william barr

William Barr Embodies the Conservative Surrender to Trump

A partisan, an authoritarian, and a Christian nationalist. Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Ever since his stern and angry speech at the University of Notre Dame in October, it’s been apparent that Attorney General William Barr is not simply a pliant spear-carrier for the man who lifted him to the Cabinet for a return engagement, but a right-wing ideologue on his own merits. In a New York Times op-ed, Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson argue that the Christian nationalism Barr espoused at Notre Dame (and in earlier utterances dating back nearly a quarter-century) is the real key to understanding his support for the Boss:

America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system …

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.

Thus, Trump’s transactional willingness to pursue such Christian-nationalist goals as banning abortion and fully legitimizing religious-based discrimination against LGBTQ folk makes him, like George W. Bush before him, the beneficiary of otherwise unacceptable (to conservatives) theories of untrammeled executive power. Similarly, Trump’s party (and Barr’s) is defended with partisanship of an unprecedented intensity because, quite literally, it represents God and his angelic hosts in spiritual combat with Satan and his infernal slaves.

While I am sympathetic to the case being made by Stewart and Fredrickson, and wish them great influence among Times readers who may struggle to take religion seriously, I do think the relationship between the secular and religious views of people like Barr is a bit more dynamic than they suggest. It’s not just that a certain style of Christian conservatism brings partisanship and authoritarianism in its train; a taste for raw political power can influence the kind of Christianity a political actor chooses to embrace. As I noted in my own take on Barr’s Notre Dame speech, the attorney general isn’t just someone who goes to church on Sunday or tries to follow the Gospels:

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! …

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!

Arguably, Barr isn’t best understood as a theocrat whose faith leads him into the spiritually dubious company of the self-idolater of the White House, but as an authoritarian and cultural reactionary who has found a home in a compatible and very secular-minded branch of politicized conservative Christianity. All these facets of Barr’s mental makeup reinforce each other smoothly, and make it possible for him to regard Trump not as a necessary evil or even a passive instrument of the Divine Will, but as the exemplary Republican president. To men like his attorney general, Trump’s appeal includes his brutal partisanship, his will to power, and his determination to Make America Great Again by bringing back the godly golden age of the 1950s, when minorities and women were seen but rarely heard; most gay folks were firmly in the closet; and much of Christianity served as the handmaiden of anti-socialist militancy and a Wall Street–Main Street alliance. Treating Trumpians like Barr as simply religious fanatics misses a big part of the story.

William Barr Embodies the Conservative Surrender to Trump