Attorney General William Barr was on a tear.
Speaking to the University of Notre Dame Law School and de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture Oct. 11, Barr unleashed a stinging attack on one of the Religious Right’s favorite targets: secularism.
“I think we all recognize that over the past 50 years religion has been under increasing attack,” Barr told the crowd. “On the one hand, we have seen the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square. On the other hand, we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism.”
But Barr was just getting started. He proceeded to tick off a number of negative social trends he laid at the doorstep of secularism. Among them were “the wreckage of the family … record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence and a deadly drug epidemic.”
Asserted Barr, “I will not dwell on all the bitter results of the new secular age. Suffice it to say that the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery. And yet, the forces of secularism, ignoring these tragic results, press on with even greater militancy. … 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.”
The speech reflected Barr’s long-held views on Christian nationalism. While serving as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, Barr, a devout Roman Catholic, gave several speeches bashing secularism.
Addressing a conference of governors on juvenile crime in Milwaukee on April 1, 1992, Barr blasted public schools for their secular nature. Public schools, Barr said, have undergone a “moral lobotomy.” He blamed this on “extremist notions of separation of church and state.”
About six months after that speech, Barr struck again. Addressing the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a far-right Catholic group, on Oct. 6, 1992, Barr called for the imposition of “God’s law” in America and lit into secularism once again.
“To the extent that a society’s moral culture is based on God’s law, it will guide men toward the best possible life,” Barr said. He blamed “modern secularists” for sparking cultural decline in America and told attendees, “The secularists of today are clearly fanatics.”
"The whole idea of a democracy is that we’re all equal citizens, we’re politically equal and legally equal and we govern by consent. We can only give that consent if we all have an equal standing. Secularism ensures that we have equal standing in the public realm and the political realm regardless of our faith or lack thereof. That’s a deeply American value." -- Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies, Pitzer College
After his first stint as attorney general ended, Barr continued promoting these themes. In a 1995 essay he wrote for Catholic Lawyer titled “Legal Issues In A New Political Order,” Barr asserted, “Traditional Judeo-Christian doctrine maintains that there is a transcendent moral order with objective standards of right and wrong that exists independent of man’s will. This transcendent order flows from God’s eternal law – the divine will by which the whole of creation is ordered.”
In the essay, Barr blamed secularism for “a steady and mounting assault on traditional values” and opined that it spawned “soaring juvenile crime, widespread drug addiction and skyrocketing venereal diseases.”
Barr’s frequent broadsides against secularism reflect a long-standing concern among Christian nationalist groups that if their version of Christianity is not embraced by government, the alternative can only be chaos, despair and anarchy.
Although legal secularism is mandated by the U.S. Constitution – the document itself is wholly secular and contains no references to Jesus Christ or God – Christian nationalists have always resisted the concept and worked to portray secularism as a corrosive force that undermines the authority of religion.
In September 2012, the American Family Association, an extreme Religious Right group based in Tupelo, Miss., published an edition of its magazine, AFA Journal, with a cover that depicted a giant steamroller under a menacing dark sky. The headline read, “Secularism: Can it be stopped?”
To Christian nationalists, the image made sense. In their stark, black-and-white world, secularism and religious freedom are fated to be bitter enemies, locked in a perpetual war for dominance.
Defenders of separation of religion and government, such as Americans United and its allies, see things differently. An official policy of government secularism, far from being a threat to faith, is the protector of religious freedom. Along with church-state separation, secularism means that the government will be neutral on matters of theology, which allows people to make their own decisions about which religion, if any, they wish to align with and support.
“The whole idea of a democracy is that we’re all equal citizens, we’re politically equal and legally equal and we govern by consent,” said Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “We can only give that consent if we all have an equal standing. Secularism ensures that we have equal standing in the public realm and the political realm regardless of our faith or lack thereof. That’s a deeply American value.”
In their crusade to discredit secularism, Christian nationalist groups rely on a rhetorical sleight of hand by conflating the legal and cultural meanings of secularism.
At its core, the word “secular” simply means “non-religious.” Thus, when Barr and other critics assail secularism, they could be expressing disapproval of the decisions a growing number of Americans have made to be less religious or stop attending houses of worship. Or they could be assailing virtually any facet of American culture that is not explicitly religious. (The word’s origin is from the Latin saeculum, which during the pagan era meant a period of time roughly as long as a person might live or a “generation.” During the Christian era, the term came to mean “world,” as opposed to the church. Secular things were “of the world.”)
But Barr’s attack on secularism seems clearly aimed at a broader target: He’s gunning against secular government. Many of the criticisms in his Notre Dame speech and in other venues could just as easily have been aimed at church-state separation. He has assailed public education for being “godless,” that is, secular, and has complained about efforts to enforce church-state separation (and hence secularism as government policy) by opposing government displays of religious symbols on public property.
Barr’s Notre Dame speech spawned plenty of criticism. C. Colt Anderson, a Catholic theologian at Fordham University in New York City, told the British newspaper The Guardian that Barr’s views are a “threat to American democracy,” adding, “The attorney general is taking positions that are essentially un-democratic.”
Zuckerman, in an interview with Church & State, agreed with Anderson’s comments, remarking, “Barr’s comments really knock the knees out of the First Amendment, and they are really anti-American. We’re not a Catholic nation, we’re not a Christian nation, we’re not a Bible nation. We’re all Americans regardless of religion.”
