The Magazine

Liberal Dogmatism

How a far-out idea becomes orthodox.

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By EDWARD ALEXANDER
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In his dissent from the Supreme Court’s recent overthrow of the Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Antonin Scalia observed that the majority opinion accused the Congress and president who had enacted this law not merely of exceeding their powers but of spreading malice, encouraging stigmatization, and—above all—denying equality. “It is one thing,” wrote Scalia, “for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race.” 

What would Arnold say?

The triumphant campaign for gay marriage (and gay adoption) had swept all before it, once Vice President Biden forced President Obama to accelerate his “evolution” from the traditional (for most of human history) understanding of marriage as a heterosexual institution to endorsement of same-sex unions. The campaign had been conducted on the lowest possible intellectual level, i.e., that of “equal rights” for all people who love each other. But do any two heterosexual people in love have a “right” to marry? Suppose one of them is already married? Suppose one of them is the child of the other? Sloganeering, however, was the order of the day, and it has carried the day, not only in the left wing of the Democratic party but in one state after another, sometimes in the courts, and sometimes (as in the state of Washington) in the legislatures.

Even the IRS got into the act. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan revealed that one of the chief victims
of that agency’s discrimination against “conservative” groups was the National Organization for Marriage, whose cardinal principle is affirmation of heterosexual monogamy. Apparently denial of the collective mind and common experience of most of the human race is now liberal orthodoxy. It was as if mankind knew nothing until liberal reformers taught it to them; until, that is, about 10 minutes ago in historical time, when the brand-new dispensation became unquestionable truth. So rapidly did the new dogma become rooted in the liberal mind that there was a genuine innocence in the irate denial by Lois Lerner, chief of the tax-exemption unit, and her IRS colleagues that they’d done “anything wrong” in punishing troglodytes still in thrall to the Genesis view of these matters: “Male and female created He them.” 

Some state legislators, who know how fast liberal dogmatism gives rise to liberal dictate, began scurrying about looking for ways to protect unconverted clergymen from being prosecuted for objecting to gay marriage from their pulpits, or adoption agencies from being accused of civil rights violations for requiring both a father and a mother for their wards. Fox News reported in mid-July that a 27-year veteran of the Utah Air National Guard who objected in a private email to a same-sex ceremony being held in the Cadet Chapel at West Point was treated as if he had incited mutiny. He was officially reprimanded and had his six-year reenlistment contract reduced by five years. No doubt the busy virtuosi of campus speech codes establishing “verbal abuse” policies to protect “diversity”—but not, it seems, la différence—are now hard at work incorporating “same-sex marriage” into the body of infallible doctrine that is never to be called into question at a university.

Did I say liberal dogmatism? Surely that is a contradiction in terms. The usually astute John Henry Newman, after all, declared in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) that liberalism was “the anti-dogmatic principle.” And Newman’s long struggle against the liberal (or “Protestant”) branch of the Church of England (which he would leave for Rome in 1845) demonstrated and documented this. But as he added in a note dated 1865, “Merely to call [liberalism] the anti-dogmatic principle is to tell very little about it.”

More could have been told by Newman’s adversaries, the leading Victorian liberals themselves, who often sensed within their own most cherished doctrine the seed of its eventual undoing. Take John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty was published five years before Newman made his remarks and was almost certainly in Newman’s mind when he espoused the doctrine of infallibility (of the Roman church, not the pope) in Chapter Five of the Apologia. Mill had relentlessly argued in On Liberty that “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility,” and “there is no such thing as absolute certainty.”

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