WASHINGTON -- The insistence on the separation of church and state has taken a draconian leap. Not only is religion to be extirpated from all government activity; even the public mention of religion is to be frowned upon.
Certainly, the mention of religion in a public setting is to be frowned upon if one is a government official. That is what we learned a couple of weeks ago when Attorney General William Barr spoke at the University of Notre Dame Law School.
He spoke on the place of religion in public life. Had he spoken out on the prevalence of concussions on the Notre Dame football field, his remarks would have gone down better. He might then have gone on to remark on the value of redesigned football helmets in lowering the incidence of head injuries. But Barr addressed the state of religion in our lives and the forces that are arrayed against religion, for instance: the forces of the militant atheists, the nihilists and the secularists, the last of whom really do not give a damn. These secularists do know which way the wind is blowing, and they are with the wind.
Barr believes the wind is blowing against religion, and he is speaking up against the drive to continue deemphasizing religion from public life. He wants an open discussion of what the Founding Fathers thought about religion. George Washington believed our Christian values were supported by the Constitution and were essential to keeping the Constitution strong. John Adams thought, "Our Constitution was made for only a moral and religious People." Yet such thoughts ignited a prairie fire of hysteria from our cosmopolitan nonbelievers.
William McGurn, in a thoughtful column in last week's Wall Street Journal, gathered up a sampling of the hysteria. Paul Krugman of The New York Times accused Barr of "religious bigotry," charging him with "pogrom type speech." Richard Painter tweeted that Barr's speech sounded like an installment of "The Handmaid's Tale" and reminded him of "vintage Goebbels." Painter must watch a lot of old-time documentaries on the Hitler Channel. Finally, a retired Army colonel, once chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, told Joy Reid at MSNBC that the attorney general is "Torquemada in a business suit." Some people will say anything to get on television, even seldom-viewed television.
Whatever did Barr say? Well, actually, he said a lot. He said, "The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion" to back up our laws and fortify our Constitution. And he went on: "What we call 'values' today are really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity." Now that is a line worth savoring.
To Barr, American government relies upon citizens with strong Judeo-Christian beliefs that would allow them to be self-governing. He went on: "This is really what was meant by 'self-government'. In short, in the Framers' view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people -- a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles." Such asseverations rile up the disbelievers and those who have no belief in God whatsoever. They want to move against the believers and have been amazingly successful in moving against them. How can this confrontation be resolved?
At times such as these, I turn to the philosopher Sidney Hook. Unfortunately, Sidney is no longer with us, but he wrote many books, and we know where he stands on religious liberty. He was an agnostic, but he trusted the Judeo-Christian ethic.
One day, as Sidney walked through the New York Athletic Club lobby with me on one side and the aforementioned Bill McGurn on the other, he explained to us why he did not believe in God. He paused, looked up to the heavens and said, "I have studied the question for years. God, you did not provide me with the evidence." But that did not mean he would oppose Attorney General Barr. Sidney knew that the Constitution supplied safeguards for both sides in this dispute. It is unfortunate that our atheist friends cannot trust the Constitution. In trying to eliminate all references to religion in public life, they are treading a dangerous course. It is lucky for them they have an attorney general such as Bill Barr to protect their right to dissent and the rights of others.