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Progressive Morality Sneaking Up on Us

by James Bowman

Posted: Feb 24, 2011 09:51 PM

The unconscious humor of the New York Times headline to its editorial welcoming the decision of the Obama justice department to defend no longer the Defense of Marriage Act cannot go unnoticed. "Mr. Obama Moves Against Bias," it read — which might move alert readers (or even dozy ones) to ask: so he was a bigot beforehand? During his political career the President has been on both sides of the DOMA, and he has more recently pronounced himself to be opposed both to the law and to gay marriage. Obviously, he is having difficulties making up his mind, though his "constantly evolving" opinions on the matter seem to correlate rather well with public opinion polling. Yet many of those with whom he has now chosen to ally himself in defiance of his constitutional duty to enforce the law treat the subject that he finds so murky as if it were as clear as a cloudless sky. Like The New York Times editorial writers, that is, they think that only bigots can continue to believe, as unnumbered generations of humankind have believed, in traditional marriage.

Nothing better demonstrates the absurdity of the left’s recent tendency — also on display in Wisconsin at the moment along with its unfortunate consequences for democracy and civility — to moralize political differences. Perhaps Mr Obama’s disagreement with gay marriage can be reduced, like that of certain "pro-choice" Catholic Democrats, to being "personally opposed" while upholding what they personally oppose as a legal right — even when it’s not. Or not yet. But it is absurd to give a pass to favored politicians on matters deemed to be moral matters while those with different legal philosophies but exactly the same moral views are denounced as bigots. If, like so many other things, gay marriage is now to be considered a moral rather than a political matter, then those who oppose it for any reason must be equally immoral.

By contrast, the Washington Post editorial is headed "President Obama’s risky rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act." Though the writer also regards the DOMA as "hateful," he or she notes that

the Justice Department is institutionally tasked with defending duly enacted congressional legislation. This does not mean that Justice Department officials must believe in the wisdom of the law or its policy implications, only that there are good-faith and reasonable arguments to be made in its defense. It is, in short, a very low bar.

The editorialist’s moral principles are trumped by worries that a future Republican administration might similarly take it upon itself to decide that Obamacare was unconstitutional. Better, thinks the Post, to look to the example of the defense by George W. Bush’s solicitor general, Theodore Olson, of a campaign finance law he would personally have opposed. Of course, Mr Olson is now busily arguing the case against California’s Proposition 8, which also seeks to defend traditional marriage, so anything is possible.

Behind all such controversy lies the progressive mind-set and the peculiar, Marxist-derived idea of "history" as having a "side" — or, as is now more usual, two of them, a right side and a wrong side. Thus Fred Karger in today’s Guardian writes: "I welcome President Obama to right side of history in our fight for full equality and equal protection for all Americans." Perhaps by this logic, you can say that it is OK to hold unprogressive views up until a certain date in history, after which they become bigotry and hatred. Thus the slave-owners Washington and Jefferson could be said to remain on the right side of the historical watershed that has, since their time, made slave-owning one of the worst of crimes. The question then becomes, at what precise date do you really become a bigot if you oppose gay marriage? I think maybe we’ve reached it.

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