WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has enjoyed a reputation for years as, among other things, a prudent and ringwise politician. But that reputation is clearly in peril after his baffling decision to make a public attack on homosexuals.
Mr. Lott deserves to be taken at his word when he says he considers homosexuality a sin and a condition that can be corrected, such as alcoholism, kleptomania and sexual addiction. There is a mountain of evidence his comparisons do not make sense, but if that's what he wants to believe, so be it. He is, as they say, entitled.
The majority leader's decision to express this line publicly, however, is the kind of political blunder most damaging to the Republican Party today. It emphasizes what the party would like to paper over -- the huge fault line that has developed between religious fundamentalists and more conventional conservatives.
And if Mr. Lott's political clumsiness were not enough to make the point, House Majority Leader Dick Armey quickly reinforced it. "The Bible is very clear on this," he told reporters, then adding that "both myself and Senator Lott believe very strongly in the Bible."
Government and morality
The political issue, however, is not whether homosexuality is a sin according to the Bible, but whether government leaders have the right to define sin and morality for Americans. That is not what they are elected to do. And a great many Republicans, as well as independents and Democrats, already have shown they don't want someone else's idea of "family values" imposed on them.
Homosexual rights are second only to abortion rights on the list of targets of the religious right that have become such an important influence in the Republican Party. Leaders of Christian fundamentalist groups have made it clear they will not accept a Republican nominee for president in 2000 who does not share their views. They proved in New Jersey last year they are willing to defect even if they put a Republican incumbent in jeopardy, as they did when many walked away from Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
This split over social issues has been more responsible than any other factor for the loss of support Republican candidates have enjoyed among voters who are as conservative by traditional measure -- on issues such as taxes and welfare reform, for example -- but are unwilling to accept extremism on moral questions.
Split in the party
The defections were most glaringly apparent among suburban voters in the Northeast and Midwest in the 1996 election.
When chided by the White House, Mr. Lott replied through a spokesperson that the majority leader's views are shared by "the great majority of Americans." And opinion polls do indeed show that Americans by almost 2-1 consider homosexuality a sin.
As a matter of practical politics, nonetheless, Mr. Lott would be making another mistake by relying on those findings. Agreeing that something is a sin is one thing and believing that it is the role of political leaders to make that finding is quite another. Moreover, clearly many Americans disapprove of homosexuality but don't want the government adopting policies hostile to gays. It should not be forgotten that a great many people have friends or relatives who are homosexual.
The uneasiness of other Republicans about the issue has been apparent in the way some of Lott's colleagues danced around the question after the controversy arose. This was a topic they would just as soon avoid, although they didn't want to embarrass the popular Mr. Lott.
The Republican Party cannot duck these questions. The religious right is going to demand that the party platform oppose abortion rights and homosexual rights and that the party's standardbearers share that view. If that eliminates some of the party's brightest lights, too bad because they are on the "wrong" side of these questions.
Mr. Lott has made it clear he is on the "right" side to please the social conservatives. It would be hard to argue, however, that he is on the smart side.
RTC Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 6/19/98