Opinion: William Barr is right about religion

Jay Ambrose
Attorney General William Barr speaks during a graduation ceremony for students of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va., in this Friday, June 7, 2019, file photo.

Attorney General William Barr recently gave a speech on religious freedom at the University of Notre Dame law school. He said that that mainstream faiths were being attacked by secularists, mass media, academia, movies, TV and the like, that our traditional moral system was being degraded and that the traditional self-discipline of the past was fleeing.

In no time at all, he was proven correct. He was not attacked just by atheists and no-nothing politicians, but by fellow Catholics of a leftist persuasion and even a theological professor who said he was threatening separation of church and state. Christians should not carry their faith with them while exercising public duties, we were told. They just might then disregard the rule of law, for instance, and threaten the rights of nonbelievers.

Barr dispelled that goofiness in what he actually said. He does not want government insisting on any faith. He wants religious freedom. He wants limited government that becomes more possible as we get the kind of moral discipline and virtue that the Judeo-Christian tradition instills.

When people behave decently, they can be counted on to govern themselves. They do not need a cop on every corner or bureaucratic enthusiasm for rules that enclose our lives instead of opening them. This country of ours has 170,000 pages of federal regulations, a nanny state that will get you if you don't watch out.

But, oh dear, some say, Christians of the Barr kind will heed moral notions that transform our democracy into a theocracy. I wonder if these superiors among us know what Christian morals actually are, if they understand, for instance, what Paul said when he talked about love and described its elements: patience, kindness, humility, calmness, delight in truth, perseverance in helping others, hope and letting one's life revolve around something bigger than self.

Now let's turn to secular morals.

Relativity is a biggie. No moral truth is absolutely true, some secularists tell us, and you wonder if they ever heard of the philosopher who asked if it is then sometimes OK to torture a baby to death for the fun of it? We get multiculturalism that tells us all cultures are equal in their values even though we know some cultures approve of killing homosexuals, adulteresses and people of other faiths.

We have utilitarians who are willing to dismiss some evils if they make large numbers of people happy, and we know this can be a terror. We have people wedded to political ideologies far more dogmatic than religion. We have political correctness that often sees the trivial as momentous and sometimes punishes transgressions by ruining lives.

All of this gets complicated. But it is not complicated to say that someone heeding basic religious precepts is ordinarily going to be far less dangerous to democracy than, say, Sen. Bernie Sanders and his historically catastrophic aspirations for governmental envelopment.

Though not generally recognized, Christianity has been a major force in giving us science, universities, liberty and the values that still instruct to at least some extent the values of nonbelievers. Though the New Atheists say religion gives us war, research indicates that no more than 10% of wars have some religious connection.

None of this is meant to say that no horrors have been committed in the name of religion or that religious people are ipso facto better than the non-religious. Most Christians recognize their own sinfulness. But it is the case that religion is in steep decline in America today, and that the consequences could be the loss of meaning and of what has made us great.

The sociologist Charles Murray has shown for instance that the most constant churchgoers among us are the upper middle class, and that the working class is suffering mightily from the communal help and guidance that came from churches dying out where they live.

Hurrah for Barr.

Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.