After reading a Heather Cox Richardson comment about William Barr’s 2019 Notre Dame Law School speech, I finally read it. In one sense it was as advertised, a speech on the importance of religion as an essential part of a moral society. By religion he made it clear he was talking about Christianity with a friendly wave of the hand to Judaism. I doubt most Christians would find anything terribly amiss in the speech, if it was only about religion, but it wasn’t.
It was cover for a subtext that was the real point he wanted to make. Barr asserted that religion (Christianity) is under attack by a well funded, disciplined secular movement aided by their progressive allies. Their aim is to eliminate religion (Christianity) from the public arena and suppress individual rights to worship as one pleases. It is, he said, the Judeo-Christian code that undergirds the moral health of society itself. Secularists, and their progressive allies, have only hedonistic relativism to guide them in their march to socialism.
It’s an old, but effective, method to create a false enemy against which one’s own forces are said to be fighting for an all that is good survival.
Barr, I think, knows very well there is no well funded and disciplined secularist movement, and that progressives are as likely to be deeply religious people as not. He knows but doesn’t care because asserting an enemy is all that is needed to create one in the minds of a good many people. And why not? There really are evil enemies of the good, so if a man of Barr’s stature says there are, it might be so to the uncritical eye.
Citing Adams, Madison, Franklin and others, he claimed the United States was founded by Christians as a Christian nation in which the Constitution enshrined Christian values as moral guides for the country. It seems an odd claim to make in front of a law school audience that knows something about American history. The founding fathers were a mix of Christians of deep faith, social Christians, Deists and Enlightenment skeptics crafting a nation more neutral on religion with a heavy emphasis on protecting individual and property rights. If Christianity was the de facto national religion, in spite of revival movements, it was a mile wide and an inch deep.
That said, Christian voices have indeed been raised as guides to moral life in the public arena, most notably to oppose slavery, promote education, and advocate for civil rights. Barr argued for renewed moral guidance from the church in defense of traditional Christian values. But his agenda of values had little to do with what Jesus taught, and much to do with the social teachings of the conservative side of the Roman Catholic Church. There is nothing per se wrong with that; he was, after all, speaking as a Catholic to a Catholic audience at a Catholic University. What was wrong was his assertion that they were values universally accepted as both Christian and traditional, and that secularists and their progressive allies must be restrained from opposing them in the public arena. He argued that social safety net programs weakened the integrity of nuclear families consisting of a husband, wife and children, while also undermining individual responsibility.
He was not wrong about the importance of family, the difficulty of single parenthood, or the value of self reliance, but he was unwilling to consider a wider view of what family is; he was unable to recognize that government programs establishing more equitable conditions from which to succeed as self reliant persons are a help, not a hinderance.
Most important, from my point of view, his slight wave of the hand to Jesus’ commandment to love God, one’s self and one another, avoided any consideration of Jesus’ principle teachings and deeds that show us what loving one another as Jesus loves us looks like. That failure eroded the entire religious foundation of his remarks, replacing it with the mud bricks of right wing social evangelicalism.