The Trump administration, now coming to an end, marked a brief respite in the long decline in the underlying moral and religious values of American culture. With the recapture of the White House by Democrats, we can expect secular liberals to redouble their efforts to transform the definitions of liberty and human rights as established by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
The decline of American culture began decades ago, when traditional religious and moral principles first began to come under open criticism as “old fashioned” and “obsolete” during the decades following the First World War. The decline in moral values accelerated during the 1960s during which virtually an entire generation of American youth openly rebelled against traditional moral and social values. The advocates of the “youth culture” warned, “Don’t trust anyone over the age of 30,” and condemned the American form of government itself as inherently corrupt and oppressive.
The decadent forces of secular liberalism had become dominant in the media-dominated American culture and on college campuses across the nation. Liberal academics began the organized indoctrination of subsequent generations of educated American youth with an amoral and atheistic worldview, and a thinly-disguised contempt for traditional religious and moral beliefs and practices.
During that era, there were only a few conservative intellectuals, such as William F. Buckley, who commanded enough respect and attention to make their protests against the intellectually hollow secular culture heard by the general public. In later decades, a few thoughtful liberals, such as New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, also spoke out against the devastating impact of the by-then dominant secular culture on American society. In his 1993 essay entitled “Defining Deviancy Down,” Moynihan described how government-sponsored secularism was undermining the cohesion of the American family, especially in poor and minority-populated neighborhoods in the big cities which soon became overrun with violence, drugs, and the economic forces of urban decay.
GOVERNMENT SUBVERSION OF AMERICAN VALUES
Unfortunately, instead of reacting by instituting policies to strengthen the family, religious and moral values, the government welfare policies of the era further subverted the values which historically held the fabric of American society together since the country was founded.
Today, anti-religious, amoral attitudes underlying government-mandated social policies have been widely accepted as the norm in American politics. The right of G-d-fearing Americans of all faiths, under the First Amendment of the Constitution, to freely follow their religious beliefs is being openly challenged whenever those beliefs come into conflict with the secular norms of popular American culture.
The battlefield on which the ancient struggle between secular liberals and religious believers is being fought has spilled over into the state and federal courts and legislatures, and is reflected in the increasingly intrusive government policies impacting almost every aspect of daily American life.
In recent years, only a few prominent conservative thinkers, such as Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and recently retired US attorney general Bill Barr, have had the courage to speak out publicly about these issues, analyzing the roots of the culture conflict raging within American society and government, and its far-reaching impact on fundamental concepts of liberty, democracy, and human rights in American society.
ATTORNEY GENERAL BARR SPEAKS OUT
Barr, in an October 2019 speech at Notre Dame, one of America’s leading Catholic universities, explained his belief that “there was strong consensus about the centrality of religious liberty in the United States,” among this country’s Founding Fathers, who shared a “belief that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government.” Barr cited a statement by James Madison in a 1785 pamphlet which “described religious liberty as ‘a right towards men’ but ‘a duty towards the Creator.’”
Barr described the Founding Fathers as a “small group of colonial lawyers [who] led a revolution” and launched what they viewed as a great experiment, establishing a society fundamentally different than those that had gone before.
“They crafted a magnificent charter of freedom — the United States Constitution — which provides for limited government, while leaving ‘the People’ broadly at liberty to pursue our lives both as individuals and through free associations.”
According to Barr, “they never thought the main danger to the republic came from external foes. The central question was whether, over the long haul, we could handle freedom. The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.”
RELIGION’S ROLE IN FOUNDING AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
Barr argued that the Founding Fathers had assumed that the necessary “moral discipline and virtue” to preserve American freedoms would be supplied by the basic religious beliefs and traditions which had pervaded our society through the mid-20th century.
“These practical statesmen understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good, also had the capacity for great evil. Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites, and, if unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large,” Barr explained.
“No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity. But if you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.
“On the other hand, unless you have some effective [moral] restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous — licentiousness — the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny — where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.”
Barr quoted the 18th century British conservative thinker Edmund Burke, who wrote, ““Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains upon their appetites…. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
In granting the American people the broadest possible personal liberties, while limiting the power of government over their lives, Barr suggests that the Founding Fathers chose to “place their trust in self-discipline and the virtue of the American people.
