I am sharing these recent remarks by a sitting U. S. Attorney General, William F. Barr, who is a Roman Catholic. He gave them at a Roman Catholic University, the University of Notre Dame. No one should construe that there is any endorsement, promotion, or acceptance of Roman Catholicism intended by posting his remarks. I am posting them because he gives some insightful application of the lessons of history to our time regarding the relation of religion, morality, and liberty in a way that shows Protestants and some Roman Catholics do have some common views of civil morality, even though we differ on the basics of the gospel and many other important things. I dare say Mr. Barr seems to have been influenced heavily in his views on these topics by the distinctly Protestant culture, history, and political traditions of the United States of America.
You may also read it on the Department of justice website: http://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-william-p-barr-delivers-remarks-law-school-and-de-nicola-center-ethics
Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers Remarks to the Law School and the de
Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame
South Bend, IN
United States ~
Friday, October 11, 2019
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Tom, for your kind introduction. Bill and Roger, it’s great to be
Thank you to the Notre Dame Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and
Culture for graciously extending an invitation to address you today. I’d also
like to express gratitude to Tony de Nicola, whose generous support has shaped –
and continues to shape – countless minds through examination of the Catholic
moral and intellectual tradition.
Today, I would like to share some thoughts with you about religious liberty in
America. It’s an important priority in this Administration and for this
Department of Justice.
We have set up a task force within the Department with different components that
have equities in this area, including the Solicitor General’s Office, the Civil
Division, the Office of Legal Counsel, and other offices. We have regular
meetings. We keep an eye out for cases or events around the country where states
are misapplying the Establishment Clause in a way that discriminates against
people of faith, or cases where states adopt laws that impinge upon the free
exercise of religion.
From the Founding Era onward, there was strong consensus about the centrality of
religious liberty in the United States.
The imperative of protecting religious freedom was not just a nod in the
direction of piety. It reflects the Framers’ belief that religion was
indispensable to sustaining our free system of government.
In his renowned 1785 pamphlet, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious
Assessments,” James Madison described religious liberty as “a right towards men”
but “a duty towards the Creator,” and a “duty….precedent both in order of time
and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”
It has been over 230 years since that small group of colonial lawyers 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.
This quantum leap in liberty has been the mainspring of unprecedented human
progress, not only for Americans, but for people around the world.
In the 20th century, our form of free society faced a severe test.
There had always been the question whether a democracy so solicitous of
individual freedom could stand up against a regimented totalitarian state.
That question was answered with a resounding “yes” as the United States stood up
against and defeated, first fascism, and then communism.
But in the 21st century, we face an entirely different kind of challenge.
The challenge we face is precisely what the Founding Fathers foresaw would be
our supreme test as a free society.
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.
By and large, the Founding generation’s view of human nature was drawn from the
classical Christian tradition.
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
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 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.
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 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
intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
So the Founders decided to take a gamble. They called it a great experiment.
They would leave “the People” broad liberty, limit the coercive power of the
government, and place their trust in self-discipline and the virtue of the
In the words of Madison, “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us
to govern ourselves…”
This is really what was meant by “self-government.” It did not mean primarily
the mechanics by which we select a representative legislative body. It referred
to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves.
But what was the source of this internal controlling power? In a free republic,
those restraints could not be handed down from above by philosopher kings.
Instead, 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 and 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 man-made law and who
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.”
As Father John Courtney Murray observed, the American tenet was not that:
“Free government is inevitable, only that it is possible, and that its
possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly
governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral order.”
How does religion promote the moral discipline and virtue needed to support free
First, it gives us the right rules to live by. The Founding generation were
Christians. They believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to
the true nature of man. Those moral precepts start with the two great
commandments – to Love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind; and to Love
Thy Neighbor as Thyself.
But they also include the guidance of natural law – a real, transcendent moral
order which flows from God’s eternal law – the divine wisdom by which the whole
of creation is ordered. The eternal law is impressed upon, and reflected in, all
From the nature of things we can, through reason, experience, discern standards
of right and wrong that exist independent of human will.
Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition
imposed by a kill-joy clergy. In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the
ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct.
They reflect the rules that are best for man, not in the by and by, but in the
here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man
and human society.
By the same token, violations of these moral laws have bad, real-world
consequences for man and society. We many not pay the price immediately, but
over time the harm is real.
Religion helps promote moral discipline within society. Because man is fallen,
we don’t automatically conform ourselves to moral rules even when we know they
are good for us.
But religion helps teach, train, and habituate people to want what is good. It
does not do this primarily by formal laws – that is, through coercion. It does
this 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.
I think we all recognize that over the past 50 years religion has been under
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
On the other hand, we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine
of moral relativism.
By any honest assessment, the consequences of this moral upheaval have been
Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.
In 1965, the illegitimacy rate was eight percent. In 1992, when I was last
Attorney General, it was 25 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. In many of our
large urban areas, it is around 70 percent.
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.
As you all know, over 70,000 people die a year from drug overdoses. That is more
casualities in a year than we experienced during the entire Vietnam War.
I will not dwell on all the bitter results of the new secular age. 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.” But where is
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
Scholarship suggests that religion has been integral to the development and
thriving of Homo sapiens since we emerged roughly 50,000 years ago. It is just
for the past few hundred years we have experimented in living without religion.
We hear much today about our humane values. But, in the final analysis, what
undergirds these values? What commands our adherence to them?
What we call “values” today are really nothing more than mere sentimentality,
still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity.
Now, there have been times and places where the traditional moral order has been
In the past, societies – like the human body – seem to have a self-healing
mechanism – a self-correcting mechanism that gets things back on course if
things go too far.
