Why the Left Went Berserk After William Barr’s Notre Dame Speech

Rarely does a U.S. attorney general get such blowback for a
non-televised speech at a university. Yet that’s what happened last month to
Attorney General William Barr.

On Oct. 11, Barr gave a
at Notre Dame Law School that began with the unremarkable
observation that “[f]rom the Founding Era onward, there was a strong consensus
about the centrality of religious liberty in the United States.”

By the time he finished that speech, left-wing writers were
pounding their keyboards with hair-on-fire indignation. Here’s what Barr said
that got them so worked up.

The founding generation’s view of human nature “was drawn
from the classical Christian tradition,” which is essential to our system of
government. That system, he explained, enshrines and defends individual liberty
and, therefore, has little ability to rein in “the unbridled pursuit of
personal appetites at the expense of the common good.”

For that reason, he continued, the Framers placed their
trust in “the self-discipline and virtue of the American people,” and relied on
religion to provide those virtues. It does so by helping to “teach, train, and
habituate people to want what is good.”

Barr continued by pointing out the growing effort to replace
the Judeo-Christian moral system with “secularism and the doctrine of moral
relativism.” Traditional religious values are not decaying, he said, but rather
are the target of “organized destruction.”

He argued that secularists have attacked religion and those
who hold religious beliefs with “social, educational, and professional
ostracism,” lawsuits, and social media campaigns. Those who practice their
faith publically are shamed or sued into submission, while those who hold their
beliefs privately are encouraged to keep their beliefs quiet under threats of public
censure or ridicule.

The law, he argued, has been used to subdue religious expression
and to force religious people to participate in practices antithetical to their

President Barack Obama’s administration, for example, sued
to force religious employers to provide abortifacient coverage in health plans.
Meanwhile, states have passed laws requiring public schools to adopt LGBT advocacy
curricula that are inconsistent with traditional Christian teaching and have
made it illegal for parents to take their children out of those classes.

This is not “live and let live,” Barr argued, but rather an
effort to “[compel] people to violate their conscience.”

While he called for people to emphasize “the moral education
of our children,” he recognized that “[t]he times are hostile to this.”

Nothing proved that point quite as well as the barrage of
spite and vitriol that the left hurled at Barr for this speech. The response in
left-wing media outlets was astonishing, both for its reluctance to engage with
Barr’s arguments and its willingness to throw invective at him instead.

The Chicago Tribune, for example, ran
a piece
accusing Barr of telling atheists to “go to hell.” Of course, Barr
said no such thing. The New York Times’ reliably temperate Paul
Krugman said
that we should all be scared of Barr’s speech because “it’s
the language of witch hunts and pogroms.”

Yet another writer
that Barr’s speech made him feel “not just uncomfortable” but “disturbed.”
Clutching his pearls, he wondered how Barr could even mention Judeo-Christian
morals working for “such an unprincipled, morally bankrupt, fornicating,
mendacious president.”

But the most amusing display of foot-stomping histrionics
came from The
New Yorker
, which threw at Barr nearly every adjective its thick-prosed know-it-alls
could pull out of Webster. 

Not only was it “the worst speech by an attorney general of
the United States in modern history,” it was “historically illiterate,”
“morally obtuse,” “willfully misleading,” “vague,” “obscure,” “galling,” and


Never mind. Let’s see if Barr’s speech really deserved the
Chicken Little hysteria it received.

Michael Farris, writing
in The Hill
, has already shown that Barr’s speech lined up with bipartisan
sentiments in the 1990s when President Bill Clinton signed the Religious
Freedom Restoration Act into law. So let’s go further back and compare Barr’s
sentiments to the Founders’. 

Is Barr’s vision of religion’s role in America really the potted
pogrom his critics say it is?

It doesn’t seem like it. On the contrary, it echoes the
Founders’ understanding that religion was paramount to the health and longevity
of the union.

In his Farewell Address,
George Washington noted that “morality is a necessary spring of popular
government,” and that morality cannot exist without religion.

John Adams said “[our] Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” 

The list of similar quotations from other Founders is long
and uniform in this sentiment. The Founders all came from similar Christian
traditions and recognized that those values were essential for a government
that afforded its people enormous freedom.

It’s for that reason that the First Amendment protects
religious freedom from government meddling by declaring: “Congress shall make
no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

That’s not to say that each individual Founder was deeply
pious. Some were not at all. But still they recognized what Barr reiterated:
that the Christian tradition encourages a needed and irreplaceable morality in
the people.

Modern-day secularists might like to erase religion’s
central role in our history, just as they’d like to drive religious viewpoints
from the public square today. But they should instead see the value that
religion brings and embrace the freedom of religious people to practice their
faith free from government coercion.

Barr did that in his speech, and his Justice Department is
putting his words into action.

Undermining his critics’ claim that Barr cares only about
Christians, Barr’s Justice Department continues to defend the religious
liberties of Muslims,
of Native American religions
, and
. This effort is not only constitutional, but also praiseworthy. 

At the end of the day, what Barr did was provide historical
background to the First Amendment’s first guarantee, and affirm our
responsibility to stand up for it. That’s hardly something to get upset about.