U.S. Attorney General William Barr observed America’s Framers believed in religious freedom “not just as a nod in the direction of piety,” but as “indispensable to sustaining a free system of government.”
In an address Friday to the Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, Barr, a Catholic, reflected on the importance of religious liberty in America, and how the Framers fashioned the Constitution expressly for a time such as the 21st century, when a cultural firestorm has gripped the nation.
The attorney general contrasted America’s great challenge today with one it faced in the 20th century:
There had always been the question whether a democracy so solicitous of individual freedom could stand up against a regimented totalitarian state.
That question was answered with a resounding “yes” as the United States stood up against and defeated, first fascism, and then communism.
But in the 21st century, we face an entirely different kind of challenge.
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.
Barr explained “the classical Christian tradition” served as the inspiration for the Founding generation. The Framers knew humankind was capable of both great good and great evil.
He said they also knew that, if they were to create a system of powerful and coercive central government, the result would be “tyranny.” In contrast, without any 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,” he said.
Barr said the Founders essentially took “a gamble”:
They called it a great experiment.
They would leave “the People” broad liberty, limit the coercive power of the government, and place their trust in self-discipline and the virtue of the American people.
In the words of Madison, “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves…”
This is really what was meant by “self-government.” It did not mean primarily the mechanics by which we select a representative legislative body. It referred to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves.
Barr explained the source of the internal control in a free republic such as America must be within the people themselves, “freely obeying the dictates of inwardly-possessed and commonly-shared moral values.”
“And to control willful human beings, with and infinite capacity to rationalize, those moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will – they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being,” the attorney general said:
In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people – a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.
As John Adams put it, “We have no government armed with the power which is 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 for the government of any other.”
Barr said religion supports free government by providing a guidebook of rules to live by, “God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society”:
The Founding generation were Christians. They believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to the true nature of man. Those moral precepts start with the two great commandments – to Love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind; and to Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.
But they also include the guidance of 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. The eternal law is impressed upon, and reflected in, all created things.
From the nature of things we can, through reason, experience, discern standards of right and wrong that exist independent of human will.
Religion, Barr said, provides us with moral laws, the violation of which “have bad, real-world consequences for man and society.”
“We may not pay the price immediately, but over time the harm is real,” he said. “In other words, religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.”
Barr said religious liberty holds a place of priority in the Donald Trump administration and the Department of Justice.
He noted especially that his department looks 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 adopt laws that impinge upon the free exercise of religion.”
The attorney general explained that, today, “modern secularists” are rejecting the morality instilled by faith as “other-worldly superstition imposed by a kill-joy clergy.”
He observed the destruction of American society and culture that has occurred at the same time religious freedom has come under attack by militant secularists:
In 1965, the illegitimacy rate was eight percent. In 1992, when I was last Attorney General, it was 25 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. In many of our large urban areas, it is around 70 percent.
Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic.
As you all know, over 70,000 people die a year from drug overdoses. That is more casualties in a year than we experienced during the entire Vietnam War.
Barr said “the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery. And yet, the forces of secularism, ignoring these tragic results, press on with even greater militancy.”
“Among these militant secularists are many so-called ‘progressives,’” he observed. “But where is the progress?”
Nothing from progressives has provided a replacement to fill the spiritual void of Americans, Barr observed, noting the ferocity of the assault on religion is not a sign of “decay,” but, instead, “organized destruction.”
He warned against the complacent view that, after a while, the “pendulum” will simply “swing back.”
“[T]oday we face something different that may mean that we cannot count on the pendulum swinging back,” Barr said, noting that secularists and progressives are engaged in an all-out assault on religion and traditional values through “mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia.”
“These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy, but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters,” he explained, pointing out several areas in education where secularists are attacking. In particular, he noted:
New Jersey recently passed a law requiring public schools to adopt an LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional Christian teaching. Similar laws have been passed in California and Illinois. And the Orange County Board of Education in California issued an opinion that “parents who disagree with the instructional materials related to gender, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation may not excuse their children from this instruction.”
Indeed, in some cases, the schools may not even warn parents about lessons they plan to teach on controversial subjects relating to sexual behavior and relationships.
Barr observed that as American culture has grown increasingly pathological, progressives and secularists have called on “the State” to alleviate the problems associated with personal 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.
Barr said the progressive dream of “the State” becoming the solver of all ills is in sharp contrast to what Christianity teaches – that “we transform the world by focusing on our own personal morality and transformation.”
The attorney general urged Americans to ignore the temptation to sit back and wait for the “pendulum” of the nation’s culture to swing back.
Barr said by ensuring we instill our own faith principles in our daily actions and by educating our children in sound moral principles, we can “transform the world beyond ourselves.”
“We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor,” he asserted.