U.S. Attorney General William Barr spoke at Notre Dame Law School on Friday evening, calling for a defense of Judeo-Christian values and religious freedom in response to growing secularism in America.
The event was reserved for students, faculty and staff of the Notre Dame Law School and de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, both of which hosted the lecture. It took place in the McCartan Courtroom while another room in the law school streamed the speech to another crowd of ticket-holding students and faculty.
Barr began by discussing the new challenges the United States is facing today. It’s a difficulty he said the Founding Fathers foresaw as “the supreme test of a free society.”
“The central question was whether over the long haul, we the people can handle freedom,” Barr said. “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.”
In the Founders’ view, Barr said, free government was only suitable for people who had the discipline to control themselves according to a transcendent moral order. As John Adams put it, he said, the United States Constitution was made only for “a moral and religious people.”
“Now, modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as sort of otherworldly superstition imposed by a killjoy clergy,” Barr said. “But 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 by-and-by but in the here-and-now.”
By the same token, he said, violations of these moral laws have “bad, real world consequences” for man and society — such as society is seeing today.
“I think we all recognize that over the past 50 years, religion has been under increasing attack,” Barr said. “On the one hand, we have seen the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square. On the other hand, we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism.”
With escalating suicide rates, the drug epidemic, hate crimes and more, there is a campaign to “destroy the traditional moral order,” Barr said, and secularists ignore these results and press on with “even greater militancy.”
“Among the militant secularists are many so-called progressives,” he said. “But where is the progress? We were told we are living in a post-Christian era. But what has replaced the Judeo-Christian moral system? What is it that can fill the spiritual void in the hearts of the individual person? And what is the system of values that can sustain human social life?”
There used to be a self-healing mechanism that would get things back on course if they go too far in society, Barr said. That may not be the case today, he argued, due to three forces — the first being the “organized destruction” on religion by secularists and their allies.
“One of the ironies, as some have observed, is that the secular project has itself become a religion pursued with religious fervor,” he said. “It is taking out all the trappings of religion, including inquisitions and excommunication. Those who defy the creed risk a figurative burning at the stake: social, educational and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.”
Secondly, instead of addressing underlying causes of moral chaos today, Barr said society has now cast the state as the alleviator of bad consequences.
“So the reaction to growing illegitimacy is not sexual responsibility, but abortion,” he said. “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 an ersatz husband for the single mother and an ersatz father for the children. The call comes for more and more social programs to deal with this wreckage — and while we think we’re solving problems, we are underwriting them.”
The third phenomenon he noted is the law being used to break down traditional moral values, and to force religious people and entities to subscribe to practices antithetical to their faith.
“The problem is not that religion is being forced on others, the problem is that irreligion is being forced — secular values are being forced on people of faith,” he said.
Because the Trump administration “firmly supports” accommodation of religion, Barr said, this battleground has largely shifted to the states.
“Ground zero for these attacks on religion are the schools, and to me this is the most serious challenge to religious liberty today,” he said.
There are three fronts for the battle being waged in schools, he said. First is the public school curriculum, with states adopting curriculum incompatible with Judeo-Christian principles. He used New Jersey’s passing of a law requiring public schools to adopt LGBT curriculum as an example.
“This puts parents who descend from the secular orthodoxy to a difficult choice: try to scrape together enough money to send their kids to private school or homeschooling, or allow their children to be inculcated with messages that they fundamentally reject,” Barr said.
The second axis of attack involves states enacting policies “designed to starve religious schools” of funds, he said, encouraging students to choose secular options for schooling.
The third assault on religious freedom in schools, Barr asserted, includes efforts to force religious schools to adhere to secular orthodoxy through state laws.
If these measures are successful, those with religious convictions will become more marginalized, Barr said.
“We cannot sit back and just hope that the pendulum is going to swing back towards sanity,” he said. “As Catholics, we are committed to the Judeo-Christian values that have made this country great, and we know that the first thing we have to do to promote this renewal is to ensure that we are putting our principles into practice in our own personal lives.”
Barr emphasized the importance of the “moral education” of children today.
“We cannot have a moral Renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor,” he said. “ … If ever there was a need for a resurgence of Catholic education, and more generally religiously affiliated schools, it is today.”
Barr closed his lecture by calling for vigilance in resisting efforts by secularists to “drive religious viewpoints from the public square.”
“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 American liberties: the freedom to live according to our faith,” he said.
His lecture was followed by a Q&A session, which was closed to the press.
A recording obtained by The Observer, however, shows Barr fielded questions about the difference between working as Attorney General for President Donald Trump than under former president George H.W. Bush. He also discussed the digital age, hate in America, bipartisan support behind examining big tech companies and his views on immigration.
Along with more polarization today, Barr said things “on the outside” move faster with technology and things “on the inside” are moving slower as compared to his experience under Bush.
“Why things move more slowly in the department, I’m not sure, I’m trying to figure that out,” Barr said. “But I think part of it is of course the environment, people are more afraid of making difficult decisions and they try to finesse the problem rather than squarely deal with it.”
Barr said a serious problem is the rise of hate crimes in America, with many directed primarily at Jews and Muslims.
“I don’t know as much about the religion of Islam, but generally speaking as an Abrahamic religion, what I said about Judeo-Christianity and the importance of ensuring the ability to freely exercise your religion applies to Muslims in this country,” he said.
Catholic schools today are being discredited for teaching hate, Barr said.
“Traditional religious doctrine is now being defined as hate,” he said. “ … That’s used as a basis for trying to silence teaching of those traditional doctrines and moral precepts.”
On immigration, Barr said the problem he has is the unfairness with allowing people to “stand in line at the front door” while others “break into the back door.”
“One of the major problems [with illegal immigration] is the use of the asylum system, asylum or refugees, that is a system distinctive that is meant to deal with sort of exigent circumstances of someone who’s facing, you know, real harm in their country like persecution, fear of death, that kind of thing,” he said. “It’s for populations that are being persecuted, a way to give them haven for as long as that threat exists. So the whole point of this is to get them out of harm’s way — it is not a means of mass migration.”
Students in attendance at the lecture spoke to The Observer about their reactions to his speech.
Second-year law student Krystal Moczygemba said she had no idea what to expect but was struck by some of Barr’s insight.
“I thought he did a really great job of just presenting a topic area on something that all of us would be interested in,” she said. “ … His insight into the idea of self-governance and how that plays a role in how we view responsibility and moral accountability was I thought very interesting — I thought in a good way.”
Second-year law student Owen Fitzgerald said in an email he thought Barr brushed past the Establishment Clause to form an argument that America was founded as a Christian nation.
“Hearing the United States Attorney General blame ‘militant secularists’ for current American issues such as the drug crisis is as concerning as it is bizarre,” Fitzgerald said. “It should worry anyone who recognizes that the Establishment Clause is meant to keep government officials from acting to favor one religious view over another.”
Even so, Fitzgerald said he respects the law school’s decision to invite Barr.
“Now we know exactly what’s running through Barr’s head when he makes important decisions regarding the government’s role in religious matters,” Fitzgerald said. “I trust that in the future the law school will be as willing to invite someone to speak who believes it is not the government’s role to advocate for religion.”