On Friday, Attorney General Bill Barr delivered a speech at Notre Dame University. It was, in my experience, much different fare than I’ve come to expect of attorneys general. It wasn’t a plea for more cops or more laws or more money. Rather it was a jeremiad about what happens when the state assumes the role that religious institutions have previously played in our public life. In particular, Barr notes that religion is under active attack.
The challenge we face is precisely what the Founding Fathers foresaw would be our supreme test as a free society.
They never thought the main danger to the republic came from external foes. The central question was whether, over the long haul, we could handle freedom. The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.
By and large, the Founding generation’s view of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition.
These practical statesmen understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good, also had the capacity for great evil.
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.
No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity.
But, if you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.
On the other hand, unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous – licentiousness – the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny – where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.
Edmund Burke summed up this point in his typically colorful language:
“Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains upon their appetites…. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
The answer Barr offered was unsurprising to anyone with a passing acquaintance with our history or even with Western Civilization:
Religion helps promote moral discipline within society. Because man is fallen, we don’t automatically conform ourselves to moral rules even when we know they are good for us.
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 presents the secularist critique of religion and goes on to document the failures of secularism.
But today – in the face of all the increasing pathologies – instead of addressing the underlying cause, we have the State in the role of alleviator of bad consequences. We call on the State to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility.
So the reaction to growing illegitimacy is not sexual responsibility, but abortion.
The reaction to drug addiction is safe injection sites.
The solution to the breakdown of the family is for the State to set itself up as the ersatz husband for single mothers and the ersatz father to their children.
The call comes for more and more social programs to deal with the wreckage. While we think we are solving problems, we are underwriting them.
We start with an untrammeled freedom and we end up as dependents of a coercive state on which we depend.
What really drove the secularists over the edge was his conclusion:
Education is not vocational training. It is leading our children to the recognition that there is truth and helping them develop the faculties to discern and love the truth and the discipline to live by it.
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 are actively promoting moral relativism.
Finally, as lawyers, we should be particularly active in the struggle that is being waged against religion on 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 free 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 our liberties: the freedom to live according to our faith.
And there is so much more goodness here that I encourage you to read the whole thing.
The criticism wasn’t long in coming:
Barr's recent speech should alarm anyone who cares about the First Amendment's guarantee against a state religion.https://t.co/Mos46Rdzir
— Washington Monthly (@monthly) October 15, 2019
— FFRF (@FFRF) October 14, 2019
This speech at Notre Dame was one of the worst speeches ever given by an Attorney General.
No respect for traditional American values, including diverse religious traditions; no respect for the Constitution. Demagoguery. Bottom feeding.https://t.co/2AUASuAjlr via @dailycaller
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) October 13, 2019
Dear Bill Barr of @TheJusticeDept: I'm just a simple Catholic. But even I know your job is to enforce the law, not the Bible.
We are a Constitutional Republic, not a theocracy.
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) October 12, 2019
That anything Barr said was shocking is shocking. The criticisms betray a blinding ignorance of our national history and traditions and show a willingness to lie in order to aggrandize power to the government. What is striking is that Barr is merely making a 21st Century riff off the 1798 speech by John Adams that included:
We have no government armed with power 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 to the government of any other.
Or off Tocqueville:
Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.
Or our first socialist president, FDR:
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.
(h/t to the WSJ for the quotes by Tocqueville and FDR)
Barr is right. I’ve never been able to understand why people on the right who are allegedly conservatives haven’t hesitated to jump aboard virtually every train to Crazy Town that has pulled out of Tolerance station in the past ten years. The inability to stand up and be counted in opposition to really bad ideas–here I include all manner of pathologies from homosexual marriage to the mainstreaming of transgenderism–has made the right unable to restrain the growth of the militant secularists who are clearly out to eradicate religion.
But just as we can’t rely upon the government to fill the role of religion in society, neither can we rely upon government to protect religious liberty. We can only do that by speaking out and by teaching our children Christian morality and dogma from Day One so that they can resist the pressure of a hostile society.