Attorney General William Barr
Credit: The United States Department of Justice/WikiMedia Commons

Attorney General William Barr gave a speech at University of Notre Dame’s law school on Friday that should alarm all of us who cherish the First Amendment’s guarantee against the government’s establishment of any religion.

According to the Indianapolis Star, Barr went on to lay out a host of problems that are the result of this “organized destruction.”

Barr cited the rate of American children born out of wedlock as having increased five-fold since 1965 to a national average of 40 percent. He said that figure climbs “well over 70 percent in many large urban areas” and suggested a decline in morality was responsible.

“Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence and a deadly drug epidemic,” Barr said. “By any honest assessment the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim. Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.”

The attorney general is laying the groundwork for actions by the Justice Department that he and his ilk refer to as a protection of “religious freedom” when, in practice, they are designed to establish Christianity as a state religion and allow for discrimination against those who practice a different faith or none at all.

These kinds of statements need to be responded to on several levels. Kevin Drum does a good job of documenting that Barr is categorically wrong when he says that “virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.”

But the white evangelical Christians that the attorney general is appealing to remain convinced that, since sometime in the 1960s or 70s, the country has been on a path to moral decay spurred by “secular humanists.” These are the “nostalgia voters” to whom Donald Trump appealed because they think that in some recent past, the United States was a God-fearing country and all of these problems started when we did things like outlaw prayer in public schools. We heard something similar from Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly, when he spoke at length defending Trump’s phone call to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson.

You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.

During the 60s and 70s, when movements were successful in opening the doors of belonging a bit wider for women and people of color (eventually the disabled and LGBT communities as well), nostalgia voters viewed those changes as a disruption to the social order. Their fears were first captured as a political force by Ronald Reagan and eventually exploited by Trump.

If you want to know why white evangelical Christians stay loyal to the president no matter what he does, the crux of it is that they believe that we are in the midst of a war between the non-religious and people of faith that was captured in that speech by Barr. At the heart of that war is the belief that all of the ills of society can be traced to man’s sinful nature and the only hope for relief is adherence to the tenants of Christianity (i.e., for Protestant fundamentalists, you must be “born again.”) That isn’t simply a message for individuals, it applies to countries as well. As Barr indicated in the video clip above, they don’t believe that human beings are capable of moral behavior outside of the strictures of organized religion (read: Christianity).

As long as our government adheres to the protections enshrined in the First Amendment, these white evangelicals will be at war with the rest of us. They will continue to create battle lines out of whole cloth as Barr did with his recitation of social pathologies. Even with Trump in the White House and Barr in charge of the Justice Department, they will paint themselves as victims of abuse by the system. Lance Mannion explained why.

They like feeling persecuted. They need to feel persecuted…it feeds their self-pity and sense of entitlement, and it gives them their excuse.

It’s how they turn offense into defense, how repression and oppression become liberty.

If they are under attack, then they’re free to fight back.

To make matters worse, it’s not just the attorney general. Obviously, the secretary of state is on board too.

Our founders got the religion issue just about right. Enshrined in the Constitution is the freedom to practice the religion of ones choosing and a restriction on the government’s ability to establish a religion. They obviously had enough faith in humanity to leave those decisions up to the individual. But that isn’t good enough for William Barr, Mike Pompeo, and Trump’s nostalgia voters. They have basically gone to war with the First Amendment.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.