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Bill Barr’s Blindness — And Our Own

It's not morning in America. We're just living the long twilight
Attorney General William Barr Meets With Law Enforcement Officials In Kansas

Last month, when Attorney General Bill Barr gave a speech at Notre Dame about religious liberty, I praised him for his take on the importance of religion to our Constitutional order, and for pointing fingers at those carrying out the “organized destruction” of religion’s place in the public square. I stand by that praise. But in his column today, taking on that speech, and a more recent one Barr delivered to the Federalist Society, about law and the presidency, Ross Douthat says the Attorney General is guilty of propping up Zombie Reaganism. Douthat writes:

What Barr’s speeches presuppose, basically, is … What if everything you believed before Trump, you can still believe today?

In the Notre Dame speech, this reassurance manifests itself in a restatement of the assumptions that have guided organized religious conservatism since the 1960s: that the chief threat to religious faith comes from secularizing elites; that the great moral debates of our time pit Christian rigorists on the right against moral relativists on the left; that religious conservatives and limited-government conservatives can be natural allies because the welfare state is an ersatz religious institution that crowds out private charity and churches.

Douthat goes on to say that Barr’s diagnosis is correct, but limited in important ways. He goes on:

But there’s no attempt in the speech to address the recent trends that complicate religious conservatism’s ’70s-era vision — even though those trends helped make Barr’s boss the president of the United States.

For instance, there’s no mention of the extent to which conservative lawyers already won a series of battles against the harder sort of secularism — even liberal jurisprudence today is less strictly secularist than in the ’70s — and it didn’t matter much to the cultural erosion of their faith.

There’s no mention of how much of that erosion has happened under administrations friendly to conservative Christianity, and therefore probably reflects internal weakness, division and scandal more than pressure from outside. [Emphasis mine — RD]

There’s no reckoning with the tension between the G.O.P.’s religious and libertarian wings, the clear support of many religious conservatives for the welfare state that official conservatism decries — or the extent to which Trump won the Republican nomination by running against the familiar critique of big government that Barr recycles in his speech.

That’s really true, and I wish I had caught that when I first wrote about Barr’s speech. After all, I wrote a book based in large part on the fact that the culture has changed so much that it’s simply not plausible to believe that if only we elect the right politicians, we can re-Christianize the public square. The dog that did not bark was the Christian churches in the fight to preserve traditional marriage. In France — secular France! — almost a million people turned out in Paris to protest (unsuccessfully) the proposed pro-LGBT changes in the law. In America, nothing. In 1993, hundreds of thousands of gay folks turned out on the Mall in Washington, DC, to demand pro-LGBT laws. I was there covering the story. They cared enough to demonstrate; we conservative Christians did not. We thought having the right opinions, and voting Republican, and donating to conservative Christian PACs, would be enough.

Meanwhile, we lost the culture. Don’t get me wrong, AG Barr’s diagnosis is correct, as far as it goes. There really are elites doing their best to demonize Christian belief. But if that’s the only diagnosis from the Right of our dire condition, it isn’t enough. As Douthat points out later in his piece, after he issues a similar, even stronger, critique of Barr’s speech on law and the imperial presidency, this rhetoric is the kind of thing that soothes conservative audiences — but doesn’t actually describe the world into which conservatives find themselves thrown in 2019.

Douthat points to Damon Linker’s critique of Barr’s Federalist Society speech, which Linker sees as a harbinger of future right-wing authoritarianism. Douthat is not quite buying it:

The other, which I’m drawn to by my own obsession with decadence, would emphasize futility instead. A conservatism that constantly reconverts itself to the worldview of the Reagan era isn’t poised to claim sweeping, authoritarian power, in the service of religious revolution or any other cause. It’s poised for repetition, gridlock and failure — ever-imagining itself seizing the initiative, but really letting itself be carried backward, a boat against the current, into the world of Bill Barr’s youth and past.

Douthat is consciously referring to the final line of The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Douthat is saying that Barr’s two speeches are a form of willed optimism, of an old Reaganaut trying to convince himself and his listeners that it’s still 1980, and the Reagan-era verities still hold. Like Douthat, I am inclined to think of this in terms of decadence — decadence not in the vulgar understanding of the term (e.g., licentiousness), but decadence in the sense of having no new ideas, and being compelled therefore to repeat old ones for lack of anything useful to say. Anyway, read the whole thing. 

