Even though many of Barr's ideas won't be new to those who have been concerned with the rapid erosion of religious freedom in the United States, they need to be taken as seriously by defenders of religious liberty as they have been by religious freedom opponents.
On October 11, Attorney General William Barr gave an impassioned speech to the students and faculty of Notre Dame Law School as well as to Notre Dames' Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture on the state of religious freedom in the United States.
His remarks were received with alarm by commentators like the New York Times' Paul Krugman, who called Barr's words "the language of witch hunts and pogroms," by the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell, who described them as "a tacit endorsement of theocracy," and by Huffington Post's Mary Papenfuss, who said they reveal "how deeply the top lawman in the nation is tied to his Catholicism," which for her was obviously a problem.
As such reactions show, Barr's unabashed candor upset many of the proponents of the militant-secularist project he decries: those who preach the virtue of tolerance while being intolerant of those who disagree with what they want tolerated, who proclaim new rights and fundamental freedoms while trampling the long-established ones of those whom they think are in their way.
Militant secularists often wrap their advocacy and action in the American flag and frame what's happening as a flourishing of the principles of the country's founding fathers, while generally and snobbishly trying to disregard as un-American paranoia the concerns raised by religious leaders and people. When the attorney general, however, exposed what is afoot as bluntly as he did, they knew they couldn't ignore it. Rather than engaging the arguments, they resorted to high-class, old-fashioned, hyperbolic name-calling and fear-mongering.
Even though many of Barr's ideas won't be new to those who have been concerned with the rapid erosion of religious freedom in the United States, they need to be taken as seriously by defenders of religious liberty as they have been by religious freedom opponents. They are a wake-up call for citizens not to take their duties with response to religious liberty and freedom of conscience for granted -- and to begin to act.
Barr makes three major points in his address.
The first concerns the centrality of religious liberty in the history of the United States. He underlines that the founding fathers, especially Madison and Adams, were convinced that the only way the American experiment in ordered liberty would succeed would if the people governed were moral and religious, if they interiorly obeyed a higher law that restrained them from doing evil and moved them to work for the common good.
Self-government is not just and principally "government of the people, by the people and for the people," he said, but begins with self-mastery and the capacity to govern oneself. Religion helps teach and form people to want and choose what is good and to refrain from abusing their freedom for selfish ends against the good of others.
Without such moral formation toward authentic freedom, toward interior and cultural restraint instead of the enforced restraint of government, the founding fathers did not believe the United States could succeed: the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good would begin to tear asunder the social fabric and leave government coercion as the only means to achieve order.
America has succeeded until now because, for the most part, the vast majority of people were indeed moral and religious and regularly chose to do the right thing even if they might have been able to get away with doing the wrong.
Those achievements, however, are in danger, as Barr emphasizes in his second point, which is what critics of his speech found most offensive.
Over the past half-century, religion in general, and religious freedom in particular, have been under increasing attack, he says, as militant secularists have mounted a comprehensive effort to drive religion and the Judeo-Christian moral system from the public square. The "unremitting assault" of "organized destruction," he argues, has taken place through popular culture, entertainment, the academy, courts and legislatures, where secularists have sought to supplant traditional values with a quasi-religion of moral relativism pushing as moral goods abortion, sexual promiscuity, euthanasia, and gender ideology, among other things.
The consequences of this moral upheaval, he stresses, have demonstrably led to skyrocketing rates of illegitimacy, broken families, depression and mental illnesses, suicide rates and drug abuse. Rather than acknowledge and confront the "social costs of licentiousness and irresponsible personal conduct," militant secularists, he says, enable them by having the State pick up the social tab, paying for abortions rather than calling people to sexual responsibility, providing safe injection sites rather than attacking addiction and assisting addicts, and assuming through scores of new social programs the parental and spousal responsibilities of those who forsake them.
It's obvious that not all those who call themselves secularists are part of a loose conspiracy of organized destruction. At the same time, however, it's difficult to deny that those organizations who, for example, have sought to remove any reference to God from public assemblies and places, who have pushed not only for universal access to abortion but to have those opposed to it pay for it, or who have trumpeted respect for those in the LGBT community only to treat as moral and civic pariahs supporters of traditional marriage, have justly earned the attorney general's description.
Their ire at the term "destruction" seems to come not from its use describing their attempted annihilation of the Judeo-Christian values that they believe stand in their way, but from Barr's blaming their moral revolution for the disastrous consequences he documents. "Among these militant secularists are many so-called 'progressives,'" Barr quips laconically. "But where is the progress?"
Barr's third major point builds on the point of organized destruction, by illustrating with authority how law -- especially judicial activism -- is strategically being used as a "battering ram" to bring about moral revolution. The goal, Barr contends, is not just replacing traditional values with new ones, but forcing people of faith and religious institutions to subscribe to practices and policies antithetical to their beliefs and consciences, like paying for abortions, being browbeaten to bake cakes for same-sex weddings, or being compelled to have their children taught in public schools about sexual practices contrary to their faith.
Such attacks, Barr says, remind him of Roman emperors who refused to leave Christians alone to practice their faith but forced them to offer religious sacrifices to pagan deities or the emperor. He makes plain that such attacks are not only a "monstrous invasion of religious liberty," but also wholly un-American, something that would fill not just the founding fathers but most Americans throughout the last 243 years with outrage.
What is to be done to remedy this trend? Barr mentions briefly on three things.
First is individual moral renewal: we can only transform culture and society if we ourselves are transformed.
Second is to focus far more vigorously on the moral education of children: there can be no moral rebirth unless we do a better job in passing along faith and values to the newer generations -- and not just particular religious values, but the general values that the founding fathers recognized make a free society possible to endure.
Third, lawyers must take greater leadership and responsibility for the way the courts are being used to bulldoze believers and their values. They must vigorously resist the secular desire to expel religious viewpoints from the public square and to limit the free exercise of faith.
Like a pre-exilic prophet, the Attorney General focuses far more on the analysis of the problem than on giving detailed steps toward a solution, leaving a bleak and dark landscape even among readers and YouTube watchers prone to accept his conclusions.
For those engaging in the types of socially calamitous behavior he describes, however, their reaction to his speech burnish his prophetic credentials.
- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.