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.
This is the idea of the pendulum. We have all thought 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.
First is 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.
One of the ironies, as some have observed, is that the secular project 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 a figurative burning at the stake – social,
educational, and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and
savage social media campaigns.
The pervasiveness and power of our high-tech popular culture fuels apostasy in
another way. It provides an unprecedented degree of distraction.
Part of the human condition is that there are big questions that should stare us
in the face. Are we created or are we purely material accidents? Does our life
have any meaning or purpose? But, as Blaise Pascal observed, instead of
grappling with these questions, humans can be easily distracted from thinking
about the “final things.”
Indeed, we now live in the age of distraction where we can envelop ourselves in
a world of digital stimulation and universal connectivity. And we have almost
limitless ways of indulging all our physical appetites.
There is 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 – in the face of all the increasing pathologies – instead of
addressing the underlying cause, we have the State in the role of alleviator of
bad fconsequences. 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
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.
Interestingly, this idea of the State as 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.” It is in some
ways 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 on their commitment to political causes and
collective action to address social problems.
This system allows us to not worry so much about the strictures on our private
lives, while we find salvation on the picket-line. We can signal our
finely-tuned moral sensibilities by demonstrating for this cause or that.
Something happened recently that crystalized the difference between these moral
systems. I was attending Mass at a parish I did not usually go to in Washington,
D.C. At the end of Mass, the Chairman of the Social Justice Committee got up to
give his report to the parish. He pointed to the growing homeless problem in
D.C. 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 this need. Instead, he recounted all the visits that the Committee had
made to the D.C. government to lobby for higher taxes and more spending to fund
mobile soup kitchen.
A third phenomenon 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 is being used as weapon in a couple of ways.
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. Thus, the watershed decision legalizing abortion. And since then, the
legalization of euthanasia. The list goes on.
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
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.
This reminds me of how some Roman emperors could not leave their loyal Christian
subjects in peace but would mandate that they violate their conscience by
offering religious sacrifice to the emperor as a god.
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
For example, the last Administration sought to force religious employers,
including Catholic religious orders, to violate their sincerely held religious
views by funding contraceptive and abortifacient coverage in their health plans.
Similarly, California has sought to require pro-life pregnancy centers to
provide notices of abortion rights.
This refusal to accommodate the free exercise of religion is relatively recent.
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.
Because this Administration firmly supports accommodation of religion, the
battleground has shifted to the states. 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.
Ground zero for these attacks on religion are the schools. 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
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.
Thus, for example, New Jersey recently passed a law requiring public schools to
adopt an LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional
Christian teaching. Similar laws have been passed in California and Illinois.
And the Orange County Board of Education in California issued an opinion that
“parents who disagree with the instructional materials related to gender, gender
identity, gender expression and sexual orientation may not excuse their children
from this instruction.”
Indeed, in some cases, the schools may not even warn parents about lessons they
plan to teach on controversial subjects relating to sexual behavior and
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. Montana, for example, created a program that
provided tax credits to those who donated to a scholarship program that
underprivileged students could use to attend private school. The point of the
program was to provide greater parental and student choice in education and to
provide better educations to needy youth.
But Montana expressly excluded religiously-affiliated private schools from the
program. And when that exclusion was challenged in court by parents who wanted
to use the scholarships to attend a nondenominational Christian school, the
Montana Supreme Court required the state to eliminate the program rather than
allow parents to use scholarships for religious schools.
It justified this action by pointing to a provision in Montana’s State
Constitution commonly referred to as a “Blaine Amendment.” Blaine Amendments
were passed at a time of rampant anti-Catholic animus in this country, and
typically disqualify religious institutions from receiving any direct or
indirect payments from a state’s funds.
The case is now in the Supreme Court, and we filed a brief explaining why
Montana’s Blaine Amendment violates the First Amendment.
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. For example, right here in Indiana, a teacher sued the Catholic
Archbishop of Indianapolis for directing the Catholic schools within his diocese
that they could not employ teachers in same-sex marriages because the example of
those same-sex marriages would undermine the schools’ teaching on the Catholic
view of marriage and complementarity between the sexes.
This lawsuit clearly infringes the First Amendment rights of the Archdiocese by
interfering both with its expressive association and with its church autonomy.
The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the state court
making these points, and we hope that the state court will soon dismiss the
Taken together, these cases 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.
Simultaneously, they are threatened in tort and, eventually, will undoubtedly be
threatened with denial of accreditation if they adhere to their religious
character. If these measures are successful, those with religious convictions
will become still more marginalized.
I do not mean to suggest that there is no hope for moral renewal in our country.
But we cannot sit back and just hope the pendulum is going to swing back toward
As Catholics, we are committed to the Judeo-Christian values that have made this
And we know that the first thing we have to do to promote renewal is to ensure
that we are putting our principles into practice in our own personal private
We understand that only by transforming ourselves can we transform the world
This is tough work. It is hard to resist the constant seductions of our
contemporary society. This is where we need grace, prayer, and the help of our
Beyond this, we must place greater emphasis on the moral education of our
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 Catholic education – and more
generally religiously-affiliated schools – it is today.
I think we should do all we can to promote and support authentic Catholic
education at all levels.
Finally, as lawyers, we should be particularly active in the struggle that is
being waged against religion on the legal plane.
We must be vigilant to resist efforts by the forces of secularization to drive
religious viewpoints from the public square and to impinge upon the free
exercise of our faith.
I can assure you that, as long as I am Attorney General, the Department of
Justice will be at the forefront of this effort, ready to fight for the most
cherished of our liberties: the freedom to live according to our faith.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you today. And God bless you and
Attorney General William Barr