This is a problem on the Right, for sure. I think of the conservative Christians I know who are still captive to a more or less Reaganite view of the world, and who think that sending their kids to a Christian school, and attending a conservative Christian church, is sufficient to hold the line. They really do think that the line between good and evil is drawn between institutions and political parties.

I often return to this 1999 PBS Frontline episode, The Lost Children Of Rockdale County. My wife and I watched it when it was first aired, 20 years ago. Our firstborn child was not even one month old. It shocked us deeply. It made us vow that we would do everything we possibly could not to be parents like the Rockdale County moms and dads in this show. Here’s a transcript of the program, and here’s a link to a YouTube version.

The show takes an outbreak of syphilis among high schoolers in this upscale, politically conservative Atlanta suburb, and uses it to take a closer look at their lives. What they found, along with state health investigators, was a sexual free-for-all culture, abetted by the unwillingness of parents to pay close attention. From the transcript:

NARRATOR: There were lots of parties back then, anywhere that adults weren’t around. The kids would meet in empty homes all over Conyers, sometimes even in rented motel rooms. Kevin did not take part in their activities, but he knew about them.

KEVIN: There was a lot of sex going on then. Like, one girl would come in the group and she’d be passed around, or one guy would go in the girls’ group and get passed around.

INTERVIEWER: Passed around?

KEVIN: Yeah, they’d just- one guy would do it with her one night. The next night somebody else has her. The next night somebody else has her.

INTERVIEWER: Was this a game?

KEVIN: Pretty much.

NICOLE: There was a lot of sex then, about 16 years old- a lot of sex. We would fight. There was about four of the guys that drove BMWs and had everything, and those were- all the girls wanted to be with those guys, so we would all fight over them or do whatever. And then you’d have sex with them, so you’d be, like, “Yeah, I had sex with your man last night,” da, da, da, do. And that’s- I think that’s how the syphilis came about. It was everybody just having sex with everybody.

D.J.: Actually, I mean, it was a social thing, but it was more of an underground railroad thing. Everybody was secretively having sex with everybody, and everybody knew it. The teenagers knew it. But the parents never knew.

Prof. CLAIRE STERK: A lot of the adolescents had parents who worked, were at home alone, had parents who put in 40, 60, 80-hour work weeks and were doing that to insure that all the resources that they wanted to give to their children were available.

BETH ROSS, Dir. Counseling, Rockdale County Schools: The activities they were involved in, whether it would be sexual or otherwise, the majority of their behavior was taking place between right after school and right before parents came home from work, like between 3:00 and 7:00, and some of it late at night then, after midnight, after the parents would go to sleep.

NICOLE: Most of my friends’ parents were not the kind of parents that really cared. They cared what went on, but if it interfered with their lives they didn’t really- wouldn’t- they didn’t want to bother with it.

About halfway through the film, there’s a town meeting with the parents to discuss the crisis:

Dr. KATHLEEN TOOMEY: What was so extraordinary to me is these parents started looking for externally who to blame. “This has caused this,” “T.V. has caused that,” “External groups have caused this.” But few of them – none of them that I can recall – ever looked to themselves. And the minister turned to me and said, “They don’t see. It’s them. It’s the parents. They have done this. The kids don’t talk to them.”

What was extraordinary to me, a year after this outbreak, was here was a community in total denial about what happened.

NARRATOR: In the end, the syphilis outbreak had come and gone, leaving barely a ripple behind. But some believe that the community, by regarding the outbreak as an anomaly, had missed a larger point about all its kids.

CLAIRE STERK: I would say it’s very sad because there are so many lessons we could have learned from this. And part of me feels that we’re not picking up on all those lessons and still leave adolescents hanging there, forcing them to take care of themselves when we know that they’re not always able to do that.

WES BONNER, Pastor: They’re coming from middle class homes, upper middle class homes. They have so many things, you know, every convenience. They all have a cell phone, a pager, you know, anything that they need. But what they’re looking for is, you know, “Where’s the road? Where’s the path? I don’t see that. You know, everything’s so spread out. I don’t know, you know, where to go.”

The children of Rockdale County are now parents. I wonder how they’re raising their kids? I wonder what narrative they tell themselves about life in America, to allow themselves to sleep at night? I wonder if they’re #MAGA nostalgists, or if they’re Silicon Valley Soixante-Huitards who believe that if we just tear down more barriers, then we will finally reach utopia.

Everybody in America is a nostalgist. Because we are a decadent society.



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