February 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

U.S. Attorney General William Barr is on a crusade to undermine separation of church and state and instill government favoritism toward conservative Christianity, two authors charged in a recent New York Times column.

Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson asserted that Barr has no respect for secular government, pointing to speeches he has given attacking the principle. Barr’s goal, they said, is to establish a legal theory of religious freedom championed by the Religious Right – one that allows for discrimination and harm in the name of faith.

“In these and other cases, Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the ‘religious liberty’ rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement,” Stewart and Fredrickson wrote in their Dec. 29 column. “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.

“This form of ‘religious liberty’ seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia [in] a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture,” the two continued. “It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement – L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this ‘religious liberty’ rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion.”

Stewart and Fredrickson pointed to a 1995 article Barr wrote for The Catho­lic Lawyer in which he bemoaned that “we live in an increasingly militant, secular age” and warned that the law might soon force landlords to rent to unmarried couples. He also blasted the idea that universities might have to treat “homosexual activist groups like any other student group.”

Observed Stewart and Fredrickson, “This form of ‘religious liberty’ is not a mere side issue for Mr. Barr, or for the other religious nationalists who have come to dominate the Republican Party. Mr. Barr has made this clear. All the problems of mod­ernity – ‘the wreckage of the family,’ ‘record levels of depression, and mental illness,’ ‘drug addiction’ and ‘senseless violence’—stem from the loss of a strict interpretation of the Christian religion.”

Stewart, author of the forthcoming book The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, previously wrote The Good News Club, an expose of efforts by Religious Right groups to force public schools to accommodate evangelistic clubs aimed at young students. She will run a workshop during AU’s National Advocacy Summit next month. Fredrickson is the former president of the American Constitution  Society.

Church & State has examined Barr’s hostility toward secular government. (See “Who’s Afraid Of Secularism?” December 2019 Church & State.)