Just because things can be put on the same list doesn't mean they are necessarily similar. My attic contains within it thousands of comic books, an inflatable bed, some jigsaw puzzles, some family pictures and a "Frampton Comes Alive!" album. These things are, roughly speaking, in the same location, but they're hardly of equal value, importance or function.
I bring this up for the simple reason that we're hearing a lot about how the GOP must deal with "abortion and gay marriage" as if they are almost the same issue.
I think some liberals and some conservatives like to lump all social issues together, at least in part because they find their opponents' positions on them so unfathomable. It's like if an alien showed you a fnerk, a thrampahorn and a zizzenbozzle you'd be forgiven for assuming they're all somehow related to each other.
In fact, for a long time the shorthand for social issues was "God, guns and gays." And a lot of analysts thought they would move all together. It turns out that various social issues stand or fall on their own.
If you'd predicted in the late 1980s that the country would become more pro-life, more pro-gun and more pro-gay the experts would've laughed at you. It drives some older liberals crazy that some young liberals are insufficiently pro-choice and it vexes some older conservatives that some young conservatives are insufficiently anti-gay marriage.
I myself have grown both more pro-life and more sympathetic to gay marriage.
I've been in favor of civil unions for more than a decade -- back when it was considered a left-wing position, not a fallback right-wing one. And I'd probably still prefer civil unions if we had settled on some arrangement that conferred the economic and legal benefits of traditional marriage without calling it marriage. Still, gays have an entirely understandable reluctance to settle for that and, besides, I think the argument over whether or not to call civil unions marriage has been all but lost, though there's a glimmer of hope the decision might eventually be left to the states (which I favor).
As for abortion, my migration has less to do with religious arguments and more to do with my growing distrust of the government. Who is and who isn't a human being with unalienable rights is just about the biggest question there is. And just because the answer is usually obvious -- that guy, not that fly -- only makes it more important.
The government has an obligation to protect the life and liberty of the subset of human beings we call "Americans." If you commit a crime that obligation changes, of course, since the government also has an obligation to protect the rest of us from those who would do us harm.
Well, I consider a fetus a human being. It has done no harm, nor has it committed a crime punishable by death. More important, I don't like it when governments start getting clever about who counts as full human beings and who doesn't (See: Slavery, U.S., or Holocaust, Nazi). There are few areas where a bright line is more vital or necessary. (I'd bet it won't be very long before science is able to tell us whether some fetuses will grow up to be gay or not. The politics of abortion will suddenly get more interesting, I suspect.)
But once you're born, and -- hopefully -- properly raised, the government's chief obligation is to stay out of your way -- whether you're straight or gay -- so you can pursue happiness as you define it -- not how, say, Michael Bloomberg or Pat Robertson define it.
Which brings me back to gay marriage. Opponents of same-sex marriage insist gays have the same right to marry a person of the opposite sex as anyone else. It's a clever line, but it overlooks the fact that romantic love has been the paramount reason for marriage for quite some time. Telling people they're free to be unhappy isn't all that persuasive.
The whole point of the American way is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So, come to think of it, maybe gay marriage and abortion have more in common than I thought.
(Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com.)