The Attorney General is right about secularism – but he missed a crucial point


Christians must start seeing their faith as fundamentally public as well as personal

At the University of Notre Dame this past Friday Attorney General Barr excoriated “secularists” who were bent on destroying a country which is fundamentally made for a religious people.

Taking the defense of religious liberty as his primary theme, Barr began his 4,000-word address by recalling that for the Framer’s of our Constitution, “religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government.” He argued that they believed this because they were drawing upon the “classical Christian tradition,” and so were aware that human beings cannot effectively govern themselves without recognizing their duty to their Creator, and the restraints required to avoid the rapaciousness of sin and evil. The Founders understood that if you lack all moral limits, either the state will coercively impose them in a way which leads to a tyranny of power, or liberty will give way to a tyranny of license.

Barr insisted on the Founder’s middle way, which he stated was self-government predicated upon faith in God, and in “God’s eternal law.” Citing John Adams, American “self-government” was “made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

Yet today there is an “other” — a new religion, a competing creed — which has sought to dismantle the moral law writ into the universe, and replace it with an imposing set of new utilitarian rules for how we think and speak and conduct our affairs with one another.  Barr called “secularism” and “moral relativism” “wholly inadequate” to our form of self-government, waging undue destruction on the country. Barr inveighed, “By any honest assessment, the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim.”

Illegitimacy, abortion, the wreckage of the family, record levels of loneliness and depression — all are public signs of the consequences of this new creed.

Among these militant secularists are many so-called “progressives.” But where is the progress?

We are told we are living in a post-Christian era. But what has replaced the Judeo-Christian moral system? What is it that can fill the spiritual void in the hearts of the individual person? And, what is a system of values that can sustain human social life?

The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion…

What we call values today is really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity.

It is an Aristotelian — and Burkean — recognition that reality bites back, that the pendulum does swing. Yet Barr openly worries in his address that we may not see the pendulum swing back because of the sheer “force, fervor, and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion we are experiencing today.” When we look around at the world secularists are making, Barr stated that we cannot call this simply “decay,” but rather “organized destruction” which wields the power of Hollywood, the news media, and the universities in “an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.”

In various ways, the address was not only an attack on progressive secularists, but it was also navigating a minefield of disputes which have arisen between conservatives in recent years. Barr tried to chart a middle way between the new and old right. With the old right, Barr clearly — and too reductively, I think — sees Christianity as a “micro-morality,” which focuses on the personal rather than the public. But he also delivered a criticism frequently made on the new right, namely that secularism has become a militant religion which seeks to crush classical Christianity. I suspect he cannot have it both ways. Christianity most certainly is a public religion, and so it cannot simply be said to be a “micro-morality.” But Barr is absolutely right that a new militant secularism is behaving as a new public religion, enforcing its orthodoxy with the full power of coercive law.

After listing a litany of assaults upon the religious liberty of Christians in America, the Attorney General stated that he didn’t mean to suggest that “there is no hope for moral renewal in our country.” Barr rightly concluded, “we cannot sit back and just hope the pendulum is going to swing back toward sanity.”

Barr’s hope for moral renewal seemed to pivot upon those “little platoons,” building up Catholic families and schools as schools of virtue — good, noble, and necessary aims. As a lawyer, of course, he argued that the legal fight against this new secularist religion must also go on — and so it must. This is all exactly right in one direction. Christians need to build up their own communal life with as much seriousness and devotion as secular religionists build up their empty fervor and force, because it’s out of these wellsprings of true religious devotion that not only souls but whole nations are converted.

Yet if the pendulum does not swing back, as Barr fears it may not, it will not simply be because Christians were not sufficiently moral and religious in their little platoons, but also because they did not regard their faith as fundamentally public when the secularists absolutely did.