Saletan also dismisses the analogy to health care reform. “The possibility,” he writes, "that anyone might limit the food-stamp budget or the government’s role in health care for reasons other than indifference—say, a belief in markets or in fiscal self-restraint—goes unmentioned.”
First, religion. Portman’s critics are not “baffled by religion.” Many liberals and progressives attend churches, synagogues, and mosques. Many religious institutions welcome gays and support gay rights.
Citing religion to support a political perspective is dicey. Religion has been used to justify hatred and abominations throughout history. The Crusaders thought they were doing holy work in retaking Jerusalem and butchering the infidel. Millions died during the Thirty Years War which pitted Protestants against Catholics, each convinced they furthered God’s plan. The terrorists of 9/11 went to their deaths convinced they were martyrs engaged in a Holy War.
The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, defends its picketing of military funerals by claiming “God hates fags.” They have a First Amendment right to picket and brandish odious signs, but the rest of us don’t have to give the hate-mongering church a pass on religious grounds. Nor do we have to give a pass to those who justify on religious grounds more genteel forms of discriminating against gays.
None of this is to compare opposition to same-sex marriage to the Crusades or to terrorism or to Westboro, only to point out that religion can be, and has been, a convenient justification.
Pointing to the Bible is even dicier; proponents and opponents of almost anything can cite chapter and verse. Defenders of American slavery in the Nineteenth Century knew their Bible; after the Civil War segregationists had no trouble finding biblical sanction.
The Bible prohibits the wearing of garments of two cloths (Leviticus 19:19), yet not many honor that prohibition today. Exodus 21:7 permits a man to sell his daughter as a slave; fortunately, civil law forbids that practice.
On gay relationships, the Bible does not speak with one voice. Senator Portman indirectly acknowledges biblical confusion when he writes, “Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.”
As for Saletan’s point about opposing Obamacare because of a belief in markets, empathy is precisely the point. If Portman could change his religious opinions when confronted with a gay son, might he change his ideological views, his support of markets, if he were confronted with the problem of a child with a preexisting condition denied medical coverage? Surely, Portman’s defenders don’t want to argue that ideology is more persuasive or deeper rooted than religious beliefs.
Senator Portman faced a difficult decision. He may yet pay a political price for his support of same-sex marriage, though the rapidity with which public opinion on gay rights is changing may make that unlikely. Ultimately, the senator did what any loving parent must do, love his child and support him or her. Many fail even that test; Senator Portman did not.
Yet a question remains: Why did Rob Portman not have empathy and compassion for the millions of other gay children and their parents?
Before, that is, he spoke with his son.