U.S. Attorney General William Barr addressed the National Religious Broadcasters’ 2020 Christian media convention last Wednesday in Nashville, where he said that we live in a time when religion is “being driven from the public square” by intolerant secularists. Barr blamed the country’s intensely polarized politics on courts that have fostered a policy of “official hostility” toward religion and “militant” and “totalitarian” progressives who he said are pursuing a policy agenda that is “aggressively collectivist, socialist and explicitly revolutionary.”
Barr told NRB attendees that our passionate political divisions reflect two fundamentally different visions of the relationship between the individual and the state. One view is represented, he said, by liberal democracy—“liberal” not in the sense of liberal versus conservative politics, but in the sense of classical liberalism’s belief in limited government and personal liberty. Barr said that viewpoint is grounded is grounded in Augustinian Christianity, which views government as a necessarily evil whose limited function is to keep peace on earth. “The other vision,” he said, “propels a form of totalitarian democracy, which seeks to submerge the individual in a collectivist agenda.” That prophet for that vision, he said, was 18th Century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and its first fruit was the French Revolution.
Barr said some “so-called” progressives’ alleged abandonment of the principles of liberal democracy has played a major role in our politics becoming “less like a disagreement within a family and more like a blood feud between two different clans.”
Barr claimed that progressives want to increase publicly funded benefits in order to make more people dependent on government and therefore more willing to support progressives’ power. “The tacit goal of this project is to convert all of us into 25-year-olds living in the government’s basement, focusing our energies on obtaining a larger allowance rather than getting a job and moving out and taking responsibility for ourselves.”
Barr cited Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th Century French chronicler of the early United States, in describing religion as democracy’s most powerful antidote to any tendency toward a tyrannical majority bent on hijacking the system. It does so, he said, by cultivating internal values that restrain individuals’ worst impulses.
Barr said that the declining role of religion as a moderating force in American society is partly the fault of the courts’ misinterpretation of the First Amendment, which he characterized as the adoption of “a posture of official hostility to religion,” which he said is “directly contrary to the Framers’ views.”
“While most everyone agrees that we must have separation of church and state, this does not require that we drive religion from the public square and affirmatively use government power to promote a culture of disbelief,” he said.
Given Barr’s previous speeches, his denigration of secularists and progressives is not surprising. But it was still striking how many of the traits that he ascribed to totalitarian leftists are actually spot-on descriptions of how the religious right and Trump’s MAGA world activists operate.
For example, Barr charged that militants who participate in “secular messianic” movements “tend to see their opponents as evil” and are “entirely comfortable demonizing their opponents.” Cluelessness, double standard, or gaslighting?
“The virtue of any individual is defined by whether they are aligned” with the left’s political agenda, Barr said, describing the kind of fervor that is, in reality, an essential element of Trumpism.
Barr said totalitarian democracy rests on an elite that “relies on whipping up mass enthusiasm to preserve its power and to achieve its goals.” Has Barr been to a Trump rally?
Barr also cited the importance of freedom of the press, praising the religious broadcasters for providing an alternative to mainstream media, which he said has become “remarkably monolithic in viewpoint” as it has consolidated. And he charged that “an increasing number of journalists see themselves less as objective reporters of the facts and more as agents of change.” He said this allows the press to mobilize and direct public opinion in a way the jeopardizes its role as a “breakwater” against tyranny. (He made no mention of Fox News or its role as a shaper and mobilizer of pro-Trump public opinion.)
Barr called himself an optimist, saying that the country’s greatest days are ahead, “but only if we can alter our course and pay heed to the lessons of the past. He called on Americans to foster a pluralistic culture that respects opinions not shared by the cultural elites and respects religion as a vital pillar of society.
It also means, he said, “working to devolve democratic choice to the lowest possible level.” The solution to social ills, he said, is to let communities and states set their own rules. Maybe Barr should direct those thoughts to the religious-right and other right-wing activists who have backed state laws overruling or banning city and local governments from protecting their residents with living-wage or nondiscrimination laws.
Barr was preceded on stage by anti-Islam activist Frank Gaffney, whose organization Save the Persecuted Christians sponsored the session. Gaffney called Barr a “remarkable” civil servant and servant of God who is doing “incredibly important work trying to restore our Department of Justice and restore the rule of law.” Gaffney drew applause by saying, “I hope I am speaking for all of you in urging him to stay in that job for the foreseeable future.” Gaffney, however, also angered his hosts by trashing a panelist who would be appearing after Barr’s speech. Stayed tuned for our coverage of that kerfuffle in an upcoming post.