Attorney General William Barr on Religious Liberty

I commend this talk by AG Barr at Notre Dame. It’s not long, at 34 minutes. (The actual talk starts at 12:43, and hopefully my embed starts playing there automatically.) I debated posting it under our Free Speech discussion, but decided it could use its own topic.

Here are a few highlights in text form:


The central question [according to the founders] was whether over the long haul we the people 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."


Edmund Burke summed up this point in his typically colorful language:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains upon their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more of it there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their past passions forge their fetters.

So the founders decided to take a gamble, and they called it a great experiment. They would leave the people broad liberty. They would limit the coercive power of the government. And they would place their trust in the self-discipline and 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.’ And this is really what they meant by self-government. It did not mean primarily the mechanics by which we select a representative legislature. It referred to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves."


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 to man-made laws and had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles. As John Adams put it, “We have no government armed with the power which is capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people it is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”


In the past when societies are threatened by moral chaos, the overall social costs of licentiousness and irresponsible personal conduct become so high that society ultimately recoils and reevaluates the path it is on. But today in the face of all the increasing pathologies, instead of addressing the underlying cause we have cast the state in the role of the alleviator of bad consequences. We call on the state to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility.

So the reaction to growing illegitimacy is not sexual responsibility but abortion. 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 an ersatz husband for the single mother and an ersatz father for the children. The call comes for more and more social programs to deal with this wreckage, and while we think we’re solving problems, we are underwriting them. We start with an untrammeled freedom, and we end up as dependents of a coercive state on whom we depend.

Interestingly, this idea of the state is the alleviator of bad consequences has given rise to a new moral system that goes hand in hand with the secularization of society. It can be called the system of macro morality, and in some ways it is an inversion of Christian morality. Christianity teaches a micro morality. We transform the world by focusing on our own personal morality and transformation. The new secular religion teaches macro morality. One’s morality is not gauged by their private conduct but rather their commitment to political causes and collective action to address various social problems. This system allows us not to worry so much about the strictures on our own private lives, because we can find salvation on the picket line. We can signal our finely tuned moral sensibilities by participating in demonstrations on this cause or on that.

Something happened recently that crystallized this difference between these competing moral systems. I was attending Mass at a parish I did not usually attend in Washington DC, and at the end of Mass the chairman of the social justice committee got up to give his report to the parish. And he pointed to the growing homeless problem in DC and explained that more mobile soup kitchens were needed to feed them. This being a Catholic Church I expected him to call for volunteers to go out and provide for this need as volunteers. But instead he recounted all the visits that the committee members had made to the DC government to lobby for higher taxes and more spending to fund mobile soup kitchens.


Ground Zero for these attacks on religion are the schools, and to me this is the most serious challenge to religious liberty today. For anyone who has a religious faith, by far the most important part of exercising that faith is teaching that religion to your children—the passing on of the faith. There is no greater gift we can give our children and no greater expression of love. And for the government to interfere in that process is a monstrous invasion of religious liberty. Yet this is where the battle is being joined, and I see that is being waged on three fronts. The first front relates to the content of public school curriculum…

The 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 rather than religious schools…

The third kind of assault on religious freedom and education have been recent efforts to use state laws to force religious schools to adhere to secular orthodoxy."


We must be vigilant to resist efforts by forces of secularization to drive religious viewpoints from the public square and to impinge upon our exercise of our faith


I found his talk refreshing and I’m grateful for President Trump’s decision to appoint this man Attorney General.

In thinking about his focus on education, I wondered whether public schools aren’t an example of the very problem of looking at the state as ‘alleviator’ that he’s opposing. On second thought, I don’t think so. Abolish the federal DoE. Fine. But I don’t think the problem is that public schools exist. As far as I can tell, educating the children of a community has always been a community investment. The problem is that we don’t have a unified community. We’ve got two opposing communities living together, with the enemies of Christ in complete control of the educational system of the “community.”

It’s going to take sacrifices on the part of Christians as a community to establish an alternate educational system.


Transcript here:


Years ago, Brian Bailey and I taught a class on Christian Civics at Athanasius College. He had the students read this transcript of J. Gresham Machen’s testimony before the House & Senate Committees on the Proposed Department of Education in 1926. He was strongly opposed.

Note his main concerns:

"It is to be opposed, we think, because it represents a tendency which is no new thing, but has been in the world for at least 2,300 years, which seems to be opposed to the whole principle of liberty for which our country stands. It is the notion that education is an affair essentially of the State; that the children of the State must be educated for the benefit of the State; that idiosyncrasies should be avoided, and the State should devise that method of education which will best promote the welfare of the State.

"That principle was put in classic form in ancient Greece in the Republic of Plato. It was put into operation, with very disastrous results in some of the Greek States. It has been in the world ever since as the chief enemy of human liberty. It appears in the world today. There are many apostles of it, such as Mr. H.G. Wells, for example. I suppose the root of his popular Outline of History is that with our modem methods of communication we can accomplish what the Roman Empire could not accomplish, because we can place education under the control of the State, and, avoiding such nonsense as literary education and the study of the classics, etc., can produce a strong unified state by having the State take up the business of education.