“In the words of Madison, ‘We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves…’” Barr said.
REDEFINING SELF GOVERNMENT
The attorney general argued that the Founding Fathers understood the phrase “self government” to mean “the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves,” rather than any specific form of legislative democracy. Barr believes that in a free republic, “social order must flow up from the people themselves — freely obeying the dictates of inwardly-possessed and commonly-shared moral values. And to control willful human beings, with an infinite capacity to rationalize, those moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will — they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.
“In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people — a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and manmade law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.
“As John Adams put it, ‘Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.’”
Barr described the Founding Fathers as Christians who “believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to the true nature of man” and that the “divine wisdom [of] G-d’s eternal law. . . by which the whole of creation is ordered,” provides the necessary basis to sustain a truly free society in the long run by defining the “standards of right and wrong that exist independent of human will.”
RECOGNIZING THE DIVINE ‘INSTRUCTION MANUAL’ FOR HUMAN SOCIETY
“Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition imposed by a kill-joy clergy,” Barr continued. “In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct. They reflect the rules that are best for man. . . They are like G-d’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.
“By the same token,” Barr observed, “violations of these moral laws have bad, real-world consequences for man and society. We may not pay the price immediately, but over time the harm is real. . .
“Religion helps teach, train, and habituate people to want what is good. . . through moral education and by informing society’s informal rules — its customs and traditions which reflect the wisdom and experience of the ages. In other words, religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.”
Barr decried the escalating attacks on American religious values over the past 50 years. “On the one hand, we have seen the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square. On the other hand, we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism.”
THE HIGH COST OF MORAL DECLINE
Citing statistics documenting the steady decline of the traditional two-parent American family since 1965, Barr noted that “virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.
“Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic. . .
“I will not dwell on all the bitter results of the new secular age,” Barr declared. “Suffice it to say that the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery. And yet, the forces of secularism, ignoring these tragic results, press on with even greater militancy.
“Among these militant secularists are many so-called progressives,” Barr said. “But where is the progress? We are told we are living in a post-Christian era. But what has replaced the Judeo-Christian moral system? What is it that can fill the spiritual void in the hearts of the individual person? And what is a system of values that can sustain human social life? The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion…”
Barr concluded that, “What we call ‘values’ today are really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of [religious belief].”
He noted that in previous periods of human history when “the consequences of moral chaos become too pressing, the opinion of decent people rebels. They coalesce and rally against obvious excess. Periods of moral entrenchment follow periods of excess.”
WILL SOCIETY’S PENDULUM SWING BACK?
“This is the idea,” Barr continued, “that after a while, the ‘pendulum will swing back.’ But today we face something different that may mean that we cannot count on the pendulum swinging back.”
Barr then cited “the force, fervor, and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion we are experiencing today. This is not decay; it is organized destruction. Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives,’ have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values. These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy, but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters.”
He also noted the considerable irony in the fact that contemporary militant secularism “has itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor. It is taking on all the trappings of a religion, including inquisitions and excommunication. Those who defy the creed risk. . . social, educational, and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.”
Barr then cited “another modern phenomenon that suppresses society’s self-corrective mechanisms — that makes it harder for society to restore itself.
“In the past, when societies are threatened by moral chaos, the overall social costs of licentiousness and irresponsible personal conduct becomes so high that society ultimately recoils and reevaluates the path that it is on. But today. . . instead of addressing the underlying cause, we have the State in the role of alleviator of bad consequences. We call on the State to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility. . .
“So the reaction to drug addiction is safe injection sites. The solution to the breakdown of the family is for the State to set itself up as the ersatz husband for single mothers and the ersatz father to their children. The call comes for more and more social programs to deal with the wreckage. While we think we are solving problems, we are underwriting them. We start with an untrammeled freedom and we end up as dependents of a coercive state on which we depend.”
“A third phenomenon,” according to Barr, “which makes it difficult for the pendulum to swing back is the way law is being used as a battering ram to break down traditional moral values and to establish moral relativism as a new orthodoxy.”
