Attorney General William P. Barr offered a withering evisceration of anti-religious sentiment last week, defending the central role of Judeo-Christian moral standards in American democracy, accusing “militant secularists” of an assault on religion that’s become as intolerant as religions they criticize.
“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,” he said.
He added: “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.”
Mr. Barr’s speech, delivered at the University of Notre Dame on Friday, is gaining traction this week as the video circulates online and defenders and detractors line up. Atheists called it unvarnished “bigotry,” while Mr. Barr’s supporters said it was one of the most important speeches on religion by a major government official in years.
(The full speech can be read HERE)
The attorney general, a Catholic himself, said the country’s founders saw religious liberty as the scaffolding on which they hung the government, promoting the moral discipline that made limited government possible.
Mr. Barr said secularists have turned that on its head, erasing those standards and replacing them with cheap substitutions that fail the test.
“The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion,” he said. “What we call ‘values’ today are really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity.”
Mr. Barr’s speech was followed a day later by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in a speech in Tennessee detailed his own efforts to live his Christian faith in public life.
Atheists and secularists were outraged, saying the Trump team was embracing a dangerous “Christian nationalism.”
“The Trump administration’s flagrant promotion of Christian ideology is a gift to Christian nationalists,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “This religious favoritism is the kind of abuse of their duty to represent all Americans equally that demonstrates how fundamentalism is the driving force of this administration’s agenda.”
Religion’s role in public life, usually part of the political background, has emerged as a surprise dividing line recently.
Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate was peppered with commercials from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, featuring Ron Reagan, son of the late president, proclaiming himself an “unabashed atheist.”
“I’m alarmed by the intrusions of religion into our secular government,” he said, echoing the “separation of church and state” mantra schoolchildren learn today.
Mr. Barr said that is actually a modern — and dangerous — distortion of history.
He said the founders, in writing the Constitution, rejected a society with a weak moral character, which would have needed an overbearing coercive government, and instead counted on a people with strong Judeo-Christian beliefs that could govern themselves without a bullying government.
“This is really what was meant by ‘self-government,’” Mr. Barr said. “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.”
Mr. Barr said past eras have seen religious values tested as well, and the pendulum has always swung back. “Periods of moral entrenchment follow periods of excess,” he said.
But the current assault is so ferocious that it has broken that equation, he said.
“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,” he said.
“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,” he added.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation said Mr. Barr got it wrong from front to back.
“At the most basic level, Barr’s rant was un-American,” said Andrew L. Seidel, director of strategic response at the Foundation. “America invented the separation of state and church. It’s an American original and our unique contribution to political science.”
Despite his grim diagnosis, Mr. Barr’s remedies were slim, though he vowed to use the Justice Department to defend religious liberty.
That includes a case the department helped argue last year, where the Supreme Court upheld a nearly century-old cross memorial on public lands in Maryland. The American Humanist Association had argued the cross was too much of an entanglement of government and religion, but the court rejected that.
In a key opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said such monuments have the presumption of being legal, and tearing them down could even be seen as anti-religious.
The court is currently considering another case involving religious schools’ ability to access government funds made available to other private schools.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation said that case could be the most important church-state ruling in a half-century.
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