Can people respect each other and treat one another civilly even while disagreeing about marriage? No, according to New York Times domestic correspondent Josh Barro. As The Daily Signal reported, on viewpoints that Barro considers “anti-LGBT”, he thinks that “we need to stamp them out, ruthlessly.”

The problem is that much of what Barro considers “anti-LGBT” is simply pro-marriage and pro-common-good.

Over the weekend, Barro replied to a tweet I sent out. Below are some of the exchanges. You can read all of them on my twitter page.

Leave aside the dismissive way he refers to policy arguments for why marriage should be the union of a man and woman as “anti-gay” (much like liberals deride pro-lifers as “anti-choice” and welfare reformers as “anti-poor”). The larger problem is that one of the country’s leading policy wonks and correspondent for The New York Times thinks that some people are “unworthy of respect.” Not that some ideas are unworthy of respect, but that the people are.

Next, consider how shallow Barro’s thinking about marriage policy is. Picking up the thread from the beginning but following a different branch:


The reference in the tweet above to Justice Samuel Alito is to the opinion he wrote in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) case. As Alito explained there, and as I’ve explain in the book I co-authored (which Alito cited twice), in my Supreme Court amicus brief, and in various and sundry policy papers for Heritage, our current marriage debate is a debate over what marriage is, why marriage matters, and what the consequences will be if we redefine marriage. Appeals to equality get us nowhere unless we can answer the fundamental question.

Some people think marriage is primarily an emotional union of two (or more?) adults in a loving care-giving relationship. Others see marriage as a comprehensive union of sexually complementary spouses in a two-in-one-flesh bond, a union of man and woman, husband and wife, father and mother. Our debates are over which understanding is correct, which understanding best serves the political common good.

As I explained in my lecture at Stanford University, a comprehensive union capable of uniting children with their mom and dad is something only a man and a woman can form. So enacting same-sex marriage would not expand the institution of marriage, but redefine it. Finishing what policies like no-fault divorce began, it would finally replace the conjugal view with a revisionist view of marriage as fundamentally an emotional union. This would multiply the marriage revolution’s harms, making them harder than ever to reverse. This particular line of thought continued, with Barro’s New York Times colleague, the columnist Ross Douthat, joining in:

Indeed, if the law redefines marriage to say it is about consenting adult romance and caregiving, what principle would govern the contours of marriage policy? Can’t three people form such a union, so that if you sue for marriage equality for the same-sex couple, why would you deny such equality to the throuple? And how about those who desire a “wedlease” instead of “wedlock.” These are the sorts of consequences that result once you abandon the natural law understanding of what marriage is.

After these exchanges, Barro tweeted out a short sentence attacking the concept of natural law:

Part of the genius, success, and justice of the American experiment is that we have overtime continually subjected our man-made laws to the standards of the natural law. We haven’t always gotten things right, but we have strived to pass just laws. I cited Augustine, Aquinas, and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, as examples of natural law thinkers. Here’s how King put it in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

This helps to explain why Barro is on such weak ground when he says that “a marriage is whatever the government says it is.” It implies that government has no external standard of right. Imagine how this would apply in the civil rights context: “a person is whatever the government says it is”—we’ve been down that road before and it is unacceptable.