As with the “would you attend a gay wedding? question, I can’t tell how much I should be surprised by Republican pols’ answers to LGBT-themed questions anymore. Policy responses are easy: If you’re running for president, you oppose legalizing gay marriage and strongly, strongly support exceptions to antidiscrimination laws for business owners who refuse to cater gay weddings on religious grounds. Beyond that, once you stray from policy to personal relations with gay/transgender people, things get more complicated and unpredictable. (Which, actually, is why gay-rights activists encourage people to come out. Polls show that people who know someone who’s gay tend are more likely to support pro-gay policies. In this case, the personal really is political.) Santorum’s a classic example. He’s the only man in the field so far who’s said he wouldn’t attend the wedding of a gay friend or family member if invited, the answer you’d expect from one of America’s most outspoken social cons. He understands that the personal is political. How could he, as a devout Catholic, tacitly support a ceremony which his faith says is sacred and reserved for one man and one woman by attending?

Marriage is part of the natural order, ordained by God. So are the two genders, which explains why Santorum’s strikingly nonjudgmental about Bruce Jenner’s transformation from a man into a woman. Wait, what?

“If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman,” Santorum, who is weighing running for president again in 2016, said in response to a question from BuzzFeed News during a roundtable with reporters at the South Carolina Republican Party’s convention. “My responsibility as a human being is to love and accept everybody. Not to criticize people for who they are. I can criticize, and I do, for what people do, for their behavior. But as far as for who they are, you have to respect everybody, and these are obviously complex issues for businesses, for society, and I think we have to look at it in a way that is compassionate and respectful of everybody.”

“So these are tough issues. I haven’t got into the whole issue, and I don’t think the federal government should get into the whole issue of bathrooms,” Santorum said after being asked whether he thinks Jenner should be able to use women’s public restrooms. “I think those are things that the business community and local agencies and organizations should deal with.”

He’s not alone. “The conservative response to Jenner is somewhere between an embrace and a shrug,” writes Dave Weigel.

“What he is going through, I can’t imagine or relate to, but I know from just the look and the sound and the voice that it must have been hell,” [Lindsey] Graham told Bloomberg. “We’ve got an opportunity here to grow the party, and that doesn’t mean abandoning the basic principles. I’m looking for consensus. I’m looking for people that would help me take the country in a new direction. That group is going to have to be more diverse.”

Did Graham think that Jenner really was born to be a woman? “I can only say that it is clear he is a tortured soul,” Graham said. “If he can find relief, and a better life, god bless.”

Acceptance of Jenner is being aided by the fact that he outed himself as a Republican in the same interview that he outed himself as transgender, but that can’t explain all of the warm-ish reception he’s gotten from top GOPers. I thought he’d be received with pity, if not quite sympathy — e.g., “My prayers are with Bruce Jenner, who’s obviously suffering from a profound mental illness.” Graham’s comments flirt with that but don’t go that far; he’s endorsing the gender switch, not psychiatric treatment, as a solution to Jenner’s problem. I also thought there’d be a firm insistence among Republicans that, whatever he may believe about the “real me,” Jenner’s a man and will remain a man no matter how many dresses he tried on because biology is what it is. Kevin Williamson made both arguments in his famous column last year about actor Laverne Cox:

Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman. Sex is a biological reality, and it is not subordinate to subjective impressions, no matter how intense those impressions are, how sincerely they are held, or how painful they make facing the biological facts of life. No hormone injection or surgical mutilation is sufficient to change that.

Genital amputation and mutilation is the extreme expression of the phenomenon, but it is hardly outside the mainstream of contemporary medical practice. The trans self-conception, if the autobiographical literature is any guide, is partly a feeling that one should be living one’s life as a member of the opposite sex and partly a delusion that one is in fact a member of the opposite sex at some level of reality that transcends the biological facts in question. There are many possible therapeutic responses to that condition, but the offer to amputate healthy organs in the service of a delusional tendency is the moral equivalent of meeting a man who believes he is Jesus and inquiring as to whether his insurance plan covers crucifixion.

I would have bet that Santorum would say the same thing when asked and I would have lost that bet. In fact, the most shocking line from Santorum’s answer isn’t the one about loving and accepting everybody, a claim that had lefties scratching their heads this weekend given his past comments about gays but which jibes with hating the sin and loving the sinner. The shocking line is “If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman.” Didn’t God say Jenner was a man? If not, why’d he give him the wrong plumbing? And how far does this “you are what you say you are” principle extend? Also, how does this square with the traditionalist view that sexual orientation is fundamentally a choice, not a matter of hardwiring? If it’s fair to expect people who feel attracted to the same sex to resist their urges and “choose” the opposite sex, it should, I would think, be fair to demand that Jenner resist his urges and choose masculinity. Instead, “if he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman.” Wow.

Maybe this is just Santorum’s version of a strategic retreat in the culture wars. The whole reason that religious-liberty exceptions to antidiscrimination laws are now a hot issue on the right is because gay-rights activists have won the cultural debate. The issue is no longer whether there’s space for gays in mainstream America, it’s whether there’s space for Christian business owners who aren’t onboard the gay-marriage express. Santorum’s view, that what Jenner does (and what businesses do to accommodate people like him) is his business, basically trades mainstream acceptance of LGBT people for the government staying out of this to whatever extent possible. It’s more of a defensive social-con position than an offensive one. Curious to see if that extends to other subject at the primary debates.