The tagline on my profile says, as it has for years: “It is not the business of the state to help its citizens get into heaven nor save them from hell.” Apparently our esteemed Attorney General never read that. Nor has he read the First Amendment. As an op-ed in today’s New York Times puts it, Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell. And he’s planning to use the Justice Department to stop it.
[A]t least since Mr. Barr’s infamous speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, in which he blamed “secularists” for “moral chaos” and “immense suffering, wreckage and misery,” it has become clear that no understanding of William Barr can be complete without taking into account his views on the role of religion in society. For that, it is illuminating to review how Mr. Barr has directed his Justice Department on matters concerning the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a state religion.
Here’s a quote from that speech:
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.
Barr was quite open about his intentions:
We have set up a task force within the Department with different components that have equities in this area, including the Solicitor General’s Office, the Civil Division, the Office of Legal Counsel, and other offices. We have regular meetings. We keep an eye out 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.
His idea of “impinging upon the free exercise of religion” includes defending taxpayer funding for religious schools who think same-sex marriage is wrong (Maryland) or who promote their own sectarian doctrines (Maine). In the words of the op-ed:
In these and other cases, Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the “religious liberty” rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.
This is nothing new for Barr. Just after Trump nominated him for AG, Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote: William Barr Wants To Bring ‘God’s Law’ To America
Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush from November of 1991 until the end of Bush’s presidency early in 1993, gave at least two speeches in 1992 during which he attacked church-state separation and secular government.
Barr also (no surprise) misreads, apparently deliberately, American history. From the AU story:
(I should note that Barr’s paper, originally published in Catholic Lawyer, is poor scholarship. It contains a fake quote by James Madison lauding the Ten Commandments.)
Barr is still doing it. Here’s another line from his Notre Dame speech:
In his renowned 1785 pamphlet, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” James Madison described religious liberty as “a right towards men” but “a duty towards the Creator,” and a “duty….precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”
But what Madison actually said in the ellipses was:
It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. [emphasis added]
Madison wrote this in opposition to “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” saying
The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.
Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.
But Barr said:
[S]ocial order must flow up from the people themselves – freely obeying the dictates of inwardly-possessed and commonly-shared moral values. And to control willful human beings, with an infinite capacity to rationalize, those moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will – they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.
Or, as today’s op-ed put it:
This form of “religious liberty” is not a mere side issue for Mr. Barr, or for the other religious nationalists who have come to dominate the Republican Party. Mr. Barr has made this clear. All the problems of modernity — “the wreckage of the family,” “record levels of depression and mental illness,” “drug addiction” and “senseless violence” — stem from the loss of a strict interpretation of the Christian religion.
This is why the evangelicals continue to back Trump in spite of the number of commandments he loves to break. As long as IMPOTUS squats in the Oval, not only we will get more unqualified but fanatical judges, we will have Barr’s Justice Department bringing them cases to further a theocracy.
Last thought: One of the real factors that guided the Founders in setting up our government was the Thirty Years’ War, which started and mainly continued as a war between Catholics and Protestants over who was going to heaven and who to hell. The First Amendment was specifically meant to keep conflicts like that war away from us. Barr is a Catholic, and Pence is a Protestant, as are the Christian Dominionists. And they are setting us up for another Thirty Years’ War.
I’ll let Madison have the last word:
Because it will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced among its several sects. Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease. The American Theatre has exhibited proofs that equal and compleat liberty, if it does not wholly eradicate it, sufficiently destroys its malignant influence on the health and prosperity of the State.