William Barr’s Faith-Based Stance on Public Morality in America

I read the CNN article about a recent speech by Attorney General William Barr. The brief article led me to read the speech per se, which is found at the Department of Justice website. Below, you’ll find my summary of the lengthy speech, with my thoughts in italics. Mr. Barr’s comments show, again, why a public official’s faith stance may be entirely relevant to how they fulfill their duties.

His topic was “religious liberty in America.” His context was a speech in the law school at Notre Dame, a Catholic university. AG Barr identifies as Roman Catholic.

Speaking of the Founders of the U.S., he said: “The imperative of protecting religious freedom was not just a nod in the direction of piety. It reflects the Framers’ belief that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government.” In this speech, Barr consistently ignores Thomas Jefferson, who was neither an orthodox Christian nor a believer in the necessity of some form of public religion. Rather, Jefferson thought that public schools could become the moral gymnasiums for the republic. And I can’t imagine most of the Founders being comfortable with elevating religious liberty to the top of a hierarchy of rights that would, when there is a conflict between rights, always triumph.

In the 20th century, overcoming fascism and communism were democracy’s major challenges. In the 21st century, it is the lack of moral education of citizens. Liberty is preserved only when persons (he says “man” and “men”) have, through religion-derived moral education, controlled their own appetites and passions. This is the meaning of “self-government.” He believes true moral values, not subject to human rationalization, “must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.” Well, I agree and disagree. I agree that moral self-discipline is indispensable to a liberal democracy—with “liberal” carrying its classical meaning of limited government, as well as the protection of minority rights from the tyranny of the majority. I disagree that morality is possible only for believers in a supreme being. This is a canard that conservative Christians are repeating frequently in public discourse.

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

Religion gives “the right rules to live by.” His first example from Christianity is the dual commandment to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And he claimed, again, that “The Founding generation were Christians.” In addition to excluding Jefferson, he is also ignoring Tom Paine. In 1961, Martin Marty’s dissertation was published, titled “The Infidels” in which he discussed some of America’s unorthodox founders.

Then he introduces natural law which, through reason and experience, can “discern standards of right and wrong that exist independent of human will.” Natural law would seem to open the door to “moral atheists.”

Religion has been under attack for the past 50 years. That is an interesting starting point, 50 years: hippie generation, use of mind-altering drugs, Vietnam War protests, civil rights movements. Then in 1973, Roe v. Wade. The consequence of these attacks has been diminished support for morality which, in turn, means “Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.” He cites: the rate of children born to unmarried women; devastation to families; drugs; depression; suicide; “increase in senseless violence”; angry young men. We in the U.S. are certainly experiencing a changing moral order, and Barr is correct that the old centers (there was not only one moral center, and the was moral order worked in Jim Crow segregated America has changed) have not held. But note that he is thinking purely in individual terms. You’ll see more of that radical individualism, when it comes to morality, shortly.

He blames “militant secularists” aligned with so-called “progressives.” “The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.” “…the secular project has itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor.” Note that secularists of the type he is describing (and partly manufacturing; hard-core atheists don’t even comprise a majority of the religiously unaffiliated) tend to be college-educated, while the social problems he cites tend to be problems of non-college educated and poorer persons.

He goes on to say how distracted this age is (e.g., John Wesley said the same thing of his age in the 18th century). Yes, I am part of the chorus who says the same, and Wesley’s sermon on “dissipation” is a good reminder to check on what in our era’s problem is really new.

With religion now too weakened to act as a “self-correcting mechanism,” the state takes on the role of “alleviator of bad consequences,” which is the opposite of what Christianity teaches. “Christianity teaches a micro-morality. We transform the world by focusing on our own personal morality and transformation.” Ah, here is where he speaks explicitly of morality being a Christian and personal matter. There is no social gospel here, no sense of a government or a corporation with the power to structure social conditions in ways that work for some persons and against others. No sense of what wealth inequality, market forces, racism, and other structural advantages/disadvantages do to individuals and their families.

He claims that the law, and the courts, are being “used aggressively to force religious people and entities to subscribe to practices and policies that are antithetical to their faith.” He is referring, for example, to LGBTQ-positive curriculum in public schools, or to businesses which do not want to serve categories of persons, and the lack of exceptions made for religiously-based dissent. “This refusal to accommodate the free exercise of religion is relatively recent.” Hold on here! White supremacy laws and mandated school segregation were defended by white Christians as God’s laws—until they weren’t. Rights are conditioned by other rights, which means rights are determined in context and are not absolutes. Rights can and do conflict and, therefore, particular cases need to be adjudicated rather than religious rights reigning supreme every time.

“We [Catholics] understand that only by transforming ourselves can we transform the world beyond ourselves.” Transforming ourselves? I don’t think that is good Catholic theology. God is the agent of transformation. This point of view, that the transformation of the world depends first on the transformation of individuals, is also consistent with white evangelical Christianity, who again might object to self-transformation language.

He concludes by affirming “authentic Catholic education,” stating the need for lawyers to fight on the side of right, and declaring his commitment “to fight for the most cherished of our liberties: the freedom to live according to our faith.” I have to ponder that one. Is the freedom to live according to one’s faith the most cherished of liberties? It’s right up there, but the most? I see better now why he believes religious rights triumph over, say, the right not to be discriminated against by businesses and legal authorities.

Overall, while there are many places where I fundamentally disagree with Mr. Barr, I do share a concern with him. The concern is not the decline of institutional Christianity, of a particular sort, but is this: Which institutions today are in a strong position to form moral communities and moral citizens that can develop the virtues necessary for a multicultural, shared-space democracy? Religious congregations still have substantial influence, although I question how well we are using that influence. Public schools have some power, in a way, but so many schools are restrained and drained by the same issues that trouble the rest of society. Some corporation heads and boards are taking public stances on issues like climate change, while developing workplace cultures that are much more diversity-sensitive than was the case a short while ago. But only some businesses take the stance that their business should do what is good and right.

There is a vacuum of public morality evident throughout the society, most especially in halls of power, and that vacuum is sucking life out of a lot of people. Barr thinks the dominance of a particular kind of Christianity should fill the vacuum. I don’t. But I have to admit that I don’t know what the answer is regarding which communities and institutions are positioned to form the kind of neighbor-regarding and eco-conscious people this nation needs as a white-male-Christian-dominated order dies away and a new order is being born.