January 2019 Church & State | Editorial

Among many religious conservatives, it is an article of faith that everything in this country was peachy-keen until the 1960s.

Some blame the alleged “moral decline” of America on the Supreme Court’s rulings from 1962 and ’63 striking down school-sponsored, compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Others assert that it has something to do with more open attitudes about human sexuality that took hold then. Still others blame it on the tendency of some people to begin questioning the claims of organized religion. (The famous “Is God Dead?” cover of Time magazine ran on April 8, 1966.)

The reality is more nuanced. First off, the question of whether there was a moral decline is debatable. What happened in the 1960s is that the country saw the rise of rights-based movements. The civil rights movement was first, as African- Americans demanded the right to vote and sought economic justice and the ability to live, work and shop where they pleased.

The women’s rights movement soon followed, with women insisting to share in the same educational and professional opportunities long assumed to be the birthright of men. LGBTQ rights also took hold, but this movement really didn’t start to bloom until the late 1970s and ’80s.

The people who complain about the so-called “moral decline” that supposedly got started in the 1960s – people like William P. Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be U.S. attorney general – often share one thing in common: They’re the people who were at the top of the heap before someone or some group challenged their power.

Barr, for all of his talk about “God’s law” and “moral standards,” gives up the game with comments like this from an essay he penned in 1995: “It is undeniable that, since the mid-1960s, there has been a steady and mounting assault on traditional values.”

Undeniable? Really?

What’s undeniable is that during the 1960s, growing numbers of people decided they were tired of being relegated to the back of the bus, literally and figuratively. Rather than decide to wait for the ruling class to grant them the rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution – something that, let’s be honest, was never going to happen – they step­ped up and took them.

The transition to equality and power-sharing was painful at times. Such changes always are. But it was also necessary. Otherwise, too many people would have been left stuck with the status of second-class citizens.

In the public-school context, the rights movement asserted itself in ways that undoubtedly displeased people like Barr. Religious minorities and Americans of a secular bent joined forces to put a stop to man­datory, school-sponsored     prayer and Bible reading in public schools.

To Barr, these court decisions resulted in public schools receiving a “moral lobotomy,” as he put it in one speech. To the people whose children had been forced every day to take part in religious worship that was alien to them, the rulings were something else entirely: a bracing blast of freedom.

The mistake Barr and people like him make is assuming that freedom is a finite quantity. They seem to think that if one person gets freedom, it must, by necessity, be taken from someone else. Yet in a country where freedom of conscience is protected by a high and firm church-state wall, in a nation that brooks no government interference in personal matters of faith, freedom is boundless. There is more than enough for all.

But the growth of freedom does have one concrete result: As it spreads, it encroaches on the territory held by people who would use their narrow interpretation of faith to tell the rest of us what to do.

In his speeches and writings from the 1990s, Barr spoke of “God’s will” and “moral standards” with all the certainty of a medieval bishop, eager to ferret out and punish “her­e­tics.” The problem is, Barr seeks the same thing every theocrat in history has yearned for: not God’s will, but what he believes God’s will to be.

Secular government protects us from people who believe they know what’s best for us when it comes to religion. Barr seems to have a problem with secularism as well and has bashed it in his speeches.

Barr’s views on the relationship between religion and government are extreme. He deserves to get some pointed questioning about this from the Senate.