A friend pointed out that a lot of the discomfort surrounding McDonnell’s thesis comes from its arcane terminology – words like “fornicator” and “homosexual” are less common nowadays and suggest some distasteful religious overtones. My friend went on to argue that this has turned a fairly anodyne statement of socially conservative principles into a lightning rod for political criticism, which is unfair because McDonnell was a) writing for an extremely conservative audience at Regent University in the late 1980s and b) hasn’t exactly been hiding his views on cultural issues since then.
I’m less willing to excuse McDonnell for “playing to his audience” – if you decide to relocate your entire family to attend an institution founded by Pat Robertson, you probably know what you’re getting into – but the argument about McDonnell’s language is worth considering.
When you strip away all the weird-sounding terminology, the only thing that really separates McDonnell’s thesis from bog-standard social conservatism is his outspoken opposition to women in the workplace and his enthusiasm for stigmatizing gays. These views would make me think twice about voting for the guy, but on both counts McDonnell has a pretty plausible basis for the “changed my mind” defense: his wife works outside the home, his 2005 campaign was run by a woman, and McDonnell now says he opposes sexual discrimination in the workplace.
None of this is to suggest that McDonnell is a closeted liberal. But absent some contradictory evidence, I think he probably changed his mind on some issues since 1989. And aside from the creepy word choice, it’s worth noting that most of McDonnell’s thesis falls well within the socially conservative mainstream. If you’re not a social conservative, you may not want to vote for him (I plan to continue my unbroken streak of skipping every election out of sheer laziness to signify my opposition to the state’s coercive power), but I don’t think an old thesis reveals McDonnell’s secret theocratic tendencies.