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  1. Opinion

Is this Attorney General William Barr’s cry for help?

Maybe his speech at Notre Dame wasn’t a battle cry against his religious or political opponents, but something else. | Catherine Rampell
Catherine Rampell, Washington Post columnist.
Catherine Rampell, Washington Post columnist.
Published Oct. 15

On Friday, in a closed-door speech at the University of Notre Dame, Attorney General William Barr talked at length about a “campaign to destroy the traditional moral order.”

The alleged perpetrator of this campaign?

"Militant secularists," who insist upon keeping government institutions free from the influence of any faith or creed.

To be clear: This was not merely an affirmation -- delivered by a devout Catholic, while visiting a Catholic university -- of how privately taught religious values can contribute to character development or stronger communities.

No. This appeared to be a tacit endorsement of theocracy.

Amid calling for greater freedom of religion, Barr also called for religion (his religion) to infiltrate government at all levels. He specifically decried the fact that "public agencies -- including public schools -- are becoming secularized."

Militant secularism, he said, is to blame for the country's greatest ills, including drug use, mental illness and "an increase in senseless violence." Given such crises, Barr urged his audience to fight back against "so-called 'progressives'" and others who insist upon respecting America's pesky, constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

"This is not decay," Barr said. "It is organized destruction. Secularists, and their allies among the 'progressives,' have marshalled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values."

There are two ways to read these remarks, which were one of three speeches by administration officials in recent days on Christianity's role in U.S. governance.

One reaction: They're terrifying. This man who swore to uphold the Constitution has apparently forgotten its prohibition on state establishment of religion. Our nation's chief law enforcement officer -- the person ultimately responsible for ensuring equal treatment under the law -- appears to be demonizing anyone who does not share his religious and political values.

But there's also another, more encouraging way to interpret Barr's comments: Maybe it was all just one giant, coded subtweet of the boss.

Welcome to The Resistance, Bill Barr?

Barr decried the government's "attacks on religion." One could be forgiven for reading this as a passive-aggressive swipe at a president who, during the 2016 campaign, called for blocking immigrants based on their religious beliefs.

Donald Trump's originally proposed "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" got watered down after he took office. But even the final version was not exactly an endorsement of religious liberty.

Neither is the administration's recent push to allow greater religious discrimination by enabling federal contractors to hire and fire based on religious belief. This means allowing a for-profit private company to fire an employee for being gay or transgender -- but also for being Catholic rather than Protestant. Companies may "condition employment on acceptance of or adherence to religious tenets as understood by the employing contractor."

Such policies are surely a greater threat to religious freedom than asking, say, cake bakers to respect public accommodation laws.

Barr bemoaned the "unremitting assault" not just on private exercise of faith but also "traditional values." It's hard to know exactly what was being invoked here. Maybe he was envisioning regressive traditions of days past, such as respect for the patriarchy.

But perhaps he was instead invoking traditional values such as: Always keep your word. Keep it in your private business dealings, but also when making promises to friends and allies who have put their lives on the line for you, whether at home or in northern Syria.

Or maybe: Don't boast about grabbing unsuspecting women by the genitals. Also, maybe don't grab them there in the first place.

Or: Don't commit adultery, with a porn star or anyone else, especially not a few months after your third wife gave birth.

Also: The only people who should be asked to participate in American elections are Americans. Not foreign powers, especially not adversarial foreign powers.

Don't lie, cheat or steal (including from Uncle Sam); don't blaspheme; welcome the stranger; have compassion for the poor and sick; and do unto others as you would have them do unto you, even when they don't have political oppo to offer in return.

Barr didn't specifically mention these values, many of which are enshrined in the Judeo-Christian traditions he celebrated in his talk. He did, however, lament the rise of "moral relativism," which he said public schools were "actively promoting." So, too, presumably, are members of his own party, who selectively condemn bad behavior only when committed by someone other than Trump.

So maybe this wasn't a battle cry against Barr's religious or political opponents. Maybe it was just a cry for help.

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

© 2019 Washington Post Writers Group

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