Catherine Rampell, a syndicated columnist, called the speech “a tacit endorsement of theocracy” and added, “This man who swore to uphold the Constitution has apparently forgotten its prohibition on state establishment of religion. Our nation’s chief law enforcement officer – the person ultimately responsible for ensuring equal treatment under the law – appears to be demonizing anyone who does not share his religious and political values.”
But perhaps the most pointed criticism came from Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, who called Barr’s lamentation “the worst speech by an Attorney General of the United States in modern history.”
Added Toobin, “Historically illiterate, morally obtuse, and willfully misleading, the speech portrays religious people in the United States as beset by a hostile band of ‘secularists.’ Actually, religion is thriving here (as it should be in a free society), but Barr claims the mantle of victimhood in order to press for a right-wing political agenda.”
But even as he assumed that mantle, Barr went on at length to attack a growing segment of the American population – people who choose to live their lives in a non-religious way.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that a record number of Americans – 26 percent – now identify as “nones.” The term is generally defined as people who, when asked to name their religious preference, reply “none.” Pew found that 4 percent of Americans identify as atheists, 5 percent as agnostics and 17 percent as “nothing in particular.” These numbers are expected to grow because young people are identifying as nones at a higher rate – almost 40 percent.
Christians now account for 65 percent of the American population. While still a clear majority, the figure shows a remarkable degree of attrition. Christians dropped by 12 points within the past 10 years.
Not surprisingly, numbers like this have alarmed Christian nationalists. Analysts and media commentators have put forth several theories as to why Christianity in America is on the decline. In an Oct. 26 New York Times column starkly headlined, “We’re less and less a Christian nation, and I blame some blowhards,” Nicholas Kristof pinned the blame on the Religious Right. By tying theology to right-wing politics and hateful movements, Kristof asserted, evangelicals have alienated young people.
Kristof asserted that Christians are sometimes unfairly criticized, but added that “a far bigger threat to the ‘brand’ of Christianity comes, I think, from religious blowhards who have entangled faith with bigotry, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. For some young people, Christianity is associated less with love than with hate.”
But rather than look inward and ask what they’ve done wrong and what they could do better, some conservative Christian groups prefer to lash out and blame their sinking fortunes on nefarious outside forces – and that’s often secularism.
As Zuckerman notes, this is an old trick.
“When I read Barr’s speech, I thought, ‘He’s blaming society’s ills on secularists,’” said Zuckerman. “It’s straight-up scapegoating … It’s the old rhetorical strategy that we need an enemy. Sometimes it’s Jews or black people. For Barr it’s secular people.”
Zuckerman, who has written several books on secularism, finds this scapegoating highly ironic. He notes that Barr and other religious zealots seem bound and determined to make Americans fear secularism as official government policy – but Zuckerman’s research indicates there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Among Zuckerman’s books is 2008’s Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. Studying Scandinavian nations, Zuckerman found that nations that are officially or by default secular have low rates of crime and high rates of happiness among the citizenry. Two of the nations he studied – Sweden and Denmark – rank fifth and ninth respectively in a Quality of Life index compiled by The Economist. Most of the nations in the top 20 are secular.
But secular government’s main benefit, Zuckerman notes, is that it allows people to make their own decisions about faith. He points out that, from a historical perspective, America’s secular government was no accident: It’s what the framers intended.
“We should take a lesson from history,” Zuckerman said. “When we look back through the centuries, we find example after example after example of religious groups that are not in power suffering at the hand of groups that are in power. When a government, be it a king or an emperor or a regent, is of a particular religion and they are pushing that religion, all of the people who are not that religion are oppressed to various degrees. On the one end, they are excluded from decision making. On the other end of the spectrum, they may be subjected to extermination and everything in between.”
Although there’s no evidence that influential framers used the word “secular,” they did clearly condemn the idea of officially religious states.
In a letter scholars believed was written in either 1832 or 1833, James Madison, the primary architect of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, observed, “In the Papal System, Government and Religion are in a manner consolidated, & that is found to be the worst of Govts. In most of the Govts. of the old world, the legal establishment of a particular religion and without or with very little toleration of others makes a part of the Political and Civil organization and there are few of the most enlightened judges who will maintain that the system has been favorable either to Religion or to Govt.”
Thus, when Barr and others attack secular government, they aren’t just disagreeing with modern-day advocates of separation of church and state – they’re taking issue with the views of the founders.
But that’s not all they’re doing: They are also attacking the millions of Americans who acknowledge the importance of separating religion and government and/or choose to live a secular life themselves.
The damage from that can be very real, Zuckerman points out.
“When the government starts to push religion, when the government demonizes people who are non-religious, there are a whole lot of consequences,” Zuckerman told Church & State. “Not only do you see more taxpayer funding going to a religion that you don’t believe in, your tax dollars supporting monuments that are not part of your religion and more prayer in public schools, but it stigmatizes people who don’t share those beliefs.
“There can be social consequences as well as legal ones,” he added. “Judges may rule against you, your kids may be harassed at school. History teaches us that when atheists are treated as an immoral threat, the consequences can be very serious in our civil rights, in our political opportunities and in our personal lives.”