Last week, Republicans half a world apart (in more ways than one) showed us the difference between rational, reasoned political thought and unthinking absolutism. In Israel, on the 60th anniversary of that nation’s founding, George W. Bush removed his drool cup just long enough to read a speech equating the diplomatic initiatives favored by Barack Obama with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938. Meanwhile, in California, the Republican-appointed chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court used a close and nuanced reading of the state constitution to overcome his own reservations, and wound up serving as the swing vote in a 4-3 decision that overturned the state’s ban on marriage rights for gays and lesbians. That same day, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, also a Republican, said he wouldn’t fight the ruling or support a constitutional amendment that would restore the ban.

This column isn’t about Iran or Obama, so let’s jettison that topic by noting that Bush, like that dope on “Hardball” last week, probably couldn’t pass a pop quiz about 1930s Europe, and almost certainly couldn’t tell you where the Sudetenland is. There is, however, a point to make about tossing around references to Hitler, particularly in Israel. (For Bush to have introduced Hitler into the U.S. presidential campaign in mid-May is like pulling out a “yo momma” insult too early while doin’ the dozens.) Nazi references are a surefire way to cut short a debate, rather than resolve it; they tend to eliminate the potential for rational disagreement, and lead to bouts of outraged name-calling, as we saw last week.

I bring this up because the debate over gay marriage too often begins and ends with this sort of name-calling. Proponents of gay rights are viewed by conservative Christians as “sodomites” who are acting “against God’s will” and are surely “doomed to hellfire.” Opponents of gay marriage are “bigots” who are “on the wrong side of history” and will someday find themselves “in the dustbin of history with Bull Connor” – and even, yes, Hitler. Both sets of characterizations are intended to disparage the morality, even the humanity, of the opposing side – and while they are a natural temptation, they serve only to stifle the debate rather than move it in one direction or the other.

I learned this four years ago, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned that state’s ban on gay marriage and I found myself engaged in an e-mail colloquy of sorts with a friend-of-a-friend who – to his credit – refused to let me get away with just such language. I had gotten my dander up in response to one of those nonsensical Republican e-mail chains that had polygamists, brothers and pets lining up to get married, and I had ranted: “Strom Thurmond and George Wallace and Father Coughlin and Adolf Hitler thought they were on the side of the angels, just like Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Robertson and George W. Bush do today. History is moving forward, and you’re either on the right side of it or the wrong side. This gay-marriage genie is already out of the bottle, and it’s not going back in. 2004 is to gay marriage what 1964 was to civil rights, and you’re either Martin Luther King or Bull Connor.”

Of course, under that insulting analogy there were apparently a lot of Bull Connors around in 2004, turning out in droves to vote against gay marriage (and in the process going a long way toward putting Bush back in the White House). Nevertheless, my friend’s friend immediately called me out. “Instead of discussing the issue,” he wrote, “you are trying to make your point by saying those who don’t agree with your opinion (whatever it is) should agree, because if we don’t we are bad people suppressing a minority. I would be very interested in hearing your arguments for gay marriage, and why you feel it is an important concept, but I’m not interested in being told I’m a bad person.”

He was absolutely right. Sometimes, simply believing that your position is the right, moral and just one is not enough. The good news is, there are plenty of logical reasons why gay marriage is not only an “important concept,” but vital to our nation’s continued march toward becoming a “more perfect union.” Here goes:

The founding fathers, despite their acceptance of 18th-century societal “norms” regarding slavery and the rights of women, set up America’s civil society with the ideal of recognizing each individual’s rights equally, and as time goes on we get closer and closer to that ideal. As it pertains to gay marriage, our basic problem is the fact that our modern definition of marriage is really a two-part equation. It’s a religious tradition – a practically universal one among faiths worldwide – that conforms to formal strictures beginning with a “sacrament” and continuing with a variety of moral boundaries (no adultery, “til death do us part” and all that). Of course, the sacrament of marriage long ago stopped depending exclusively upon religion for legitimacy; any Vegas wedding-chapel Elvis can tell you that.

However, marriage is at the same time a state-sanctioned (indeed, state-licensed) union that entitles those who enter into it to more than 1,000 federally recognized benefits, in addition to those offered by banks, libraries, and other private and public institutions. And currently, in 48 states at least, marriage is a right that is granted to people of one sexual orientation but not to the other, thereby excluding gays from all those benefits. From a civil-libertarian standpoint, this situation is untenable. The state simply cannot bestow rights upon one group of citizens that it does not give to all. It’s discrimination, pure and simple, and contradicts the values of liberty and prosperity upon which the nation was founded.

So what we have here, in black and white, is the very definition of a church-state contradiction. Churches cannot and should not be forced to bless or recognize the marriage of anyone they choose to exclude; they’re not public institutions with legal obligations (unless you consider that pesky matter of tax exemptions and the responsibilities they confer), and they’re entitled to exclude anyone they want. If members of a particular church can live with the discriminatory beliefs and practices they’ve signed on to, then so be it.

However, the federal government cannot be exclusionary in the same way, even if it is acting on behalf of a majority of citizens who hold such beliefs. The principles of equality and freedom are right there in the Constitution, front and center, and as we move closer to that more perfect union, the laws and policies that institutionalize old prejudices must inevitably fall away. If they don’t, we’ll eventually reach a point at which our “American experiment” has reached its logical conclusion, and we’ll remember it as a near-miss in mankind’s attempt to achieve equality for all.

So, then, what’s the solution to the church-state conundrum? Must the state, in the name of equality, give up the power to license and recognize “marriages,” settling instead for recognizing “unions” for both gays and straights? If we do that, then is “marriage” a status reserved for church members, thus excluding from the institution not only the fraction of the population that is gay, but also the growing percentage of married couples (like my wife and myself) who were not married in a church and/or are generally “unchurched”? And what, in that circumstance, would define a “church”? Would Elvis wedding chapels qualify?

I don’t think any of that is necessary. It is entirely appropriate for the state to define marriage broadly, while various religious faiths define it however narrowly they want; after all, the Catholic church (for one) already forbids some things that the government not only supports, but funds (family planning, for instance). As for individual beliefs… well, there’s no law against bigotry, and there can’t be. So, must all those who stand against gay marriage on moral grounds change their position? No. Must they, as citizens of a free society, stand aside and allow their fellow citizens to exert their inalienable rights as freely as they themselves can? Yes.

I don’t expect a lot of discussion at this level during the fall campaign, as Californians will inevitably consider their own constitutional amendment defining (sorry – “defending”) marriage as an institution limited to “one man and one woman.” Barack and Hillary offered up the typical coward’s response to last week’s ruling, refusing to support or reject it while repeating their approval of “civil unions.” As California’s religious conservatives try to write their morals (it took great restraint not to type “bigotry”) into one more state’s constitution – and as national Republicans once again try to use the threat of gay marriage as a bludgeon to separate Christians from Democrats – we’ll no doubt hear lots of references to Sodom and Communism and, yes, Bull Connor and Hitler. Maybe someday we’ll have the real debate in public.