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Defenders of the Faith: TrumpWorld at Prayer

October 17, 2019

Barr at NotreDame

If you’re a connoisseur of irony and hypocrisy, there is no juicier amuse-bouche than the sight of the lapdog Attorney General of our mendacious libertine president lamenting the “licentiousness” and absence of “moral discipline” of a secular society that has forsaken the bosom of Holy Mother Church. On October 11, William Barr took a break from trying to hustle up fabricated dirt on Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton to preach to the Law School of Notre Dame University on how the attacks of “secularist forces” on religion in general, and Christianity in particular, and Roman Catholicism in special particular, are responsible for all of our society’s ills. (Yes, Notre Dame is a Catholic university, and no, there was no mention of the Church’s own little moral crisis. Presumably, the secularists are to blame for all that as well.)

[I was unable to find a full transcript of the speech online, but you can watch the entire spectacle here. The quoted language is my own transcript from the video.]

There’s more going on here than just spiritual uplift. Barr was making a statement about the priorities of the US Department of Justice, which clearly include aligning the federal government with the ongoing campaign to dismantle the barrier between church and state and establish the idea that America is a Christian nation.

This is serious business. If you are concerned about things like gay rights, keeping religion out of public education, abortion rights and the rights of women in general, or the rights of non-Christians, it behooves you to pay attention, because this Attorney General and this administration want to put severe limits on all of those things. The vehicle they are using to do that is “religious freedom.”

And it’s no coincidence that the administration is making a concerted effort to secure its base among religious conservatives at a moment when impeachment is underway. It wasn’t just Barr at the tent revival last week. Trump was delivering the same message at the Value Voters Summit, where he said, “On every front, the ultraleft is waging war on the values shared by everyone in this room…They are trying to silence and punish the speech of Christians and religious believers of all faiths. You know it better than anyone. They are trying to use the courts to rewrite the laws, undermine democracy and force through an agenda they can’t pass at the ballot box.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech on similar lines at an evangelical event in Tennessee, and even dedicated the home page of the State Department’s home page to an explicitly Christian message.

Barr’s speech can be read as a manifesto for the quasi-establishment of the Christian religion and a Christian version of sharia. The world is full of religions of all kinds, but his only reference to a non-Christian religion is when he repeatedly evokes “Judeo-Christian” moral values or standards, which is an essentially meaningless phrase, perhaps thrown in to avoid offending Jews. His reasoning is tendentious nonsense and ridiculous to anyone with a passing knowledge of history. Reduced to its essence, his argument is:

  • Free government requires a population with “moral discipline”, and only religious (i.e., Christian) people are capable of living by moral values.
  • Religion (i.e., Christianity) in the US is besieged by unnamed “forces of secularism”, whose success is responsible for an array of social ills such as illegitimacy, depression, mental illness, “angry and alienated young men”, and “senseless violence”.
  • In response, the “secularists” have promoted the state as the “alleviator of bad consequences”, displacing Christianity with a pseudo-religion of secularism.
  • This, in turn, further empowers the breakdown of “traditional moral values”, while “militant secularists” use the law to impose secular values on people of faith and suppress their voice in public discourse.

What is most disturbing is that the country’s chief law enforcement officer doesn’t want to enforce the country’s laws, but rather is trying to nullify them in selected arenas. His Justice Department is not interested, for example, in voter suppression or manipulation which demonstrably is a serious problem, but it is extremely interested in an imaginary “war on religion”. Barr began his sermon by declaring that he has set up a task force within Justice to “keep an eye out for cases or events around the country where states are misapplying the establishment clause in a way that discriminates against people of faith,” or cases where states impinge on “free exercise of religion”.

Barr invokes a mythical (and highly debatable***) origin story, claiming that the Founding Fathers believed “that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government,” and that “the founding generations were Christians and they believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system. corresponds to the true nature of man.” The challenge of our century, Barr asserts, is “precisely what the founding fathers foresaw would be the supreme test of a free society…The central question is whether we the people could handle freedom. The question is whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.”

Where does this “moral discipline and virtue” come from? According to Barr, it “must rest on authority independent of men’s will. It must flow from the transcendent supreme being.” Free government is “only suitable and sustainable for a religious people, a people that recognized that there was a transcendent moral order.” And not just any religion.

“In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct. They reflect the rules that are best for man. Not in the bye and bye, but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and the best operation of human society. By the same token, violations of these rules have bad real world consequences.”

According to Barr:

“The law is being used as a battering ram to break down traditional moral values and to establish moral relativism as the new orthodoxy…through legislation, or more frequently, through judicial interpretation. The forces of secularism are continually seeking to eliminate laws that reflect traditional moral norms. [Such as legalization of abortion and euthanasia.] More recently we have seen the law used aggressively to force religious people and entities to subscribe to practices and policies that are antithetical to their faith. The problem is not that religion is being forced on others. The problem is that irreligion, secular values, are being forced on people of faith…Militant secularists…are not content to leave religious people alone to practice their faith. Instead, they seem to take delight in telling people to violate their conscience.”

