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Bill Barr: Religious Liberty Warrior

US Attorney General William Barr, addressing the Notre Dame Law School

Last week, US Attorney General William Barr gave an extraordinary speech about religious liberty at Notre Dame Law School. I have not been able to locate a transcript, and only found time to watch it this morning. Here’s a video of the entire thing. The speech itself begins at about the four-minute mark.

The AG begins by talking about the capacity for self-government, meaning not the form of administration of a liberal democracy, but the ability of individuals to master their own passions, and subject them to reason. Can we handle freedom? That, says Barr, is a question that preoccupied the Founders.

No society can exist without the capacity to restrain vice, he goes on to say. If you depend only on the government to do this, you get tyranny. (This, by the way, is what’s happening in China; many Chinese actually support the tyrannical Social Credit System, because communism destroyed civil society and social trust.) But, says Barr, licentiousness is another form of tyranny. People enslaved by their own appetites make community life impossible. (This, I would say, is what we are more endangered by in America today … and it will ultimately call forth tyranny, Chinese-style.)

Barr offers this quotation from Edmund Burke:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves.”

Why is religion a public good? Because, says Barr, it “trains people to want what is good.” It helps to frame a society’s moral culture, and instills moral discipline. No secular creed has emerged that can do what religion does, he says. And by casting religion out, we are dismantling the foundation of our public morality.

“What we call ‘values’ today are nothing more than mere sentimentality, drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity,” says the AG.

Barr took the gloves off, saying that religion is not jumping to its death; it’s being pushed.

“This is not decay,” he said. “This is organized destruction.” He named secularists in academia, media, and elsewhere as figures who are not neutral at all, but have rather inculcated a kind of religiosity in their own project of destroying religion. They conduct their own inquisitions and excommunications for heresy.

Then Barr said something, almost in passing, that in truth deserves a lot more attention by religious and philosophical observers: that we have created a popular culture in which we the people are “too distracted” to take these questions seriously. Just last night, readers, I received an e-mail from one of you who said that “the really striking thing of our age is the complete anesthesia of religious questions.” That’s true. This, I think, is where I would push back against AG Barr somewhat. It’s not only that the secularists want to suppress religion; it’s also that many of us aren’t interested in religion in the first place. To be clear, religious questions — that is, questions of transcendence and ultimate truth — can’t be suppressed forever. But we seem to be doing a great job of avoiding them.

Anyway, back to the Barr speech. He says that we are in a time like the days of the early Church, when the Roman authorities weren’t content to leave Christians alone to pray in peace, but actually tried to force them to violate their beliefs.

Barr says in his talk that one of the most important aspects of religious liberty is the freedom to pass the faith on to your children. This is where the battle is joined — and, because the Trump administration supports “religious accommodation,” the real battles are happening at the state level. Ground Zero for the warfare is at the schools. Barr identifies three specific areas of conflict:

  1. Content of public school curriculum. Meaning the implementation of an anti-traditional values curriculum without any opt-out for families. E.g., New Jersey, Illinois, and California law mandating LGBT curriculum. He cites a diktat by the Orange County (Calif.) board of education saying that parents cannot opt their kids out of LGBT training.
  2. State policies designed to starve religious schools of generally available funds, to force religious people to put their kids into public schools.
  3. Use of state laws to force religious schools to accept secular morality.

The Attorney General concluded by telling his Catholic audience that only by conversion of ourselves can we hope to transform society. He adds that Christians must have more emphasis on moral content in education. “Education is not vocational training,” he said. If we don’t pass on our faith and moral conviction to our children “in full vigor,” all is lost.

Finally, he exhorts lawyers to fight for religious liberty in the public square. He concludes with:

“I can assure you that as long as I am Attorney General, the Department of Justice will be at the forefront of this effort, ready to fight for the most cherished of all our American liberties: the freedom to live according to our faith.”

Let me simply say that as we religious conservatives are thinking about how to vote in the election next fall, we should ponder the fact that under Donald Trump, as awful as he is in so many ways, a man of William Barr’s convictions is heading up the Department of Justice. Thank God Bill Barr is there. It is inconceivable that any Democratic president would put a man like him in charge of the Justice Department. In fact, we are getting a good idea that a Democratic president would likely choose his precise opposite.

If religious liberty is the most important public issue to you — and, as a religious believer, should it not be? — then the Barr speech should be front to mind as you consider voting. The state cannot give us meaning, but it can maintain the spaces necessary for us to discover meaning. Or not. This is important. This is very, very important.

UPDATE:Here’s a link to AG Barr’s entire speech. 

UPDATE.2: Wow, wow, wow. Paul Krugman lost his mind over the speech. Seriously, read his column. It says very little about Bill Barr, and a lot about Paul Krugman. Excerpt:

Nonetheless, William Barr — again, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, responsible for defending the Constitution — is sounding remarkably like America’s most unhinged religious zealots, the kind of people who insist that we keep experiencing mass murder because schools teach the theory of evolution. Guns don’t kill people — Darwin kills people!

Barr said absolutely nothing about Darwin or evolution. Krugman is a poo-flinging monkey here. I invite you to read the entire Barr speech. It’s a standard defense of religion’s role in American life. It would have been unremarkable for any US Attorney General, Republican or Democrat, prior to 2008 to have given. But now, many on the Left have become so hateful of religion that Barr’s speech strikes the ears of people like Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman as the handiwork of a Cossack propagandist (” If that kind of talk doesn’t scare you, it should; it’s the language of witch hunts and pogroms”).

