Last month, two unrelated events took place that were both quite noteworthy and, in truth, also interrelated. One was publicized a bit; the second less so. But both, I believe, are quite significant and, I would add, say a great deal about where we are as a nation as we enter the second quintile of the 21st century.
The first event occurred on October 11 at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. That morning, Attorney General William Barr delivered a speech which was covered by a handful of news outlets. More’s the pity; the speech deserves to be discussed for what was said, and more, who said it.
In short, Barr spoke for nearly 40 minutes about “religious liberty in America.” He began his remarks by explaining that from the founding of this country onward, the central tenets of our country have always been centered upon “a duty toward the Creator,” and a “duty… precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” But, he contended, such principles have been challenged in recent years, most especially since the advent of the 20th century.
And so, Barr’s central argument was that today more than ever, we need to be wary of the incipient secularism and moral relativism that are seeping into our society, our institutions, and yes, even our government. He argued that such views cause real “harm,” facilitating lost faith and immorality which cannot and should not be tolerated.
Rather, he offered, “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. [It] 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.”
It is impossible to summarize all of Barr’s seminal speech here. But what is, perhaps, truly significant is that after speaking about his views, (in which he makes clear that he identifies strongly with “the Judeo-Christian values that have made this country great,”) he concluded by saying that “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.”
Barr’s words are, to my mind at least, quite powerful and instructive. And yet for many, they smacked of his support for “theocracy.” “What about the separation of Church and State!?” many commentators howled. How dare a government official speak this way? Doesn’t Barr recognize that we like to keep our religious views to ourselves, and out of the public domain?
Well, if he didn’t know this before his Notre Dame speech, he was probably reminded of this when, just six days later, the Pew Research Center came out with its annual update concerning “Religion & Society in America.” There, the statistics Pew provides are absolutely startling.
As of 2019, they state, the number of Americans identifying as Christian (Protestant or Catholic) is in steep decline, down from 77% of the American population a decade ago to only 65% today. While the minorities (Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists) when combined remain static at fewer than 6% of all Americans, those identifying as “unaffiliated,” “nothing in particular,” “atheist,” and “agnostic,” all continue to rise, today numbering a combined total of more than one-quarter (26%) of the US adult population.
So what is one to make of all of this? From my perspective at least, I find both news stories a bit jarring. On the one hand, I personally do not believe that things like ethics and morality should be legislated from the bench or from a government source. Decency, morality, hard work, honesty – these are not things that can be foisted upon a people from above. Rather, these building blocks come from the family. And no, as we see time and time again no government, no matter how benevolent, can ever replace that institution. For decades now local and state governments have tried this with little to show for it. It is a rare instance indeed when a government agency is able to supplant the failings fostered by incomplete or incompetent love and parenting.
And yet, such is our world today. While AG Barr calls upon us to simply do the right thing by living morally and with faith, far too many are already turning away. While some see the real need to recognize and embrace the realities of modern science and technology – innovations that we could never have discovered without God’s help – others see these as “unnatural,” “manmade” disruptions, apples in an otherwise pure Garden of Eden. Is it any wonder then that, according to the American Religious Identification Survey by the City University of New York, Wicca (also known as witchcraft) is the country’s fastest-growing religion?
To be sure, things like faith and spirituality are very personal issues and no one, regardless of position, can or should force these things upon us. Still, in an age when things like morality, manners and kindness now seem like obsolete concepts doomed to be locked away in a case here at my museum well, I can’t help but wonder if Barr isn’t actually on to something.
Steven C Dinero, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Carbon County Museum.