As evidence, he cites efforts by the Obama administration “to force religious employers including Catholic religious orders to violate their sincerely held religious views by funding contraceptives and abortifacient coverage in their health plans” and a California effort “to require prolife pregnancy centers to provide notices of abortion rights.”

For Barr, the schools are “ground zero for these attacks on religion,” and “for the government to interfere in [teaching religion to our children] is a monstrous invasion of religious freedom. Yet this is where the battle is being joined. And I see that it is being waged on three fronts.”

  • “The first front relates to the content of public school curriculums. Many states are adopting curriculums that are incompatible with traditional Judeo-Christian principles according to which parents are trying to raise their children. And they often do this without any opt-out provision for religious families. For example, New Jersey recently passed a law requiring public schools to adopt an LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional Judeo-Christian teaching.”
  • “The second axis of attack in the realm of education are state policies designed to starve religious schools of generally available funds, encouraging students to choose secular options rather than religious schools.” [Barr cites a Montana ruling that bars state funds from being used for scholarships to religious schools and notes that the Justice Department is challenging the rule before the Supreme Court.]
  • “The third kind of assault on religious freedom in education is the recent effort to use state laws to force religious schools to adhere to secular orthodoxy. For example, right here in Indiana a teacher sued the Catholic archbishop of Indianapolis for directing the Catholic schools within his diocese that they could not employ teachers in same-sex marriages because the example of those same-sex marriages would undermine the school’s teaching on the Catholic view of marriage and the complementarity [sic] of the sexes. This lawsuit clearly infringes on the first amendment rights of the archdiocese…The Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest in the state court hearing these claims, and we hope that the state court will soon dismiss this case.”

Barr continues: “If these measure are successful, those with religious convictions will become still more marginalized…We cannot sit back and just hope that the pendulum is going to swing back towards sanity. As Catholics, we are committed to Judeo-Christian values that have made this country great.”

Barr concludes:

“We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor. The times are hostile to this. Public agencies, including public schools, are becoming secularized, and increasingly actively promoting moral relativism. If ever there was a need for a resurgence in Catholic education, and more generally in religiously-affiliated schools, it is today. I think we should do all we can to promote and support authentic Catholic education at all levels. Finally, as lawyers, we should be particularly active in the struggle that is being waged against religion in the legal plane. We must be vigilant to resist efforts by the forces of secularization to drive religious viewpoints from the public square and to impinge upon the exercise of our faith. 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 liberties, the freedom to live according to our faith.”

Barr is arguing here that government should intervene to preserve the dominance of a specific religion in the public life of this country. He isn’t arguing for the protection of religion in general, which would include Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Wicca, Santeria, etc. No, he’s arguing for the primacy of Christianity, which is the very definition of the “establishment of religion” which the US constitution expressly forbids.

Consider his phrase “Public agencies, including public schools, are becoming secularized…” The implication here is that public agencies and schools should NOT be secular, but should be made to conform to one religious viewpoint. Under our constitution, public agencies are supposed to be secular precisely because they are public.

And here is the Attorney General of the United States, speaking in that capacity, saying that “we should do all we can to promote and support authentic Catholic education at all levels.” That, in itself, is outrageous.

Let’s be clear on what this is all about. Reactionary conservatives have found in “religious exceptions” a way to circumvent policies that they don’t like, such as women’s access to contraception and abortion, same-sex marriage and legal protections for LBGTQ people, prohibition of overtly religious content in public education, immigration of non-white and non-Christian people, etc. Private Catholic and evangelical religious schools want access to public tax dollars. Accordingly, they have weaponized religion as a political force, which overwhelmingly supports Republican candidates who extol a mythical American past where white Christians were in complete control. The same people who stoke fears of an Islamic sharia, are busy trying to erect a, perhaps milder, Christian version of that in America, where secular law would be subordinate to (Christian) religious doctrine.

Of course, the religious right is Trump’s most solid base, despite the obvious fact that Trump is certainly the most religiously-impious president of modern times. Even if Trump should be removed by impeachment or election, this battle will be with us for decades. The federal courts are being stacked with unremovable conservative judges sympathetic to the “religious exception” theory, and the Supreme Court now has four justices–Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh who seem willing and eager to poke holes in the “establishment clause”.

Freedom to worship as you please is very much alive and well in America, despite Barr’s laughable jeremiad. What is really threatened today, is the principle of separation of church and state.


***“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. … But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding….” -Thomas Jefferson

“The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”– John Adams

Were the Founding Fathers all observant Christians? Well, not exactly. Most of them were nominally adherents of some Protestant denomination, but their degree of Christian orthodoxy varied widely. A few like Samuel Adams, John Jay, and Patrick Henry were orthodox believers in their own particular Protestant churches. A substantial number of others were Deists, who argued that human experience and rationality—rather than religious dogma and mystery—determine the validity of human beliefs. These included George Washington (who refused to take communion during his adult life), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allan, and James Monroe. Thomas Paine was among the non-Christian Deists, and he refused to use Judeo-Christian terminology.

In any case, the question is irrelevant. There is no reference to “God” or “the Almighty” or any euphemism for a higher power or of Christianity in the Constitution or the Federalist Papers. Article VI of the Constitution states: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” And the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (See here.)

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