03/19/2013 07:35 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

Rob Portman and the Road to (Gay) Damascus

So Sen. Rob Portman's had a revelation about same-sex marriage.
The Ohio Republican, on the list last year of potential running mates for Mitt Romney, has come around to thinking that gay couples ought to have the opportunity "to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years."

Portman joins a growing line of conservative elder statesmen -- Dick Cheney and former GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman among them -- who have come to embrace the idea that same-sex couples ought to have the same rights as heterosexual couples to marry, some going as far as acknowledging marriage -- any marriage -- as an essentially "conservative" institution. A momentous step. The tide of history shifts. Progress!

Well, while a step in the right direction is always a step in the right direction, I'm not ready to call Portman a hero of the cause and I'm not getting my hopes up that the floodgates of acceptance will now open.

Support of gay marriage is clearly gaining traction, especially among younger conservatives. So why not get excited about this supposed philosophical shift among the erstwhile leaders of the party?

Because it's not really a fundamental philosophical shift. In truth, while the leadership of Portman and others on this issue may benefit a small portion of the population that has been denied -- and is due -- equality, the motivation for the "evolution" of their views is, as with the rest of their views on how we as a society ought to operate, essentially one of self interest.

Portman and Cheney came around not because they believed in their souls that it was right or just to embrace marriage equality, but because they had gay kids. It directly impacted their families, their lives. Mehlman came around because, well, he's gay. Doesn't get more personal than that.

The idea that if those who oppose same-sex marriage actually got to know gay couples they'd come around to accepting it is part of any number of campaigns to advance marriage equality. It makes sense -- it's hard to be sacred of, prejudiced against or freaked out by your neighbor if you spend a little time getting to know them and perhaps grow to like and respect them. The truth is, we all really want the same thing: a safe, clean environment in which to live, a decent job so we can support our families, good schools, healthy food. Black, white; Muslim, Christian, Jew; straight, gay.

So I'm glad there are more voices of influence coming around to the right side of this issue. The tide of history is on the side of marriage equality and the faster it gains acceptance the better.

But forgive me for not getting all wound up about a growing shift in views on this at the ossified top of the Republican party. There really is no shift.

It's already been argued that gay marriage is a conservative value, so that really wasn't a big philosophical hurdle to overcome. And therein lies the problem. It's really more of the same: there is a policy that affects me in a negative way, I am unhappy about that and it needs to change. It's not truly a question of what's right, what benefits our greater society. Portman, Cheney, Mehlman and their ilk haven't changed their stripes. They won't extend this newfound openness and inclusiveness to other issues because their views on marriage equality are not really about other people: it's about them.

If they'd been able to embrace same-sex marriage because it's the right thing to do, there might be a chance that issues like poverty, access to health care, the environment and public education -- all things that affect how our society functions, how we engage each other civilly and the kind of future we hand our kids and grandkids -- might actually get addressed in a thoughtful way.

But they won't, at least not from a GOP that still prizes an individual's responsibility to the individual rather than to society.

To hold that our responsibilities are narrowly constrained to our families, our neighbors or our clans is an inherently selfish view that does not bode well for our long-term success of our society. It's fine to look back on the halcyon days when people sat on porches at night and watched out for each other. But that America is gone, and while some things have been lost in the transition to a modern society, truth is we are a far more diverse, interesting and progressive place with far greater opportunity and far less discrimination than we had even 40 years ago.

Yet there is still much to be done.

And that is why Portman's conversion on this issue feels hollow.

"I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister," Portman wrote of his feelings since finding out two years ago that his son was gay. "Ultimately, it came down to the Bible's overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God."

The question is why Portman -- and so many others -- choose to avoid that aspect of their holy books and prefer to use them as a bludgeon for bending others to their will.

If that's truly the reason, if faith gets in the way, perhaps more people should read Matthew -- "He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" -- and use their faith as a roadmap for handling our interactions with our brothers and sisters with kindness and compassion.