Attorney General Bill Barr is a busy man these days. When he’s not personally traveling to Italy to investigate bizarre conspiracy theories about the 2016 election or ending the de facto moratorium on federal executions, he’s giving speeches to a variety of audiences. One of them is attracting far more attention than usual. His speech on religious liberty at the University of Notre Dame earlier this month was a broadside against those he held responsible for Christianity’s decline in American life.
“This is not decay; it is organized destruction,” Barr warned. “Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives,’ have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.” These forces, he argued, pose a fundamental threat to religious liberty and to people of faith in general—one that he pledges to fight as attorney general.
Reactions to Barr’s speech were unsurprising. The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher wrote that his fellow religious conservatives “should ponder the fact that under Donald Trump, as awful as he is in so many ways, a man of William Barr’s convictions is heading up the Department of Justice” when thinking about the 2020 election. “It is inconceivable that any Democratic president would put a man like him in charge of the Justice Department,” he wrote. “In fact, we are getting a good idea that a Democratic president would likely choose his precise opposite.”
Conversely, The New York Times’ Paul Krugman warned that Barr “is sounding remarkably like America’s most unhinged religious zealots, the kind of people who insist that we keep experiencing mass murder because schools teach the theory of evolution. Guns don’t kill people — Darwin kills people!” He argued that the speech reflects a broader effort among Trump’s closest allies in the evangelical community “to use the specter of secularism to distract people from their boss’s sins,” especially as the House’s impeachment inquiry gathers public support.
The truth lies elsewhere. Barr’s speech was not a political ploy to defend the president. It’s an honest recitation of his personal beliefs. That’s the problem. The attorney general is the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, not its top theologian. Like any civil servant, Barr is supposed to work on behalf of all Americans and not just some of them. His speech undermined that principle by articulating a vision of state power that favors those who share his particular religious beliefs over those who don’t.
Barr’s central argument is that American democracy can only survive if the people it represents are guided by a higher moral authority that constrain their individual passions. Religion, particularly the Christian faith, provides the civic virtue and ethical restraint that makes self-government possible. “Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition imposed by a kill-joy clergy,” Barr said. “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. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.”
Over the last 40 years, Barr says, this foundation has been undermined by those who seek to drive Christianity from the public sphere. “By any honest assessment, the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim,” he said. “Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground. [...] 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.”
This correlation doesn’t hold up as a causation. Weaker community bonds and growing isolation can indeed feed into what researchers call “deaths of despair,” especially among middle-aged white Americans. But declining religiosity is a less persuasive factor for these social ills than economic inequality and other policy choices. Secularism didn’t ship 21 million opioids to a West Virginia town with fewer than 3,000 residents; drug manufacturers who prioritized profits over human lives did that. The disturbing rise in U.S. suicides can also be more easily linked to meager mental health care resources and the ubiquity of firearms than moral relativism.
It’s also worth noting that some indicators of social health are ticking upwards despite Christianity’s ebbing presence in American life. The national rate of violent crimes dropped by half since the 1990s—the last time that Barr served as attorney general. His concerns about “licentiousness and irresponsible personal conduct” also seem slightly unmoored from the available evidence. Fewer teenagers are having sex or getting pregnant now than they were thirty years ago. Today’s youth are so abstinent from sexual behavior compared to past generations that The Atlantic wondered last December if the nation was in the middle of a “sex recession.”
Barr’s reference to “angry and alienated young males” is particularly striking because of what he doesn’t list as threats to religious liberty and the “traditional moral order.” He does not mention, for example, the gunman who killed six members of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012. Or the one who murdered nine black parishioners in Charleston in 2015. Or the one who killed eleven Jewish worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year—the deadliest anti-Semitic massacre in the history of the republic. Anti-Semitic hate crimes recently surged to some of their highest recorded levels in the last 40 years.
It’s hard to imagine a more urgent threat to the free exercise of religious beliefs than these attacks. I don’t doubt that Barr is troubled by them. But their omission from his narrative simply underscores that his concern isn’t so much about the future of religious liberty, but the future of Christian hegemony in American public life.
