Speaking at the University of Notre Dame on October 11, 2019, U.S. Attorney General William Barr argued that the cultural degradation in America today is unique from other points of history and other immoral societies. According to Barr, our hope rests in restoring the traditional religious values that are under assault. Moreover, “We must place greater emphasis on the moral education of our children. Education is not vocational training. It is leading our children to the recognition that there is truth and helping them develop faculties to discern and love the truth and the discipline to live by it.”
Barr’s warning to our nation sounds like something straight from Forerunners of America. It is a powerful and convicting challenge that exceeds even what many religious leaders are willing to say. Below is an abridged transcript of his speech. Granted, it is long; nevertheless, it is worth persevering to the end. This speech demands serious consideration and should drive each of us to consider our own role in rejecting this “new normal” revealed in our nation’s degradation. As William Barr says below, “We cannot sit back and just hope the pendulum is going to swing back toward sanity.”
Attorney General William Barr’s abridged speech.
Headings and emphases added.
From the Founding Era onward, there was strong consensus about the centrality of religious liberty in the United States.
The imperative of protecting religious freedom was not just a nod in the direction of piety. It reflects the Framers’ belief that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government.
In his renowned 1785 pamphlet, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” James Madison described religious liberty as “a right towards men” and a “a duty towards the Creator.”
It has been over 230 years since that small group of colonial lawyers led a revolution and launched what they viewed as a great experiment, establishing a society fundamentally different than those that had gone before. . . .
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity [excessive greed].
But, if you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.
On the other hand, unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous – licentiousness – the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny – where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.
Edmund Burke summed up this point in his typically colorful language:
“Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains upon their appetites…. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
So the Founders decided to take a gamble. They called it a great experiment.
They would leave “the People” broad liberty, limit the coercive power of the government, and place their trust in self-discipline and the virtue of the American people.
In the words of Madison, “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves…”
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.
As John Adams put it:
“We have no government armed with the power which is capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
THE FOUNDATIONAL ASPECT OF RELIGION WITHIN CULTURE
How does religion promote the moral discipline and virtue needed to support free government?
First, it gives us the right rules to live by. The Founding generation were Christians. They believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to the true nature of man. Those moral precepts start with the two great commandments – to Love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind; and to Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.
But they also include the guidance of natural law – a real, transcendent moral order which flows from God’s eternal law – the divine wisdom by which the whole of creation is ordered. The eternal law is impressed upon, and reflected in, all created things.
From the nature of things we can, through reason, experience, discern standards of right and wrong that exist independent of human will. . . .
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.
But religion helps teach, train, and habituate people to want what is good. It does not do this primarily by formal laws – that is, through coercion. It does this through moral education and by informing society’s informal rules – its customs and traditions which reflect the wisdom and experience of the ages. . . .
THE DISMISSAL OF RELIGION IN THE AMERICAN EXPERIMENT
I think we all recognize that over the past 50 years religion has been under increasing attack.
On the one hand, we have seen the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square.
On the other hand, we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism.
By any honest assessment, the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim.
Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.
In 1965, the illegitimacy rate was eight percent. In 1992, when I was last Attorney General, it was 25 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. In many of our large urban areas, it is around 70 percent.
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.
As you all know, over 70,000 people die a year from drug overdoses. That is more casualties in a year than we experienced during the entire Vietnam War. . . .
WILL THE PENDULUM SWING BACK?
In the past, societies – like the human body – seem to have a self-healing mechanism – a self-correcting mechanism that gets things back on course if things go too far.
The consequences of moral chaos become too pressing. The opinion of decent people rebels. They coalesce and rally against obvious excess. Periods of moral entrenchment follow periods of excess.
This is the idea of the pendulum. We have all thought that after a while the “pendulum will swing back.”
But today we face something different that may mean that we cannot count on the pendulum swinging back.
First is the force, fervor, and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion we are experiencing today. This is not decay; it is organized destruction. 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 instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy, but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters. . . .
Those who defy the creed risk a figurative burning at the stake – social, educational, and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.
The pervasiveness and power of our high-tech popular culture fuels apostasy in another way. It provides an unprecedented degree of distraction.
Part of the human condition is that there are big questions that should stare us in the face. Are we created or are we purely material accidents? Does our life have any meaning or purpose? But, as Blaise Pascal observed, instead of grappling with these questions, humans can be easily distracted from thinking about the “final things.”
Indeed, we now live in the age of distraction where we can envelop ourselves in a world of digital stimulation and universal connectivity. And we have almost limitless ways of indulging all our physical appetites.
In the past, when societies are threatened by moral chaos, the overall social costs of licentiousness and irresponsible personal conduct becomes so high that society ultimately recoils and reevaluates the path that it is on.
But today – in the face of all the increasing pathologies – instead of addressing the underlying cause, we have the State in the role of alleviator of bad consequences. We call on the State to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility.
So the reaction to growing illegitimacy is not sexual responsibility, but abortion.
The reaction to drug addiction is safe injection sites.
The solution to the breakdown of the family is for the State to set itself up as the ersatz husband for single mothers and the ersatz father to their children.
The call comes for more and more social programs to deal with the wreckage. While we think we are solving problems, we are underwriting them.
We start with an untrammeled [unlimited] freedom and we end up as dependents of a coercive state on which we depend. . . .
