Attorney General William Barr gave an extraordinary speech on Oct. 11 at Notre Dame Law School — extraordinary by virtue of its intellectual sophistication, its full-throated celebration of the Judeo-Christian contribution to American democracy, and its defense of religious liberty.
Barr began by noting the centrality of freedom of religious conscience to the nation's Founders. The Declaration of Independence lists "the pursuit of happiness" among the "inalienable rights" with which all men are "endowed by their Creator." That does not mean the right to have as much fun as possible, as modern readers might assume. Rather, as Carl Conklin argues in The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History, it refers to the freedom to live a life of virtue consonant with the recognition that G-d created the universe with both physical and moral laws that direct the universe to its ultimate perfection.
James Madison, the chief architect of the Constitution, described religious liberty as a "duty to the Creator... precedent in both order of time and degree of obligation to the claims of Civil Society."
Barr went on to explain why the Founders viewed the cause of liberty as inextricably bound to the religious and moral nature of the people. As John Adams famously 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 for only a moral and religious people."
In other words, the freedom from governmental tyranny for which the Revolution was fought would be sustainable only if liberty did not give way to libertinism and rapacity. The choice to be made is between self-control and the external control by the government. Edmund Burke stated the matter clearly: "Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their dispositions to put chains upon their appetites.... Society cannot exist unless a controlling power is in place somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without."
Contemporary American society rejects the Founders' vision of limited government, allowing maximal liberty to pursue our lives as individuals and through associations freely chosen. We are hurtling toward both the negative poles that the Founders feared most: authoritarianism and libertinism. A recent Tablet article, "100,000 Little Stalinists," neatly sums up the situation on the college campuses where the next generation of leaders is being trained. In The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies, Robert Boyers describes how campus activists alternately enforce silence and unleash torrential verbal abuse, often in the form of Twitter blitzkriegs, at anyone who refuses to conform. The first things students learn is "what not to ask" and "who is to blame." In their determination not to be confronted with "unwanted or disturbing thoughts," many university students have rendered themselves effectively uneducable.
One of the central tenets of the new campus authoritarianism is the impermissibility of questioning the value of every new expression of personal liberation from the moral strictures of the past. Every college generation from 1928 to the present has been more hedonistic, more inclined to place the pursuit of pleasure over that of meaning, than the one before. And each successive generation has proven, in turn, to have higher rates of depression, mental illness, loneliness, and narcissism. Our campuses are surely not training grounds in self-governance.
Barr views the steady decline of religion in American society and the growing disdain for what he refers to as Judeo-Christian moral standards as underlying many of the current social pathologies: rates of illegitimacy that increased from 25% when he was first attorney general in 1992 to 40% today; 70,000 deaths from drug overdoses annually; along with record levels of depression and mental illness.
Wherein lies the "progress"? Barr challenges the progressive secularists. With what have you replaced Judeo-Christian morality that can sustain human social life and fill the spiritual void in the hearts of individuals?
The new "spiritualism" — for example, witchcraft, astrology, and neo-paganism — will not fill the void of meaning or provide a source of self-discipline. Notably lacking from these contemporary responses to the inherent human yearning for transcendence and attachment to something larger than the individual self is any system of "dos" and "don'ts."
One of Barr's most trenchant insights is that progressive politics not only ignores the sources of destructive social pathologies, it actually abets them. "Instead of addressing the underlying cause, we have cast the State in the role of alleviator of bad consequences." Thus, the cure for illegitimacy is abortion; for addiction, safe injection sites. Rather than solving problems, said Barr, "we are underwriting them."
Barr reported his amazement upon hearing a report on homelessness in the DC area by the social justice committee of a Catholic church. Instead of calling for volunteers to create and man soup kitchens, the report advocated lobbying the local DC government to do so.
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL documented the assault on religious belief and practice in both the general culture and in the legal sphere. The hysterical reaction to his reasoned presentation could have been Exhibit "A" of the former. The increasingly unhinged Paul Krugman called it a prelude to a "pogrom." And the chief of staff of former Secretary of State Colin Powell likened Barr to the Spanish Inquisition's Torquemada.
Barr cited the sea change since the enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993, which mandated that the government provide maximum possible accommodation to religious practice from governmental policies that could impinge on that practice.
Introduced into the Senate by liberal icon Sen. Edward Kennedy, the bill passed in the Senate 97–3 and by voice vote in the House. More recently, however, states like Georgia and Indiana considering state RFRA legislation were forced to withdraw in the face of threatened economic boycotts. Progressives in Congress have also introduced provisions that would ban defenses under RFRA to various anti-discrimination statutes.
Whereas RFRA was predicated on the wrong inflicted by forcing citizens to act in violation of their religious consciences, today's militant secularists, Barr charged, "delight in compelling people to violate their conscience." Or as candidate Hillary Clinton put it, "Their religion will just have to change."
But due to the Trump Justice Department's determination to uphold RFRA at the federal level, the battleground has moved to the states. And "ground zero" for these attacks has been the schools. Efforts to prevent parents from educating their children in their religious beliefs constitutes a mortal threat to religious liberty. "By far the most important part of exercising [our] faith is teaching that faith to our children," Barr averred.
The first prong of the attack on parental religious education is the introduction of a pro-alternative-lifestyle curriculum in the public-school system, coupled with the absence of parental warnings or "opt-out" provisions. The Board of Education of Orange County, formerly one of the most conservative counties in the country, for instance, recently ruled that "parents who disagree with the instructional materials related to gender, gender identity, gender expression... may not excuse their children from this instruction."
The second prong of the attack has been to starve religious schools of funding. The Justice Department has filed a brief in the US Supreme Court challenging a Montana statute that explicitly excludes religious schools from a general tax credit to those who sponsor private school scholarships for underprivileged children.
And perhaps most ominous are "recent efforts to use state laws to force religious schools to adhere to secular orthodoxy," including threatening parochial schools with the loss of accreditation if they do not teach a pro-alternative-lifestyle curriculum in direct contravention of their religious beliefs. That process is already going full throttle in Britain.
"As long as I am Attorney General," Barr concluded, "the Department of Justice will be... ready to fight for the most cherished of our liberties — the freedom to live according to our faith." That vow alone is compelling reason enough for every Orthodox Jew to support the reelection of President Trump.