January 2019 Church & State | Featured

William P. Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be U.S. attorney general, is no fan of secular government, public schools, church-state separation – or much of modern life, for that matter.

Americans United began looking into Barr’s record after Trump nominated him to the top slot at the U.S. Justice Department Dec. 7. Some troubling things have emerged.

William Barr

(PHOTO: Attorney General nominee William Barr in 2005. CREDIT: Screenshot from CSPAN.)

Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush from November of 1991 until the end of Bush’s presidency early in 1993, gave at least two speeches during his tenure in which he attacked church-state separation and secular government.

Addressing a Milwaukee conference of governors on juvenile crime on April 1, 1992, Barr blasted public schools for failing to provide moral instruction.

“This moral lobotomy of public schools has been based on extremist notions of separation of church and state or on theories of moral relativism which reject the notion that there are standards of right and wrong to which the community can demand adherence,” Barr said.

Public schools, Barr asserted, can’t “inculcate values in an atmosphere for complete moral relativism,” and he asserted that schools fail to teach “simple things such as the importance of honesty [and] respect for properly constituted authority.”

About six months later, Barr struck again. During an Oct. 6, 1992, speech in Washington, D.C., to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a traditionalist Catholic group, Barr called for the imposition of a “moral consensus” based on “natural law” – a philosophical concept embraced by conservative Catholic theologians who insist that Catholic moral principles can be arrived at through secular reasoning.

“Because human nature is fallen, we will not automatically conform ourselves to God’s law, but because we can know what is good … we are not doomed to be slaves in our passions and wants,” Barr told the group. “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 went on to attack “modern secularists” for dismissing “ultimate, practical, utilitarian rules for human conduct,” blaming a cultural decline on “the long binge that began in the mid-1960s.”

He continued, “The secularists of today are clearly fanatics.” Barr accused secularists of undermining the “Judeo-Christian moral tradition,” and their actions, he opined, have produced “soaring juvenile crime, widespread drug addiction, skyrocketing rates of venereal disease, 1.5 million children aborted each year.”

(Church & State ran a report on the speech in its December 1992 issue, based on accounts in other media sources. Barr was surprised when stories about his incendiary comments appeared in newspapers. He claimed that he was addressing the group “as a Catholic as much as a public official. This was not a media event.”)

Once Bush left office, Barr went into private life but continued to promote these themes. In a 1995 essay he penned titled “Legal Issues In A New Political Order,” Barr begins with a blunt statement: “We live in an increasingly militant, secular age.”

From there, Barr goes on to lament the “steady erosion of the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.”

He writes, “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.”

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.

~ William Barr

In the essay, Barr again blamed the alleged moral decline of America on the rights movements of the 1960s, asserting that “a steady and mounting assault on traditional values” had spawned “soaring juvenile crime, widespread drug addiction and skyrocketing venereal diseases.”

As Americans United has noted, the tendency to blame cultural decay on the 1960s is a common ploy among the far right. The era was marked by rights movements, such as African Americans working to overthrow Jim Crow laws in the South and women demanding equality, that alarmed many on the extreme right. This included the religious conservatives who would, about a decade later, form the nucleus of the Religious Right and mount a backlash.  

Elsewhere in the essay, Barr bemoaned no-fault divorce laws, legal abortion and laws designed to “restrain sexual immorality, obscenity or euthanasia.” He also attacked a Sup­reme Court ruling in 1992, Lee v. Weis­man, which upheld the high court’s decisions from 1962 and ’63 barring public schools from compelling children to take part in prayer and worship.

The essay, originally published in Catholic Lawyer, is of questionable scholarship. It contains a fake quote by James Madison lauding the Ten Commandments that was debunked long ago. Barr also cites an unnamed “California school system” that years ago supposedly reported that its main problems were things like students talking out of turn, chewing gum and running in the halls. In the modern era, the school’s main problems were allegedly drug abuse, rape and robbery. The claim is not footnoted, and for good reason – the story is bogus. The so-called “school problems list” was created out of whole cloth by a Religious Right activist named T. Cullen Davis in 1982 as a way to bash public schools. It was definitively debunked by Barry O’Neill, an associate professor in the School of Organization and Management at Yale University, in 1994 in The New York Times Magazine.

Barr’s answer to all of this alleged amorality and rampant secularism dragging down American society is equally troubling. He proposed that Catholic education receive taxpayer support.

“From a legal standpoint, our initial focus should be on education and efforts to strengthen and finance education,” observed Barr. “This means vouchers at the state level and ultimately at the federal level to support parental choice in education. We should press at every turn for the inclusion of religious institutions.” 

From a legal standpoint, our initial focus should be on education and efforts to strengthen and finance education. This means vouchers at the state level and ultimately at the federal level to support parental choice in education. We should press at every turn for the inclusion of religious institutions.

~ William Barr

Although these speeches and writing are 25 years old, Barr’s views have not likely changed. In November, Barr joined former attorneys general Edwin Meese III and Michael B. Mukasey in a Washington Post column praising the views of Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general forced out by Trump. The three lauded Sessions in part for his October 2017 guidance “to all executive departments containing guidance for protecting religious expression” – guidelines that Americans United says are just a blueprint for discrimination on religious grounds.

Barr will have to be interviewed in hearings before the U.S. Senate before he can assume the position of the nation’s top law-enforcement official. Given his track record of bashing church-state separation and secular public schools, AU believes he should be asked some pointed questions.