Attorney General William Barr recently gave a speech on religious freedom at the University of Notre Dame law school, saying that that mainstream faiths were being attacked by secularists, mass media, academia, movies, TV and the like, that our traditional moral system was being degraded and that the self-discipline of the past was fleeing.
In no time at all, he was proven correct. He was attacked in news stories not just by atheists and know-nothing politicians, but by fellow Catholics of liberal persuasion and even a theological professor who said he was threatening separation of church and state. Christians should not carry their faith with them while exercising public duties, he was told. They might then disregard the rule of law and threaten the rights of nonbelievers.
Barr dispelled that stereotype by saying he does not want government insisting on any faith. He wants religious freedom. He wants limited government that becomes more possible as we get the kind of moral discipline and virtue that Judeo-Christian principles instill. When people behave decently, they can be counted on to govern themselves. They do not need a cop on every corner or bureaucratic enthusiasm for rules that enclose our lives instead of opening them. This country of ours has 170,000 pages of federal regulations, a nanny state that will get you if you don’t watch out.
But, oh dear, some say, Christians of the Barr kind will heed moral notions that transform our democracy into a theocracy. I wonder if these masterminds among us know what Christian morals actually are, if they understand, for instance, what Paul said when he talked about love and described its elements: patience, kindness, humility, calmness, delight in truth, perseverance in helping others, hope and letting one’s life revolve around something bigger than self.
Now let’s turn to secular morals.
Relativity is a biggie. No moral truth is objectively true, some secularists tell us, and you wonder if they ever heard of the philosopher who asked if it is then sometimes OK to torture a baby to death for the fun of it? We get multiculturalism that tells us all cultures are equal in their values even though we know some cultures approve of killing homosexuals, adulteresses and people of other faiths. We have utilitarians who are willing to accept some evils if they make large numbers of people happy, and we know this can be a terror. We have people wedded to political ideologies easily as dogmatic as religion. We have political correctness that often sees the trivial as momentous and sometimes punishes itsy bitsy transgressions by ruining lives.
All of this gets complicated, but it is not complicated to say that someone heeding basic religious precepts is ordinarily going to be far less dangerous to democracy than, say, Sen. Bernie Sanders and his historically catastrophic, unshakeable aspirations for governmental envelopment. Though not generally recognized, Christianity has been a major force in giving us science, universities, liberty and the values that still instruct to at least some extent the values of many nonbelievers. Though the New Atheists say religion gives us war, research indicates that no more than 10% of wars have strong religious connections.
None of this is meant to say that no horrors have been committed in the name of religion or that religious people are ipso facto better than the non-religious. Most Christians recognize their own sinfulness. But it is the case that religion is in steep decline in America today and that the consequences could be human degradation. The sociologist Charles Murray has shown, for instance, that the most constant church goers among us are the upper middle class and that the working class is suffering mightily from increasing religious neglect that can leave people without communal help, meaningfulness and wise guidance.
Hurrah for Barr.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.