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Attorney General Bill Barr Says We’d Better Get Religion

In October, Attorney General Bill Barr managed to fit into a wide-ranging itinerary that takes him to places as improbable, given his office, as the U.K., Italy and Ukraine, a stop in South Bend, Indiana, where he gave a speech at Notre Dame. It proved quite controversial.

He tells us of a Hobbesian world where "Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites, and, if unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large". He says the nation's founders were unsure whether the citizenry "could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary" for this new form of government to survive.

Barr wants to apply those missing restraints. "No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity" but if we left that to government, it would lead to tyranny. Restraint can't be left to the people, either. That leads to "licentiousness" and "the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good".

So what can be done?

Unsurprisingly, religion is for him the answer. "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people", says a quote from John Adams that Barr provides, and Barr elaborates that "free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people".

"From the Founding Era onward, there was strong consensus about the centrality of religious liberty in the United States", he says, expressed in the First Amendment's restriction that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". America is here enjoined from declaring any religion to be the official religion of the state and the people are free to follow any religion of their choice. The phrase does seem to expect that we will exercise some religion, though, and Barr wants you to know that he has in mind a particular religion: "By and large, the Founding generation’s view of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition", and later he reminds us, "The Founding generation were Christians".

But "over the past 50 years religion has been under increasing attack". There's been "a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square". The villain is militant secularism and its lack of principles that makes for the easy accommodation of moral relativism, is his view. It takes the form of "mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, academia, and 'savage' social media campaigns in an unremitting assault on religion and tradition values". Barr believes secularism is to blame for every social pathology: depression and mental illness, soaring suicide rates, discouraged youth, increasing violence, the drug epidemic, and births to unmarrieds that now run to 70%. He says it is "organized destruction" that has taken on "all the trappings of a religion, including inquisitions and excommunication", but he does not tell us what secret organization is coordinating this assault.

Secularism is certainly on the rise. Barr is evidently troubled by studies such as the 2018-19 Pew Research survey's findings that a quarter of the population now has no religious affiliation, up from 17% a decade ago. Today's number would be higher were it not averaged with generations such as the oldest among us, who are 85% Christian and only 10% unaffiliated. It masks that less than half of millennials self-identify as Christian and 40% of them are unaffiliated.

There is a mix of causes, but the younger generations are exposed to the exploded knowledge of an impossibly vast universe that is utterly incompatible with the superstitions of ancient religions, and that is a more likely cause of religion's decline than Barr's phobia of "militant secularism". His belief in "natural law — a real, transcendent moral order which flows from God’s eternal law — the divine wisdom by which the whole of creation is ordered" [his emphasis] just doesn't register with millennials.

As for morals, there is the conceit that morals stem only from religious teachings. But it's fair to ask of those who disagree, then from where else do we receive the moral teachings of goodness? "The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion", Barr says. "What we call 'values' today are really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity." Clearly, Barr does not respect those who exercise freedom of religion by not being religious. Without those Christian vapor trails, they would be bankrupt of morals and values.

His speech inevitably turns political. "Among these militant secularists are many so-called 'progressives'. But where is the progress?", he asks. Instead of "focusing on our own personal morality and transformation" as Christianity teaches,

"We have the State in the role of alleviator of bad consequences...The call comes for more and more social programs to deal with the wreckage...We start with an untrammeled freedom and we end up as dependents of a coercive state on which we depend."

"Secularists have been continually seeking to eliminate laws that reflect traditional moral norms" such as rolling back laws that once forbade abortion and euthanasia. But didn't both make individuals free to control their own lives rather than suffer the prohibitions of Barr's coercive state? He cites Obamacare requiring religious employers and Catholic religious orders to adopt insurance plans that included coverage of contraceptives and abortifacients as "irreligion and secular values...being forced on people of faith".

In fact, the Supreme Court, with its five Catholics, did precisely the opposite, forcing the religion of the family that owns the Hobby Lobby chain on its thousands of employees by denying them that coverage. That, for him, is today's militant secularists failing to "have a live and let live spirit — they are not content to leave religious people alone to practice their faith". Practice on others, we would add. Live and let live must for him surely apply to florists, photographers and bakers who refuse to provide services to weddings of same-sex couples. Pete Buttigieg knows about the other side of that live and let live, speaking against current law that makes it "lawful to harm people so long as you remember to use your religion as an excuse".

As "ground zero for these attacks", Barr then gets around to schools where anyone of faith expects "the teaching of that religion" to take place, there being "no greater gift we can give our children". He decries state policies that oppose the use of taxes to fund private schools that indoctrinate children in religion, and the several states that have passed laws requiring public schools to adopt an LGBT curriculum that violates how parents are attempting to raise their children. (Aren't Christians supposed to teach tolerance?). A California county refuses to allow children to be excused from instruction "related to gender, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation". We'd agree with Barr, but for a different reason: whatever happened to actual education?

"If ever there was a need for a resurgence of Catholic education — and more generally religiously-affiliated schools — it is today", says Barr. He wants to assure us that...

"[A]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 our liberties: the freedom to live according to our faith".

And there it is: the official pro-religion policy of the Department of Justice, and posted to its website. You can find it here.

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