U.S. Attorney General William Barr clapped back at leftwing hysteria over his support of the First Amendment Tuesday in an interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan on Sirius XM.
“I feel today religion is being driven out of the marketplace of ideas and there’s a organized militant secular effort to drive religion out of our lives,” Barr told Dolan. “To me the problem today is not that religious people are trying to impose their views on nonreligious people, it’s the opposite — it’s that militant secularists are trying to impose their values on religious people and they’re not accommodating the freedom of religion of people of faith.”
Since developing similar ideas in depth in several public talks, Barr has been the subject of a series of hit pieces in publications including The New York Times and The New Yorker. It’s not just his full-throated defense of the natural right to obey one’s conscience above one’s government that gets their goat. Barr’s concern for the rule of law, fair play, and due process especially about Russian collusion and impeachment have also brought out the knives.
A particularly unhinged — and error-riddled — 10,000-word New Yorker article by David Rohde may have made one accurate assessment: “Barr is the most feared, criticized, and effective member of Trump’s Cabinet.” There is certainly some relationship between the left’s fear and the right’s effectiveness, and thus the neutering attempts. As Sohrab Amari noted, Barr has been ridiculously labeled an “extremist Catholic” associated with a “secretive, ultra-orthodox Catholic sect.”
Of course, the point of flak like this is to polarize the target and thus make him ineffective through clouds of mistrust. A parallel effort has been underway much longer against the nation’s first freedom: the duty to obey God before men. Thus in her own attack article against Barr last month in The New York Times, Katherine Stewart put the words religious liberty and religious freedom in scare quotes, even though these are longstanding natural rights that enjoy U.S. legal protection for very good reasons that include staunching bigotry. The ignorant scare quotes are becoming common in even outlets that style themselves objective news sources.
“[I]t is illuminating to review how Mr. Barr has directed his Justice Department on matters concerning the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a state religion,” Stewart writes:
In Maryland, the department rushed to defend taxpayer funding for a religious school that says same-sex marriage is wrong. In Maine, it is defending parents suing over a state law that bans religious schools from obtaining taxpayer funding to promote their own sectarian doctrines.
In these and other cases, Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the ‘religious liberty’ rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke ‘religious freedom,’ it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.
Stewart makes an error of omission in her description of the First Amendment. The clause concerning religion reads, in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” A full quotation undoes her conclusion that the Constitution prohibits religious people from equal access to public funds. That is not only historically and legally inaccurate, it’s obviously textually inaccurate from any unbiased person’s plain reading.
In other words, she’s doing exactly what Barr says she’s doing, while pretending that she is not. Stewart is making a “secular effort to drive religion out of our lives” and trying to impose her values on religious people while “not accommodating the freedom of religion of people of faith.” Her values say that only pagans — people with atheist, pantheist, syncretist, or agnostic religious beliefs — may fully access public goods. People with theistic religious beliefs may not. This is not equality or tolerance — it is prejudice.
“Mr. Barr’s constitutional interpretation is simply window dressing on his commitment to religious authoritarianism,” writes Stewart, smugly. No, ma’am: Your constitutional interpretation is simply window dressing on your commitment to religious authoritarianism. Barr acknowledges himself not free to do whatever he wants — i.s. be an authoritarian — by binding himself to a religion that checks his worst impulses and dictates the right way to treat other people, which includes respecting their sometimes very differing consciences.
The secularists Stewart represents just refuse to acknowledge that their religious beliefs are in fact religious beliefs, and of a far creepier and deadlier kind than Christians’. What is, for example, the belief that human beings can have the “female mind” embedded in a “male body,” if not a religious belief? In a materialistic religious view, how is it even possible to have a gendered mind? Is gender solely a product of chemicals? If not, what else could it be for people who do not admit to a nonmaterial realm?
Further, what is more cultish than forcing people to believe through social pressure, law, and other means that a man is a woman is a man is a woman? What is more totalitarian than to force people to pretend that males and females are interchangeable inside the relationship whose major function in society is to spend half a livetime cultivating happy, competent citizens starting at conception?
Or what is, for another example, the belief that it is possible to fix the world by applying government pressure? That is not a belief that can be wholly validated by research or experience. In fact, research and experience both indicate that central planning usually makes life even more nasty, brutish, and short.
So what is this unfounded, undocumented, unprovable faith in government power to correct human psyches and behavior if not a religious (metaphysical) belief? It is also an unprovable and metaphysical belief about what a human is — a thing that can be “corrected” by politics and whose “error” is not intrinsic to itself. Again, these are all metaphysical, religious beliefs with no empirical basis or possibility of being fully empirically proven.
It is quite simply a lie to say that atheism is not a religious belief. It cannot be empirically documented that there is no God. For one thing, nobody has visited the outermost reaches of the universe in an attempt to find Him, assuming that is a way He could be found. It is simply an assumption, a religious assumption, that an atheist makes.
And that’s fine. Christians aren’t the ones who have a problem with people making religious assumptions. The secular, pagan, atheist types are the ones who claim religious assumptions are evil. They do so because they erroneously believe they are free from such assumptions. But in truth, no one is.
It has been long convenient for secularists to insist that it is possible for government to be neutral about religion by imposing their religion on everyone. But this is a falsehood, and its falsity is ever more obvious in today’s culture wars, which are increasingly divided according to whether one believes in a deity — and, by extension, an objective standard outside oneself — or not. The culture war is in fact a religious war between relativism and orthodoxy, between the belief that truth is subjective and the belief that truth is objective, knowable, independent of one’s opinions about it, and merits reverence.
This is very clear when one reads the attacks on Barr or on any orthodox position or person. Barr is just a representative of the half of America that believes in natural rights, in a written Constitution that restrains the government, and a God whose universe is explicable, orderly, and undergirds the whole shebang. Those who embrace a “living Constitution,” on the contrary, despise external rules, order, and anything else that might work to limit their passions, which they sometimes style politics. These are the two polar opposite metaphysical positions that drive our culture clash.
Far worse than the rule of law is the rule of the powerful over the weak. Far worse than the law of God are the so-called laws of men. On one side is freedom. On the other is totalitarianism. It is no irony that the real totalitarians project the label their position deserves onto opponents as a smear.