LAW HAS BECOME A WEAPON AGAINST RELIGION
“Law is being used as weapon in a couple of ways,” the former attorney general explained.
“First, either through legislation, but more frequently through judicial interpretation, secularists have been continually seeking to eliminate laws that reflect traditional moral norms.
“At first, this involved rolling back laws that prohibited certain kinds of conduct. . . More recently, we have seen the law used aggressively to force religious people and entities to subscribe to practices and policies that are antithetical to their faith.
“The problem is not that religion is being forced on others. The problem is that irreligion and secular values are being forced on people of faith. . .
“Similarly, militant secularists today do not have a live and let live spirit — they are not content to leave religious people alone to practice their faith. Instead, they seem to take a delight in compelling people to violate their conscience. . .”
FAST-CHANGING SOCIAL NORMS
“This refusal to accommodate the free exercise of religion is relatively recent,” Barr said. “Just 25 years ago, there was broad consensus in our society that our laws should accommodate religious belief.
“In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — RFRA. The purpose of the statute was to promote maximum accommodation to religion when the government adopted broad policies that could impinge on religious practice.
“At the time, RFRA was not controversial. It was introduced by Chuck Schumer with 170 cosponsors in the House, and was introduced by Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch with 59 additional cosponsors in the Senate. It passed by voice vote in the House and by a vote of 97-3 in the Senate.
“Recently, as the process of secularization has accelerated, RFRA has come under assault, and the idea of religious accommodation has fallen out of favor. . . Some state governments are now attempting to compel religious individuals and entities to subscribe to practices, or to espouse viewpoints, that are incompatible with their religion.”
THE ATTACK ON RELIGION IN SCHOOLS
“Ground zero for these attacks on religion are the schools,” Barr explained. “To me, this is the most serious challenge to religious liberty.
“For anyone who has a religious faith, by far the most important part of exercising that faith is the teaching of that religion to our children. The passing on of the faith. There is no greater gift we can give our children and no greater expression of love.
“For the government to interfere in that process is a monstrous invasion of religious liberty. Yet here is where the battle is being joined, and I see the secularists are attacking on three fronts.
“The first front relates to the content of public-school curriculum. Many states are adopting curriculum that is incompatible with traditional religious principles according to which parents are attempting to raise their children. They often do so without any opt out for religious families. . .
“This puts parents who dissent from the secular orthodoxy to a difficult choice: Try to scrape together the money for private school or home schooling, or allow their children to be inculcated with messages that they fundamentally reject.
“A second axis of attack in the realm of education are state policies designed to starve religious schools of generally-available funds and encouraging students to choose secular options. . .
“A third kind of assault on religious freedom in education have been recent efforts to use state laws to force religious schools to adhere to secular orthodoxy. . .
“Taken together,” Barr said, these attacks on religious education in the schools “paint a disturbing picture. We see the State requiring local public schools to insert themselves into contentious social debates, without regard for the religious views of their students or parents. In effect, these states are requiring local communities to make their public schools inhospitable to families with traditional religious values; those families are implicitly told that they should conform or leave.
“At the same time, pressure is placed on religious schools to abandon their religious convictions. Simply because of their religious character, they are starved of funds — students who would otherwise choose to attend them are told they may only receive scholarships if they turn their sights elsewhere.”
RESTORING THE EMPHASIS ON MORAL EDUCATION
Barr’s conclusion is that all Americans who hold a religious faith “must place greater emphasis on the moral education of our children.
“Education is not vocational training. It is leading our children to the recognition that there is truth and helping them develop the faculties to discern and love the truth and the discipline to live by it.
“We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor. The times are hostile to this. Public agencies, including public schools, are becoming secularized and increasingly are actively promoting moral relativism.
“If ever there was a need for a resurgence of. . . religiously-affiliated schools, it is today.”
SECULARISTS USING COVID-19 TO ATTACK RELIGIOUS PRACTICE
Barr delivered his speech five months before the pandemic struck.