“The same principle, of course, appears in practice in other countries in modem times, at its highest development in Germany, in disastrous form in Soviet Russia. It is the same idea. To that idea our notion has been diametrically opposed, and if you read the history of our race I think you will discover that our notion has been that parents have a right to educate children as they please; that idiosyncrasies should not be avoided; that the State should prevent one group from tyrannizing over another, and that education is essentially not a matter of the State at all.”

Read the whole thing.


The loss to the public schools of even the milquetoast civic Christianity that we as a country had was a massive blow to the civic life of this country. The response should have been to (metaphorically) burn down the Supreme Court or the public schools, or maybe both for good measure.

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Great listen. Thanks for sharing.

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I’m all for doing both - and I’d like us to get started before the results of the next election come in. :rofl:

Anyhow, I am indignant at the amount of good, necessary-seeming reading that this forum has piled upon my desk. First the Barr speech and now the Machen one!


Agreed! I’ve yet to start on Machen and our brother James Brown’s recent piece.


This is quite a fun read, especially the Q&A (and the argument) at the end. I appreciate Machen’s candor and unwillingness to bend to the pressure to speak on things that were off topic.

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Posted a number of quotes from this. Really, just excellent. The kind of thing that, over my lifetime, I’ve seen Roman Catholics say again and again. Generally, Tridentine Roman Catholics. Never Reformed men. Really, I’ve been served well by reading Roman Catholics instead of Reformed men in anything connected to moral theology, culture, and political theory. Reformed men are so ignorant and tepid, particularly when it comes to the public square. It’s almost as if the hatred for orthodox Roman Catholicisim in the Western world has steeled their nerves and made them work harder and be on guard. Anyhow, thank you for this wonderful link, son. Love,


I’ve often found myself thinking about this kind of thing – not so much in comparing Catholics to Reformed folks, but in comparing various camps within the Protestant world.

For Protestants, I think the issue largely has to do with eschatology. Looking back on my upbringing, dispensational premillenialism was the only air I breathed. It wasn’t until I was about 18 that I discovered other eschatological views existed, and that they all had names. Even after dispensational premillenialism was dispelled in my thinking, it was still pretty clear that modern evangelicals virtually all hold to some form of premillenialism.

But then about 5 or 6 years ago, I read Doug Wilson’s Heaven Misplaced. This was my first real exposure to the postmillenial view (uncharitable caricatures excluded). After that, I was surprised to learn that postmillenialism was once the mainstream view of the Puritan camp.

In his book, Pastor Wilson points out that subscribing to premillenialism – specifically dispensationalism, at least – tends to result in causing people to view the world as a “spiritual Vietnam,” where we’re just hunkering down, waiting for the helicopter to come get us out of here. By contrast, the postmillenial view sees Satan as a soundly defeated enemy, and the gospel as soundly victorious.

Practically applied, what this means is that premillenials tend to care about getting people saved through the proclamation of the gospel, but they aren’t very concerned about transforming society. Any societal reforms are just icing on the cake, but they aren’t a focus. In contrast, postmillenials tend to have more of a perspective for the “long game” of human history. They aren’t waiting for a helicopter to get us out of here. They are simply chasing down the remaining rebels, waiting for the King to come get off the helicopter and survey his victory.

While I didn’t come away from Pastor Wilson’s book fully convinced of the postmillenial view (the jury is still out), what he absolutely convinced me of is that eschatology matters. It informs how we will think about human society. Do we adopt an indifferent view toward civil government? Do we decide that we don’t care about “society” at all, and make our focus purely the simple proclamation of the gospel and individual discipleship? Or do we take the view that Jesus is lord of this earth, and labor to bring all principalities into submission to him? Or both? Etc.

While I am probably not qualified to answer the question of why Reformed men don’t care about culture and political theory, my guess is that it’s because they have a weak eschatology. They need to make it a point to make up their minds. I get the vibe that we are all still breathing the premillenial air that we inherited from the previous generations, and just haven’t cared enough to decide if we need to change anything.

But as it relates to Catholics, I guess my first thought would be: perhaps they tend to focus on culture and political theory because they have no real gospel? Without a real gospel, all you are left with is trying to apply moral principles to the here and now. You aren’t looking for new birth from the Spirit; you’re looking for cultural transformation through moralism.

Perhaps it’s time for a robust revival of postmillenialism in Reformed circles? That is, if it’s true. :slight_smile:


Catholics also tend to have the best work on anthropology and theology of the body.

In fact, it’s often seemed to me that the biggest issue with Reformed thinking is that it’s most content to dig and re-dig the trenches of the doctrines of grace, and loathe to wander outside the language of the confessions when it comes to much else.

Of course, I raise this observation/critique as a born and raised evangelical, which doesn’t even bother with trench-digging most of the time.

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This is an interesting observation.

The other piece to it is that American evangelicals get stuck in the patterns of 1776, without much to say about our current situation.

Like Tim, I’ve found Roman Catholic writings on politics a lot more thought-provoking than that of Reformed men. I don’t have a good explanation for why this should be so.