I finally got around to reading Attorney General William Barr’s Notre Dame speech concerning the threats now endangering religious freedom and marginalizing religious believers. I share Barr’s worries about the political and legal pressures being applied to religious organizations that profess traditional views about sexual morality, marriage, homosexuality, and transgenderism. The insistence of presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke that such groups be denied tax-exempt status is not only politically tone-deaf; it is also deeply illiberal. Democrats should reject such demagoguery. Freedom of religion or conscience means little if it does not protect the rights of those whose views we judge to be wrong. On this fraught issue, live-and-let-live should be the path forward. Better judgments on the value of the new sexual dispensation can be made in a generation or two. In a democracy, the sincere beliefs of people on both sides of such a complicated issue, especially one that implicates how families raise their children, deserve respect and tolerance.
But the bulk of Barr’s speech was a snide version of conservative Catholic boilerplate, designed not to persuade anyone but to flatter true believers and incite the troops. Barr claimed that “Christianity teaches a micro-morality. We transform the world by focusing on our own personal morality and transformation.” But this “micro-morality” has more to do with Republican Party orthodoxy than with the Gospel. So much for the long record of the church’s support for labor unions and a robust role for government in caring for the poor and promoting civic virtue. So much for Catholic social teaching, period. Barr seems to believe the church can tell you what is moral in the bedroom, but not in the workplace or the marketplace. Of course, it’s possible to be a Catholic and disagree with the church’s social teaching. But ignoring that teaching, as Barr did in his speech, is another matter.
Barr, a very rich man, contrasts his micro-morality to the actions of those misbegotten souls who “find salvation on the picket line” and “signal” their “finely tuned moral sensibilities by demonstrating for this cause or that.” He describes a recent experience in church, but smugly reassures his audience it did not occur in his parish. At the end of Mass, an announcement was made by the chairman of the Social Justice Committee about homelessness in Washington, D.C. The chairman reported on visits to the D.C. government to lobby for “higher taxes and more spending to fund mobile soup kitchens.” Barr suggests that this sort of political activity is virtually un-Christian. The orthodox Catholic solution, he argues, would have been to call for volunteers to staff the soup kitchens. Of course, volunteerism and individual responsibility for helping the poor do not negate the need for government action to address a problem as immediate, daunting, and complicated as homelessness. Barr disagrees. “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,” he writes, caricaturing the views of those who advocate for government action. “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 Consequences. We call on the State to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility…. 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.”