What did we ever do to you?

A commenter on this blog recently took me to task for using the term “social conservative” and he had a point. People to whom we commonly apply that label aren’t “conserving” anything except repression, senseless stubbornness, and know-nothingness.

The phenomenon of social issues as political footballs swims back out of the murk with Newt Gingrich’s big victory in the South Carolina primary just after his ex-wife’s supposedly shocking claim that he’d requested an open marriage. In exit polls, married voters chose Gingrich in similar proportions as did single voters; it seems his marital challenges had no effect in South Carolina, a state with many “socially conservative” so-called “family values” voters. (There I go again. OK, let’s come up with a new term. Instead of socially conservative, how about “socially blinkered?”)

Mitt Romney, the man who up until a short time ago was expected to win the South Carolina primary, adheres to a religion which just a few generations ago believed strongly in plural marriage. Polls have revealed a “discomfort” among evangelicals with the idea of a Mormon President, and the Mormon history with polygamy is surely part of the underlying reason. Plural marriage is moral anathema not only to most observant Christians but generally to even the most progressive advocates of marriage equality, many of whom are non-religious. Whatever our political persuasion, just about all of us in the West take for granted that marriage should be between one person and one person.

Doesn’t it seem arbitrary that progressives should be so gung-ho to grant gays the same rights as straight people, yet happy to go along forbidding plural marriage?

Isn’t it inconsistent that we want to expand the definition of marriage to include homosexual couples yet we feel scandalized when a politician is said to have wanted an “open marriage?”

The problem is summed up in a simple question: How is a Gingrich marriage our business in the first place?

Culture defines what’s ethical and moral. It’s fairly well tolerated for male politicians in France to have mistresses, but not in America. It’s fine in some Muslim cultures for a man to have several wives, but in Christian or Jewish settings it isn’t. In some U.S. communities, most people smile on same-sex marriage; in others, most don’t.

In matters like these, each one of us has to draw his or her own ethical lines and be aware that we’ve drawn them, rather than blindly following the dictates of tradition. Equally important, each of us, when it comes to the personal choices others make, should mind our own business. Newt Gingrich may be extremely artful at avoiding answering questions, but he’s absolutely right to take the news media to task for focusing on his past personal life. People need to take off their social blinkers and accept that we live in a heterogeneous world.