It’s time for a quick dip into my unusually thick GetReligion folder of guilt, that place where I stash stories that I know deserve a bite of criticism, but more pressing matters (think Syria) keep pushing them back in the cyber-queue.
The other day, The New York Times ran what was essentially a work of hagiography in praise of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. There is not a single surprising word in this story, not a random thought that would upset the loyal community of Times readers who view it as holy writ and would be quick to challenge any violations of orthodoxy.
Also, I realize that — hello former editor and now columnist Bill Keller — as a tolerant, urban, intelligent source of information, there is no need for the Times team to provide any balancing or challenging information in this work of advocacy journalism.
Nevertheless, I do have a question about an interesting piece of information (yes, a religion ghost) that is missing in this report. We’re talking about basic information, here, not opposing points of view.
Now, note that — right up top — the key to the story is that gay rights leaders have been surprised by the strength of the justice’s convictions on this issue. In fact, they had reasons to believe he would not support their cause. Thus the headline: “Surprising Friend of Gay Rights in a High Place.” Here is the lede and then a crucial chunk of background material:
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sang “Give ’Em Hope” for a revered and in some ways surprising guest who shared a California stage with them last month: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
The praise now being showered on Justice Kennedy by gay rights advocates — and the deep disappointment of conservatives — would have been hard to imagine when President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1987. Gay rights groups were more than a little wary then. On the federal appeals court in California, where Justice Kennedy had served for 13 years, he heard five cases concerning gay rights. He voted against the gay rights claim every time.
“I have to say that Kennedy seems rather obtuse on important gay issues and must be counted as a likely vote against us on most matters likely to come before the Supreme Court,” Arthur S. Leonard, an authority on gay rights at New York Law School, wrote in The New York Native, a newspaper that focused on gay issues.
The justice’s trajectory since then has been a product of overlapping factors, associates and observers say. His Supreme Court jurisprudence is characterized by an expansive commitment to individual liberty. He believes that American courts should consider international norms, and foreign courts have expanded gay rights. His politics, reflecting his background as a Sacramento lawyer and lobbyist, tend toward fiscal conservatism and moderate social views. And he has long had gay friends.
Yes, Kennedy is a Republican, the story notes, but he is a California Republican. Good point, that. Culture and context are important.
However, there is an interesting “C” word missing in this piece, a word that probably had something to do with the original decision by Reagan & Co. to put Kennedy on the high court.
That word, of course, is “Catholic.” Might the fact that Kennedy was a Catholic have had something to do with the left’s concerns about him? Of course his California court work is crucial and the story does a fine job of dissecting that crucial angle.
But at some point, the story really needed to deal with Kennedy’s Catholic background and the role that it played in support for his nomination. Then, after mentioning that element of his life, the story would need to deal with the status of his faith today — a subject widely discussed and debated among Catholic leaders and jurists. What kind of Catholic is he? Lurking in the background, of course, is the fact that sacramentally active Catholics are much more likely to either support the church’s teachings on moral theology or to take into account the need to protect the free expression of those beliefs in the public square.
Once again, remember that the goal of the story is to explore the SURPRISING support of Kennedy for the gay-rights cause. Of course, the flip side is crucial as well: What role did Kennedy’s personal approach to Catholicism play in his now pivotal support for what amounts to protected civil rights status for gays and lesbians, as a group (as opposed to individuals) in public life?
Note that the “surprise” theme is pounded in again later on in the report.
In 1987, gay rights advocates could see little of this coming. Jeffrey Levi, then the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, testified against Justice Kennedy at his confirmation hearings, saying that “his past opinions offer little hope to gays and lesbians challenging adverse treatment in the courts.”
Professor Levi, who now teaches health policy at George Washington University, said in an e-mail that “there was no way to predict that Justice Kennedy would ‘evolve’ as he did (given prior opinions on gays in the military, immigration and federal employment).”
Professor Levi drew a comparison to Dr. C. Everett Koop, whose nomination as surgeon general under Reagan was opposed by gay rights groups based on hostile statements he had made. “He turned out to be a hero of the early fight against AIDS,” Professor Levi said of Dr. Koop.
But wait, Koop’s beliefs on homosexuality were also linked to his religious faith. And he saw no contradiction between his religious beliefs and the need — as a matter of Christian compassion and public health — to do everything possible to help people with AIDS.
Sigh. Religion is complicated and deserves serious reporting. I have no idea how the Times managed to take on Kennedy’s SURPRISING beliefs on gay rights without even a paragraph or two discussing the role Catholicism has or has not played in his career.