William Barr is not only the only person to have twice been Attorney General of the United States, serving under George H. W. Bush and then under Donald Trump. He also has the distinction of being the ablest and most penetrating member of Donald Trump’s cabinet. (The same is probably true of George H. W. Bush’s cabinet, but my off-hand memory does not go back that far.) Barr has a gift for cutting through the clutter to the essential elements of whatever problem is under discussion. He did it with the partisan fiasco that was the Mueller Report. And although their relations were not always sunny, Donald Trump had reason to be grateful for Barr’s stalwart defense of the Constitution, not least his defense against encroachments on the prerogatives of the Executive branch.
Now back in private life, Barr has lost none of his critical acumen. His speech on May 20 for the Alliance Defending Freedom is a case in point. “[T]he greatest threat to religious liberty in America today,” he said, is “the increasingly militant and extreme secular-progressive climate of our state-run education system.” Barr is right:
We are rapidly approaching the point—if we have not already reached the point—at which the heavy-handed enforcement of secular-progressive orthodoxy through government-run schools is totally incompatible with traditional Christianity and other major religious traditions in our country.
Barr traced the evolution of the dominant attitude about the relationship between religion and government-financed public schools through three phases. In the first phase, which ran from the educational reform movement of the early 19th century through the mid-20th century, public education was seen as inculcating the values of good citizenship and, beyond that, a moral outlook that was grounded explicitly in Protestant Christianity. In his book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, Samuel Huntington spoke in this context of “Anglo-Protestant values,” a phrase that drew instant obloquy from secularists and other radicals who fell over themselves trying to decide which was worse, the “Anglo” part or the “Protestant” part.
“The key point,” Barr noted, was that until the 1970s, this “anodyne form of Christianity” offered a “generally acceptable ‘pan-Protestantism’” that was taught in public schools throughout the country. Accommodations were easily made for Catholics, Jews, and members of other religions, but the dominant note were those “Anglo-Protestant” values that Huntington extolled. “Throughout American his- tory,” Huntington noted, “people who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have become Americans by adopting America’s Anglo-Protestant culture and political values. This benefitted them and the country.”
But things took an ominous turn in the 1960s and 1970s. It was then that the ACLU nuts and other members of the Left “embarked on a relentless campaign of secularization intent on driving every vestige of traditional religion from the public square. Public schools quickly became the central battleground.” School prayer? Out. A crèche at Christmas? Absolutely not. This was phase two: the effort to purge the public square, beginning with public educational institutions of all remnants of religious identity. This is what Barr called “secularization by subtraction.”
It was a softening-up movement that turned out to be a prelude to phase three, “the affirmative indoctrination of children with a secular belief system and worldview that is a substitute for religion and is antithetical to the beliefs and values of traditional God-centered religion.” That’s where we are today. Our schools may regularly fail to teach their charges to read or write or calculate effectively, but they are on the job in combatting “systemic racism,” the evils of “whiteness,” and promoting all manner of sexual exoticism.
In other words, purging schools of any trace of religion created a vacuum by eliminating the explanatory belief system undergirding moral values. Now we are seeing the attempt to push into the schools an alternative explanatory belief system that is inconsistent with, and subversive of, the religious worldview. As Barr noted, “they spare no effort or expense in their drive to instill a radical secular belief system that would have been unimaginable to Americans even 20 years ago.”
He goes on to cite a few horror stories—preschoolers being solemnly told that they get to choose their own sex, for example, even as their parents are told that they may not “opt-out” of such instruction. But his main point is that this movement is not so much an attack on religion as it is an effort to instill an alternative religion.
This is especially clear in the teachings of so-called “critical race theory,” which, as Barr notes, is explicitly Marxist in orientation. In brief, “CRT is nothing more than the materialist philosophy of Marxism substituting racial antagonism for class antagonism.” Just so.
It posits all the same things as traditional Marxism: that there are meta-historical forces at work; that social pathologies are due to societal conventions and power structures which have to be destroyed; that conflict between the oppressed and the oppressors provides the dynamic and progressive movement of history; and that individual morality is determined by where one fits in with the impersonal movement of these historical forces. And just as everyone from the Catholic Church on down has observed about traditional Marxism, this philosophy is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. It posits a view of man and his relation to society and to other individuals that is antithetical to the Christian view.
Barr ended his talk by pointing out that, in addition to being repugnant from the point of view of traditional morality, the new efforts to instill alternative religious values rooted in a Marxist worldview is subject to Constitutional challenges on both First and 14th Amendment grounds.
Once upon a time, public schools were seen as helping to stir the melting pot of American identity, to blend us all, as individuals, into a larger national project. Now they are part of a rancorous movement of division in which we are taught that what matters is not (as Martin Luther King put) the “content of our character” but the color of our skin. The whole project, as Barr noted, has been a “disaster.” Is there a solution? Barr’s major suggestion—a universal voucher system, which at least would break the monopoly of government-sanctioned leftism in the schools—has much to recommend it.
But I suspect that we will not obtain a real alternative by any government program but only through a remoralization of society. Barr is right that in the past several decades we have witnessed a process whereby we allowed government, first, to purge public education of “any moral or spiritual dimension” and then to fill the resulting vacuum with “an irreconcilable rival value system.” The question is, could that have been accomplished without our implicit connivance if not, exactly, our approval?
My point is that the forces that Barr recognizes and rightly deplores are not confined to the obviously nasty precincts of explicit Marxism. They are also implicit in large swaths of traditional liberalism. This is something that the historian Maurice Cowling zeroed in on in his criticism of John Stuart Mill. On Liberty, Cowling wrote, has been “one of the most influential of modern political tracts,” chiefly because “its purpose has been misunderstood.” Contrary to common opinion, Cowling wrote, Mill’s book was
not so much a plea for individual freedom, as a means of ensuring that Christianity would be superseded by that form of liberal, rationalising utilitarianism which went by the name of the Religion of Humanity. Mill’s liberalism was a dogmatic, religious one, not the soothing night-comforter for which it is sometimes mistaken. Mill’s object was not to free men, but to convert them, and convert them to a peculiarly exclusive, peculiarly insinuating moral doctrine. Mill wished to moralize all social activity. . . . Mill, no less than Marx, Nietzsche, or Comte, claimed to replace Christianity by ‘something better.’ Atheists and agnostics, humanists and free-thinkers may properly give thanks to Mill.
I suppose G. K. Chesterton was getting at a similar point when he observed that “Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.”