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Quote of the Day: What Does U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr Really Want?

bill barr

But at least since Mr. [Bill] 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.

In Maryland, the department rushed to defend taxpayer funding for a religious school that says same-sex marriage is wrong. In Maine, it is defending parents suing over a state law that bans religious schools from obtaining taxpayer funding to promote their own sectarian doctrines. At his Department of Justice, Mr. Barr told law students at Notre Dame, “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.”

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 form of “religious liberty” seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this “religious liberty” rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion.

Mr. Barr has a long history of supporting just this type of “religious liberty.” At Notre Dame, he compared alleged violations of religious liberty with Roman emperors forcing Christian subjects to partake in pagan sacrifices. “The law is being used as a battering ram to break down traditional moral values and to establish moral relativism as a new orthodoxy,” he said.

Barr watchers will know that this is nothing new. In a 1995 article he wrote for The Catholic Lawyer, which, as Emily Bazelon recently pointed out, appears to be something of a blueprint for his speech at Notre Dame, he complained that “we live in an increasingly militant, secular age” and expressed his grave concern that the law might force landlords to rent to unmarried couples. He implied that the idea that universities might treat “homosexual activist groups like any other student group” was intolerable.

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.

The great evildoers in the Notre Dame speech are nonbelievers who are apparently out on the streets ransacking everything that is good and holy. The solutions to society’s ills, Mr. Barr declared, come from faith. “Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct,” he said. “Religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.” He added, “The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.”

Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyperpartisanship is the symptom, not the malady. At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic Party and its supporters are routinely described as “demonic” and associated with “rulers of the darkness.” If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative. And as the vicious reaction to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial demonstrates, any break with this partisan alignment will be instantly denounced as heresy.


“What does Bill Barr want?”

The answer is that America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about “originalism” and “judicial restraint” — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices.

Mr. Trump’s presidency was not the cause of this anti-democratic movement in American politics. It was the consequence. He is the chosen instrument, not of God, but of today’s Christian nationalists, their political allies and funders, and the movement’s legal apparatus. Mr. Barr did not emerge in order to serve this one particular leader. On the contrary, Mr. Trump serves a movement that will cynically praise the Constitution in order to destroy it, and of which Mr. Barr has made himself a hero.

— Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson, The New York Times, Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell, December 30, 2019


  1. Avatar
    dale m

    I particularly like Bill Barr’s quote “The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.” He’s correct. There isn’t. And herein lies the huge problem for secularism. We don’t want to perform the role of religion. That’s not who we are. But that would also be a mistake. We don’t ask religion to come up with a secular role either but, Bill Barr is telling us that 1/2 of America needs to have a more rigid code to live by. I don’t see why we can’t provide that to them. Barr threw down the gauntlet. But it’s too early for us. We run the extreme danger of being sniffed out in the cradle. So. Here we lie. No centre. No leaders to lead a secular charge. We R organized on a Boy Scout level at best. They R organized on a semi-military level (not quite, but close). This is a National Socialist movement. We R the Jews. Do we organize on a para-military level? Or do we repeat history with …. ahhh …. what’s your worry? It’ll all blow over! The Nazis aren’t actually going to round us up! So. You choose the side of history you want to be on. Good luck.

  2. Avatar

    Let me get my coat, apparently I have some secular ransacking to do!

    It’s so disturbing how the religious right want to regulate everyone’s personal behavior. For many far right Christians, they believe the future of the USA is dependent on forcing everyone to adhere to certain rules or else their deity will be angry and punish the nation. I suppose they draw this from the Old Testament stories in which King X did evil in the sight of the LORD, so they were allowed to be overrun by neighboring tribes. There’s a whole litany of this evil king, that evil king, this conquest or that, and so on. Not to mention the whole Noah’s flood story and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

    We MUST get out there and vote in order to keep the legislative branch of government from.being totally overrun by these Christian nationalists.

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    Melissa A Montana

    We must get more involved. Secularists cannot just complain on the sidelines. We must vote, run for office, hound Congress, our State, and our local governments constantly, and file lawsuits when they attempt to trample our rights. I am so sick of hearing “but the system is corrupt/broken” or “but none of the candidates are perfect.” Politicians are humans with baggage (as are we all), not idols to be worshiped. Pick the best one and hold them accountable. I get so angry at atheists and agnostics who love to post memes insulting RW Christians and get into stupid arguments trolling them, but then wimp out when it comes to actually doing something. “Oh, what’s the point, my vote doesn’t matter.” The Christian Right believes you don’t matter, that you have no rights. Why this apathy? Why are so many secularists willing to give up without a fight?
    Sorry about the rant, but I am really getting fed up with the bickering on the Democratic side. And for full disclosure, I attend protests when I can and I write my Congress people every week.

  4. Avatar
    dale m

    Couldn’t agree with U more Melissa. The apathy stems from non-involvement. That is created by the perception that we R not very organized. The lack of organization stems from the utter lack of resources. Resources create funding. The secular world is still “pan handling”. They R 4 the most part “non-profits”. Non-profits almost never win. In my 70 years, I’ve seen it all. My answer is quite trite and I apologize for that but this is what I have learned. It will take a small, even tiny collection of individuals or even one man/ woman to mastermind a secular breakout of massive proportion involving $ multi-billion financing on a continuous basis, exceptional organizational skills and the ability to lead by example. Exceptionally difficult to pull off. We too often try the easy way out. There is none. We should attempt it because it IS exceptionally hard …. NOT because it is easy to do. And herein lies our collective failure. We don’t possess the commitment to see anything through. This is going to sound harsh. We R at war! War requires FULL commitment. Bring people economic wealth. Push all others aside in the political arena. Be absolutely ruthless. Overthrow the US government via democratic means. Toss out the US Constitution. Insert a new US Constitution. Change the flag of the US to represent that change. Outlaw religion as a criminal enterprise. Seize all churches AFTER supplanting them with your own. These R just people. It is just a Constitution written on paper. It can B done if the commitment is there. Otherwise, roll over, play dead and maybe they won’t hit us so hard. Get used to the new brand of National Socialist Religion if committing to their overthrow sounds too harsh. They could and probably will do it to us without a 2nd thought. We should be so committed ourselves. The Law of the Jungle is the most powerful Law known. Call it human nature if one is so inclined.

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Bruce Gerencser