Krugman’s entire column was nothing but screaming-meemie insults. Again, please read the Barr speech, or watch it online. Krugman called it “fiery,” but it was nothing of the kind. It was sober. Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal, in a paywalled column, marveled at how berserk some on the Left reacted to the speech.

Political ethicist and professional attention seeker Richard Painter tapped out a series of even more furious tweets, here calling the speech the latest episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” there suggesting Mr. Barr isn’t much of a Christian, here again saying Mr. Barr sounded like “vintage Goebbels.” Over at MSNBC, meanwhile, retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, once chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, told Joy Reid the attorney general is “Torquemada in a business suit,” a reference to the Spanish Inquisition’s grand inquisitor.

McGurn said:

Even those who strongly disagree with Mr. Barr ought to have found this an invitation for thoughtful and vigorous debate. But rather than engage, some imply there is something unseemly about an attorney general’s even speaking at a Catholic university. Given the hostility that holding such a conversation engenders on campuses today, perhaps America can count itself fortunate it still has a university where this can happen.

Carter Snead, the law professor who invited Mr. Barr, puts it this way: “At Notre Dame, we are not afraid to explore the hard questions about God, religion and America together in friendship, especially on those matters about which people strongly disagree.”

Mr. Barr’s argument has been echoed throughout American history: “Our Constitution was made for only for a moral and religious people” (John Adams). “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith” (Tocqueville). “In teaching this democratic faith to American children, we need the sustaining, buttressing aid of those great ethical religious teachings which are the heritage of our modern civilization. For ‘not upon strength nor upon power, but upon the spirit of God’ shall our democracy be founded” (FDR). And so on.

That’s the amazing thing about these Leftist’s reactions. Barr said nothing that isn’t part of the standard rhetoric of American civic religion. I don’t mean to put down the speech, which was very fine. As I watched the speech this morning, my strongest criticism of it was in response to this passage:

But what was the source of this internal controlling power? In a free Republic those restraints could not be handed down from above by philosopher kings.

Instead, social order must flow up from the people themselves – freely obeying the dictates of inwardly-possessed and commonly-shared moral values. And to control willful human beings, with and infinite capacity to rationalize, those moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will – they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.

In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people – a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and manmade law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.

As John Adams put it: “We have no government armed with the power which is capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

As Father John Courtney Murray observed, the American tenet was not that:

“Free government is inevitable, only that it is possible, and that its possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral order.”

How does religion promote the moral discipline and virtue needed to support free government?

First, it gives us the right rules to live by. The Founding generation were Christians. They believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to the true nature of man. Those moral precepts start with the Two Great Commandments – to Love God with your whole heart, soul and mind; and to Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.

But they also include the guidance of Natural Law – a real, transcendent moral order which flows from God’s eternal law – the Divine wisdom by which the whole Creation is ordered. The eternal law is impressed upon, and reflected in, all created things.

From the nature of things we can, through reason, experience, discern standards of right and wrong that exist independent of human will.

I happen to agree with Barr here, but my criticism has to do with his subsequent claim:

But religion helps teach, train, and habituate people to want what is good. It does not do this primarily by formal laws – that is, through coercion. It does this through moral education and by informing society’s informal rules – its customs and traditions which reflect the wisdom and experience of the ages.

In other words, religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.

He is also correct here … but we have degenerated to a point in the West where we can’t even agree what is Good. How can religion habituate a people to “want what is good” when the people don’t even know what Good is?

As McGurn says, this is something we can and should debate. The debate comes from fundamental constitutional principles. But mention God, and people like Paul Krugman and Lawrence Wilkerson freak out.

This is all useful to know. It turns out that The New York Times also has up on its website now a column by a liberal Iowan named Robert Leonard, who says that many of the people of Iowa see those arrayed against Trump as crude despisers of people like them. He writes that the liberal mob setting on young Iowan Carson King (I wrote about that here) reinforces a powerful narrative:

To rural white conservatives, their culture is being rubbed out right before their eyes. Compared with that, Mr. Trump’s sins — Ukraine and all — are trivial, while the Democrats are unrepentant and persist in their wrongdoing.

So, yes, the dismal rural economy, brought on directly by the president’s actions, may prompt independents and some Republicans to vote for a Democrat, because they will see it in their economic interests to do so.

But most Republicans I know don’t vote in their economic self-interest. They vote in terms of what they perceive to be in their spiritual self-interest.

Which brings us back to the confluence of the Carson King brouhaha and the Trump impeachment narrative. For the conservatives here, they come from the same source, the media. Mr. King and Mr. Trump are both targets of a politically correct mob that is quick to judge and slow to forgive, so that the slightest deviation from an ever moving liberal moral standard can destroy a person’s career.

Carson King’s posts as a 16-year-old are nothing alongside Mr. Trump’s actions. But that doesn’t matter. Conservatives see the two cases as illustrating a pattern of misbehavior by liberals and the media.

You read or watch Bill Barr’s speech, and then you compare it to some of the hysterical reaction by our tumbril-pushing leftist elites, and you try to say with a straight face that religious liberty is not endangered by Democratic Party rule.

Meanwhile, Robert Francis O’Rourke is still at it. Now he’s saying that he would seek to take away the tax exemption of mosques, historically black colleges, and other institutions that declined to recognize same-sex marriage.

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Elizabeth Warren has said she wouldn’t go as far as Beto, which is good, I suppose, as she has a good chance of being the Democratic nominee. But make no mistake: she (as well as fellow Democratic senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris) have put forth an amendment to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that would strip that law of its mild protections offered to religious believers who dissent from the progressive views on LGBT and abortion.

Like I said, all this is clarifying.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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