One of my favorite speeches in recent history was delivered by Barack Obama at Notre Dame University ten years ago. In it he warned against the particular kind of self-righteousness for which the Christian right — and some advocates of an equally nonreflective Christian left — is famed, in its certainty that God’s will dictates particular political positions that are largely a matter of secular concern. Here’s a sample:
[T]he ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.
This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame.
As I noted at the time, Obama was offering a distinctively religious rationale for separation of church and state:
In the end, as Obama himself suggests, what unites secular liberalism with non-fundamentalist religious beliefs is the conviction that we live in a world governed by universal laws that cannot be reliably deduced in many particulars. That is why mutual respect, including respect for individual rights, and a commitment to pluralism and rational discourse, are so critical to both traditions, and why many of us subscribe to both. If religious fundamentalists or cultural conservatives generally choose to reject that “common ground,” as many will, then they are willfully abandoning any path to the achievement of their own objectives that does not depend on raw power and repression.
Attorney General Bill Barr spoke at the same place this month, a decade later, and the contrast in tone and substance could not be starker. For him, doubt is weakness and infidelity, and his concept of the fear of God is the fear that unbelievers must feel at the stern righteousness of the godly:
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.
By the same token, violations of these moral laws have bad, real-world consequences for man and society. We may not pay the price immediately, but over time the harm is real.
Religion helps promote moral discipline within society. Because man is fallen, we don’t automatically conform ourselves to moral rules even when we know they are good for us.
Barr has bought David Barton’s “Christian Nation” revisionist history in toto, and argues that the Founders believed freedom was incompatible with anything other than the “self-discipline” commanded by religious observance. Letting people sink into unbelief leaves them fit for nothing but the lash of government. As the New Republic’s Matt Ford observes, Barr attributes every social malady to a decline in piety, with little or no evidence:
[D]eclining 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.”
Paul Krugman was scandalized by the rigid religiosity of it all:
Barr gave a fiery speech denouncing the threat to America posed by “militant secularists,” whom he accused of conspiring to destroy the “traditional moral order,” blaming them for rising mental illness, drug dependency and violence.
Consider for a moment how inappropriate it is for Barr, of all people, to have given such a speech. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion; the nation’s chief law enforcement officer has no business denouncing those who exercise that freedom by choosing not to endorse any religion.
But my reaction, as a Christian, was different: I was scandalized by the cold secular legalism of Barr’s approach to religion’s role in human life, which is basically, it seems, to reinforce cultural conservatism — replacing Law and Gospel with Law and Order. Barr refers to the Word of God as “God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.” How intensely unspiritual can you get! Where is love, joy, communion, thanksgiving, and celebration? Where is forgiveness and acceptance? Guess these values aren’t sufficiently “utilitarian.”
Barr spends a large portion of his address complaining about “militant secularists” persecuting Christians for merely insisting on their right to their beliefs. None of the beliefs he defends appear to extend beyond homophobia and opposition to contraception. That is apparently his idea of the Christianity that is so essential to civilization. How empty is his vision of the faith!
To many of the politicized denizens of the Christian right — to which Barr belongs as surely as does Ralph Reed or Pat Robertson or Robert Jeffress — Barack Obama is regarded as evil if not demonic, even though the 44th president exudes the sweet reasonableness of Jesus as surely as his successor belches fire and brimstone and incessant hatefulness. Take a look at Barr’s remarks at Notre Dame, and then Obama’s, which concluded as follows:
If there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It is no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule — the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. To serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.
I cannot peer into William Barr’s soul, and wouldn’t if I could, but if I were him, I’d be terrified to express with such certainty the identification of God with secular conservative ideology — the religion of a divinized Day Before Yesterday, which happens to coincide with the totally unspiritual interests of the rich and powerful men he serves. Perhaps Barr is equally devoted to Judeo-Christian values and to Making American Great Again, defined as bringing back the 1950s. But they are not the same thing.