A third phenomenon which makes it difficult for the pendulum to swing back is the way law is being used as a battering ram to break down traditional moral values and to establish moral relativism as a new orthodoxy.
Law is being used as weapon in a couple of ways.
First, either through legislation but more frequently through judicial interpretation, secularists have been continually seeking to eliminate laws that reflect traditional moral norms.
At first, this involved rolling back laws that prohibited certain kinds of conduct. Thus, the watershed decision legalizing abortion. And since then, the legalization of euthanasia. The list goes on.
More recently, we have seen the law used aggressively to force religious people and entities to subscribe to practices and policies that are antithetical to their faith.
The problem is not that religion is being forced on others. 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.
Similarly, militant secularists today do not have a live and let live spirit – they are not content to leave religious people alone to practice their faith. Instead, they seem to take a delight in compelling people to violate their conscience. . . .
THE UNDERMINING OF THE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACT
This refusal to accommodate the free exercise of religion is relatively recent. Just 25 years ago, there was broad consensus in our society that our laws should accommodate religious belief.
In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – RFRA. The purpose of the statute was to promote maximum accommodation to religion when the government adopted broad policies that could impinge on religious practice.
At the time, RFRA was not controversial. It was introduced by Chuck Schumer with 170 cosponsors in the House, and was introduced by Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch with 59 additional cosponsors in the Senate. It passed by voice vote in the House and by a vote of 97-3 in the Senate.
Recently, as the process of secularization has accelerated, RFRA has come under assault, and the idea of religious accommodation has fallen out of favor.
Because this Administration firmly supports accommodation of religion, the battleground has shifted to the states. Some state governments are now attempting to compel religious individuals and entities to subscribe to practices, or to espouse viewpoints, that are incompatible with their religion.
Ground zero for these attacks on religion are the schools. To me, this is the most serious challenge to religious liberty.
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.
Yet here is where the battle is being joined, and I see the secularists are attacking on three fronts.
The first front relates to the content of public school curriculum. Many states are adopting curriculum that is incompatible with traditional religious principles according to which parents are attempting to raise their children. They often do so without any opt out for religious families.
Thus, for example, New Jersey recently passed a law requiring public schools to adopt an LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional Christian teaching. Similar laws have been passed in California and Illinois. And the Orange County Board of Education in California issued an opinion that “parents who disagree with the instructional materials related to gender, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation may not excuse their children from this instruction.”
Indeed, in some cases, the schools may not even warn parents about lessons they plan to teach on controversial subjects relating to sexual behavior and relationships.
This puts parents who dissent from the secular orthodoxy to a difficult choice: Try to scrape together the money for private school or home schooling, or allow their children to be inculcated with messages that they fundamentally reject.
A second axis of attack in the realm of education are state policies designed to starve religious schools of generally-available funds and encouraging students to choose secular options. Montana, for example, created a program that provided tax credits to those who donated to a scholarship program that underprivileged students could use to attend private school. The point of the program was to provide greater parental and student choice in education and to provide better educations to needy youth.
But Montana expressly excluded religiously-affiliated private schools from the program. And when that exclusion was challenged in court by parents who wanted to use the scholarships to attend a nondenominational Christian school, the Montana Supreme Court required the state to eliminate the program rather than allow parents to use scholarships for religious schools. . . .
A third kind of assault on religious freedom in education have been recent efforts to use state laws to force religious schools to adhere to secular orthodoxy. For example, right here in Indiana, a teacher sued the Catholic Archbishop of Indianapolis for directing the Catholic schools within his diocese that they could not employ teachers in same-sex marriages because the example of those same-sex marriages would undermine the schools’ teaching on the Catholic view of marriage and complementarity between the sexes.
This lawsuit clearly infringes the First Amendment rights of the Archdiocese by interfering both with its expressive association and with its church autonomy. The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the state court making these points, and we hope that the state court will soon dismiss the case.
Taken together, these cases paint a disturbing picture. We see the State requiring local public schools to insert themselves into contentious social debates, without regard for the religious views of their students or parents. In effect, these states are requiring local communities to make their public schools inhospitable to families with traditional religious values; those families are implicitly told that they should conform or leave. . . .
I do not mean to suggest that there is no hope for moral renewal in our country.
But we cannot sit back and just hope the pendulum is going to swing back toward sanity. . . .
We understand that only by transforming ourselves can we transform the world beyond ourselves.
This is tough work. It is hard to resist the constant seductions of our contemporary society. This is where we need grace, prayer, and the help of our church.
Beyond this, we must place greater emphasis on the moral education of our children.
Education is not vocational training. It is leading our children to the recognition that there is truth and helping them develop the faculties to discern and love the truth and the discipline to live by it.
We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor.
The times are hostile to this. Public agencies, including public schools, are becoming secularized and increasingly are actively promoting moral relativism.
If ever there was a need for a resurgence of Catholic education – and more generally religiously-affiliated schools – it is today. . . .
Finally, as lawyers, we should be particularly active in the struggle that is being waged against religion on the legal plane.
We must be vigilant to resist efforts by the forces of secularization to drive religious viewpoints from the public square and to impinge upon the free exercise of our faith.
I can assure you that, as long as I am Attorney General, the Department of Justice will be at the forefront of this effort, ready to fight for the most cherished of our liberties: the freedom to live according to our faith.
To read the full transcript of Attorney General William P. Barr’s speech, click here.