This past November, in a video address to the virtual annual convention of the conservative Federalist Society, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito described how, under the guise of protecting public health, secular-minded public officials had used their authority to violate the constitutional right of members of various faith communities by forbidding them from gathering to practice their religious beliefs or to attend their house of worship. He warned that “the pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty,” encroaching on the guarantees of the Bill of Rights.
Justice Alito agreed with Barr’s observation, with regard to the ongoing war on religious liberties in this country, that the new restrictions had “highlighted disturbing trends that were already in evidence before the pandemic struck. . . It pains me to say this, but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”
Alito said he was disturbed that in two separate cases, a majority of his fellow Supreme Court justices had voted to reject appeals challenging discriminatory state-imposed restrictions on houses of worship in California and Nevada on the grounds that they clearly violated the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, and had allowed those restrictions to stand.
Justice Alito’s complaint was that, “the only justification given was that we should defer to the judgment of the governors because they have the responsibility to safeguard the public health. Consider what that deference meant in the Nevada case. After initially closing the state’s casinos for a time, the governor [Democrat Steve Sisolak] opened them up and allowed them to admit 50% of their normal occupancy, and since many casinos are enormous, that is a lot of people. Not only did the governor open up the casinos, he made a point of inviting people from all over the country to visit the state.
“So if you go to Nevada, you can gamble, drink and attend all sorts of shows. But here’s what you can’t do. If you want to worship and you’re the 51st person in line — sorry, you are out of luck. Houses of worship are limited to 50 attendees. The size of the building doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter if you wear a mask and keep more than six feet away from everybody else. And it doesn’t matter if the building is carefully sanitized before and after a service. The state’s message [in imposing that arbitrary restriction] is to forget about worship and head for the slot machines, or maybe a show.”
Alito added that it should not have been difficult for the other justices on the Supreme Court to understand why they should have struck down those restrictions on public prayer. “Take a quick look at the Constitution. You will see the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment which protects religious liberty. You will not find a [dice] clause or a blackjack clause or a slot machine clause. Nevada was unable to provide any plausible justification for treating casinos more favorably than houses of worship. But the court nevertheless deferred to the governor’s judgment, which just so happened to favor the state’s biggest industry and the many voters it employs,” Alito observed sarcastically.
EQUATING RELIGIOUS BELIEF WITH BIGOTRY
He noted that the secular opponents of the First Amendment right to practice religious beliefs now condemn it as “just an excuse for bigotry and can’t be tolerated, even when there is no evidence that anybody has been harmed. … The question we face is whether our society will be inclusive enough to tolerate people with unpopular religious beliefs.”
Justice Alito also lamented the fact that those who hold to the traditional religious definition of marriage are now subject to condemnation if they dare to even mention those beliefs in public.
“Until very recently, that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now, it’s considered bigotry,” Alito remarked. “I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes. But if they repeat those in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots, and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. That is just what is coming to pass.”
Alito cited three controversial legal cases in which religious organizations, such as the Catholic church’s order of nuns known as the Little Sisters of the Poor, and devout Christians, such as the owners of Ralph’s Pharmacy in Washington State and the owner of the Masterpiece Bake Shop in Colorado, came under concerted legal attack by state governments for refusing to obey state laws requiring them to violate their religious beliefs.
In the Masterpiece Bake Shop case, a member of the Colorado Human Rights Commission did not hesitate to express his intolerance by declaring that freedom of religion had been used, “to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust, we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination.”
WHO WILL PRESIDENT BIDEN STAND WITH?
Alito added that in addition to freedom of religion, the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech is also under widespread attack, especially on the college campus and in liberal intellectual circles where “tolerance for opposing views is now in short supply.”
These ongoing challenges to freedom of religion and freedom of speech are of particular concern in the days ahead because of the new administration about to take over the White House. Joe Biden will become only the second Roman Catholic (after John F. Kennedy) to be elected president of the United States, but his declared support for the liberal social policies promoted by the Democrat party is inconsistent with the political reputation Biden has cultivated as a personally devout Catholic.
It will be interesting to see over the next four years whether, Biden, as president, decides to join his fellow Catholics — former attorney general Bill Barr and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito — in standing up and speaking out in defense of individual religious rights against the attacks by “progressive” liberal secularists who now dominate Biden’s party.