Rick Santorum is a bigot. And, like others bigots before him, he seeks to promote his views be claiming the American people face “threats” that do not exist.

Santorum, the Pennsylvanian who chairs the Senate Republican Caucus, is blatant about his bigotry. Unlike former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, who got in trouble for praising Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat presidential campaign of 1948, Santorum was talking about the here and now when he objected to efforts to strike down sodomy laws because he opposes lifting criminal sanctions against gay and lesbian relationships. To this senator’s view, gays and lesbians who engage in consensual, monogomous and loving relationships “undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family.”

Just as Santorum is blatant about his bigotry, he is equally blatant in his fearmongering, arguing that, “(If) the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does.”

Santorum told an Associated Press reporter that respecting the rights of adult citizens to engage in loving, respectful relationships is wrong because such a stance “destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that’s antithetical to strong healthy families. Whether it’s polygamy, whether it’s adultery, where it’s sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.”

Wrong as he may be, Santorum has a right to his point of view — just as people have a right to believe in trickle-down economics and other dangerous fallacies. But Santorum has no right to have his retrograde viewpoints treated with respect. To do so would be to legitimize the bigotry that has eaten away at his ability to recognize — or, at least, respect — reality.

Charges that striking down laws that criminalize same-sex relationships will eliminate restrictions on incest and polygamy used to heard quite frequently from politicians who sought votes by pitting groups against one another. But even on the right-wing of the political spectrum, such talk has become less common in recent years. Why? Because states across the country have been striking down sodomy laws for more than 40 years, without weakening laws against incest and polygamy.

Twenty-six states have repealed sodomy laws since Illinois began the trend in 1962. The courts have struck down sodomy laws in nine more states.

More than two dozen states have passed laws barring different forms of discrimination against gays and lesbians since Wisconsin did so in 1982. Hundreds of communities have done the same. The courts have upheld these moves, while continuing to recoginize the ability of states and communities to impose sanctions against incest, polygamy and other behaviors on Santorum’s list.

So the senator is wrong. And, because of his prominent position and history of dealing with social issues as the fair-haired boy of the Republican right, it is fair to assume that he knows better. So it is certainly reasonable to assume that Santorum is motivated not by genuine concern about the spread of polygamy but by his bigotry against lesbians and gays.

Fair enough. There are plenty of bigots in politics. And, in this democracy, voters are permitted to elect them.

However, voters are also permitted to ask whether Santorum speaks for the Republican Party. He is, after all, the chair of the party’s caucus in the upper house of the Congress.

Two prominent Republican moderates have been appropriately critical of Santorum. “Discrimination and bigotry have no place in our society, and I believe Senator Santorum’s unfortunate remarks undermine Republican principles of inclusion and opportunity,” says Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-Rhode Island, says that, “I thought his choice of comparisons was unfortunate and the premise that the right of privacy does not exist — just plain wrong. Senator Santorum’s views are not held by this Republican and many others in our party.”

But is Chafee right? Is Santorum the one who stands outside the GOP mainstream? So far, the nation’s leading Republican is refusing to comment on the Santorum flap. The Bush White House is officially silent. Most leading Republicans in Congress have also gone uncharacteristically mum — though, in some cases, they are actually defending Santorum. The man who replaced Lott, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, has gone so far as to claim that Santorum is “a consistent voice for inclusion and compassion in the Republican Party.”

So where does the Grand Old Party stand? Exactly how big is the big tent? The moment demands some clarification, and Republicans have a model for how to approach such a circumstance.

When Trent Lott made statements that seemed to suggest a sympathy for the racist bigotries of the 1940s, President Bush and his aides were quick to distance themselves from that senator’s sentiments. So too were a number of prominent conservative Republicans in the Senate. Bush and other party leaders ought to do the same with regard to Santorum, unless, of course, they share his point of view.