Josh Barro, Anthony Kennedy and the New Liberalism

By Richard Nelson

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July 31, 2014

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New York Times reporter Josh Barro put himself in the news last week by tweeting, “Anti-LGBT attitudes are terrible for people in all sorts of communities. They linger and oppress, and we need to stamp them out, ruthlessly.” His violent rhetoric was the final straw for The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, who canceled his subscription to the paper. Others have parsed and responded to Barro’s extremity. Meanwhile, Barro continues to insist that anyone who disagrees with him on same sex marriage or gay rights issues is beneath respect and basic civility.

Barro is here representing a great change within American liberalism. Liberalism has traditionally meant a widening of cultural and political margins to include that which has heretofore been excluded. “Liberal” has a historic definition that is somewhat synonymous with the word “generous” (that’s why the word “liberality” is used to describe the life of a philanthropist). Liberal politics has traditionally been about change that led to greater inclusion. By contrast, today’s liberalism is trying to build a new Orthodoxy, outside of which are those labeled wicked, dangerous and (increasingly) illegal. Rather than graft in, today’s progressives want to push out.

Those who feel as Josh Barro does would do well to consider the words of Justice Kennedy in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence vs Texas. That was a landmark case that nullified the sodomy laws in 13 states and paved an early path for significant victories for the gay rights movement. Kennedy’s words seem even more poignant given the recent developments within Orthodox Liberalism:

The condemnation [of homosexual behavior] has been shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family. For many persons these are not trivial concerns but profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles to which they aspire and which thus determine the course of their lives. These considerations do not answer the question before us, however. The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law. "Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code…”

My hope is that intellectuals such as Barro embrace Kennedy’s ideals consistently and apply them broadly, not just for the increasingly victorious progressive camp.

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Director, Commonwealth Policy Center