That concern is somewhat well-founded. A Pew Research Center report released last Friday found that the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians now stands at 65 percent, a 12 percent drop from 2009. That decline is matched by a 17 percent rise in Americans without a religious affiliation, who now make up 26 percent of the population. By focusing on the immediate political context, Krugman missed the deeper social and cultural currents that animate not only Barr’s remarks, but similar fears throughout the religious right.
“Today, 62 percent of Christians say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month, which is identical to the share who said the same in 2009,” Pew reported. “In other words, the nation’s overall rate of religious attendance is declining not because Christians are attending church less often, but rather because there are now fewer Christians as a share of the population.” The generational divides are even more stark: Pew found that 84 percent of the Silent Generation and 76 percent of baby boomers describe themselves as Christian, while only 49 percent of millennials do so.
Those figures help explain why Barr devoted so much of his attention to education. “To me, this is the most serious challenge to religious liberty,” he said. “For anyone who has a religious faith, by far the most important part of exercising that faith is the teaching of that religion to our children. The passing on of the faith. There is no greater gift we can give our children and no greater expression of love. For the government to interfere in that process is a monstrous invasion of religious liberty.”
To that end, he criticized New Jersey and other states for requiring “an LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional Christian teaching,” especially if parents can’t opt out. He lambasted state legislatures that don’t want to send taxpayer funds to private religious schools. And he said the Justice Department would intervene on behalf of the Catholic archdiocese in Indianapolis in a lawsuit brought by a Catholic school teacher who was fired for marrying her wife. “If these measures are successful, those with religious convictions will become still more marginalized,” he warned.
Other high-profile violations of religious liberty in recent years went unmentioned. It’s not surprising that he didn’t cite the Muslim ban that President Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail and imposed in office with the Supreme Court’s assent. Nor did he cite the Justice Department’s intervention two years ago on behalf of a Virginia Muslim community that couldn’t obtain a permit to build a mosque. This spring, the justices even refused to delay the execution of a Muslim death-row prisoner in Georgia while he challenged a state policy that allowed a Protestant Christian minister to be in the execution chamber during the process, but not the clergy of his own faith.
The common thread that runs through Barr’s speech is power. In his telling, those who undermine Christianity’s preeminent status in American society are the ones who wield and abuse their power. “The problem is not that religion is being forced on others,” he said. “The problem is that irreligion and secular values are being forced on people of faith. This reminds me of how some Roman emperors could not leave their loyal Christian subjects in peace but would mandate that they violate their conscience by offering religious sacrifice to the emperor as a god.”
That comparison is enlightening, though not in the way Barr intended. The attorney general is not an unarmed prisoner staring down a lion in the Colosseum; he is one of the emperor’s most powerful magistrates. The Trump administration is a living testament to the Christian right’s political power in twenty-first-century America. And while Trump himself is not known for adhering to a Christian moral code, he has staffed his administration with figures like Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other religious conservatives who shape public policy every day.
Barr noted that the previous administration took a different approach. He cited the Obama administration’s efforts to enforce the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate on Christian-led companies and organizations that invoked religious-freedom claims. What he left out is that those groups have largely triumphed in the courts. The Supreme Court is more favorable towards religious-liberty claims today than they’ve been at any other time in the past 50 years. Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s conservative justices have handed victory after victory after victory to those claims in recent years. Thanks to Trump, they’ll likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
This dynamic is not healthy for American politics. Those who’ve found a moral and ethical foundation beyond Christianity aren’t going anywhere. And while Christians may be declining in relative influence, they aren’t vanishing from public life any time soon. (If anything, the history of Christianity is a history of surviving and thriving amidst the heathens.) The only viable option is peaceful coexistence, with all the vexations and frustrations that it brings. Public officials should work to bring us closer to that goal. Barr’s sectarian vision only pushes us toward a darker path.