Mark Silk on How Culture Warrior William Barr Weaponizes Religious Liberty

Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Last week Attorney General William Barr took time out from the Donald Trump protection racket to deliver a speech at the Notre Dame Law School that might have been titled, with apologies to German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, “A Defense of Religious Liberty Against Its Secularist Despisers.” The speech showed Barr for the culture warrior he is, in that hybrid traditionalist Catholic/evangelical Protestant mode we increasingly see these days.

According to Barr, religion has been under “increasing attack” for half a century, alongside the “growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism.” It was of course different at the dawn of the Republic. Echoing the evangelical huckster historian David Barton, Barr contended that the founders of the country were Christians committed to “the Judeo-Christian moral system.”

The moral precepts of the latter, by Barr’s account, enjoyed “the guidance of Natural Law — a real, transcendent moral order which flows from God’s eternal law — the Divine wisdom by which the whole Creation is ordered. The eternal law is impressed upon, and reflected in, all created things.” Thus, he continued, “From the nature of things we can, through reason, experience, discern standards of right and wrong that exist independent of human will.”

This explanation puts forward the unvarnished neo-scholastic conception of natural law that reigned supreme in pre-Vatican II Catholic thought. If you think about it for a moment, the rise of secularism shouldn’t be a problem under this conception, since all rational beings, even hard-bitten secularists, are equipped to arrive at the same moral standards.

But that’s not how Barr sees it. His view is that secularists “dismiss this idea of morality as otherworldly superstition imposed by a kill-joy clergy.”

In other words, I guess, if you don’t believe in the old-time Catholic version of natural law, your reason won’t get you to the right Judeo-Christian places.

Actually, as Boston College’s Mark Massa makes clear in his recent book, “The Structure of Theological Revolutions,” these days even conservative Catholic theologians such as the late Germain Grisez reject the old-time version of natural law — and that’s to say nothing of Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim, and Buddhist thinkers.

At a conference held here at the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life on Monday to reflect on the implications of Massa’s book for religious advocacy in the public square, the limits of neo-scholastic natural law in time, place, and tradition could hardly have been clearer.

Which isn’t to say that various religions don’t hold to the idea that there are certain laws incumbent on all people at all times. Within the Judeo-Christian system to which Barr repeatedly referred, these are the seven so-called Noahide laws that God reportedly handed down to Noah after the flood: the prohibitions of idolatry, of the improper use of the name of God, murder, sexual immorality and theft; the injunction to establish laws and courts; and the ban on eating meat from a living animal.

Now, however, Barr claimed that, because of the growth of secularism, “Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.”

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Source: Religion News Service