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I want to hate Santorum ... but I can't

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
January 10, 2012 -- Updated 2252 GMT (0652 HKT)
GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum arrives for a
GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum arrives for a "Faith, Family and Freedom" town hall in Nashua, New Hampshire.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson: Rick Santorum's anti-gay rhetoric helps create climate of hate
  • He says rhetoric justifies, for some people, acting out against gays
  • Granderson gets angry, but knows Santorum is more than just his rhetoric
  • Granderson: We have to engage with the views of those we disagree with

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com and the 2009 winner of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award for online journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs

(CNN) -- When I was a youth pastor at a small, evangelical church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I used to accompany my pastor and other members of our congregation into some of the city's neighborhoods where gang activity and gun violence were most prevalent.

We would stand on the corner next to the drug dealers and talk to them about why it was important to turn their lives around.

Some would listen.

Others would walk away.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

All gave us respect, even if they didn't agree with what we had to say. And I believe they did so because we respected them. We didn't call them names or discount how they felt. We met them where they were -- literally and figuratively.

In a lot of ways, hearing Rick Santorum talk about social issues, particularly gay rights, reminds me of those days. Like those drug dealers, I'm sure he can't see how he destroys his community. Like those drug dealers, Santorum is probably doing what he thinks he needs to do. And like those drug dealers, what Santorum is pushing is addictive, poisonous and a trigger to violence we see all around us. His anti-gay rhetoric justifies, for some people, the bullying in school, the senseless beatings of people perceived to be gay and the under-reported murders of transgender people. The truth is that the disrespectful tone in which Santorum talks about GLBT people, in the name of religion, gives permission for our lives to be equally disrespected.

Disregarded.

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Sometimes, the impulse is to return the fire, matching name-calling with name-calling. I, too, have found myself so ticked off by Santorum's words that I've called him everything but a child of God. That's when I come to my senses and try to remember the one thing he seems to forget. We're all God's children.

We're all brothers and sisters.

And like brothers and sisters, we won't always agree. Sometimes we will fight. But we can't get so caught up in our disagreements that we forget that what bonds us is far more important than what divides us. Being respectful doesn't mean you have to give up your religion.

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Still, as much as it pains me to admit, Rick Santorum is my brother. I don't support the way he sows seeds of discord for political gain, but I can't allow him to drag me down so far that I hate him. Just as I didn't hate the drug dealers and gang bangers who were poisoning the Kalamazoo neighborhoods.

Instead we all must go to the figurative street corner and find a way to respectfully engage. After all, Santorum's views are not just his. More than 30,000 Iowans last week said they wanted to see him in the White House. This week thousands in New Hampshire might say the same. Calling social conservatives names might help blow off steam, but it's not going to change their hearts. And you cannot change a person's mind without first changing his or her heart.

Some will listen.

Some will walk away.

But neither group is going anywhere without at least getting to the place of respect.

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Now I'm sure some are surprised to learn that I was heavily involved in the evangelical church. Others are shocked to read I lived in a small town called Kalamazoo. But we are all more than we appear to be.

Santorum is more than his homophobic rhetoric.

I am more than a gay guy who opposes it.

And if we were to sit across from each other with a cup of coffee, I'm sure we would find the labels we assign to constituent groups and such wouldn't do any of us justice.

Sound touchy feely?

It is.

But that doesn't mean it isn't true.

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Rick Santorum's significance has nothing to do with the election -- it's that he gives voice and seeming legitimacy to a lot of people who think it's OK to fire someone for being gay. Getting upset by such a notion is natural. Slapping them with a name like bigot is understandable. But then what? Santorum's campaign presents us with the uncomfortable but necessary task of dealing with that question.

Santorum said he would love his son just the same if his son were to tell him he was gay. Whether that's true is debatable, but what isn't debatable is the importance for fair minded people to push for a country where, if Santorum's son were gay, he wouldn't feel society hates him for it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

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