In a recent speech to the University of Notre Dame Law School, Attorney General William Barr decried the dissolution of society’s “traditional moral order.” There is much to say in response to his comments, which will be fodder for future columns. For now, suffice to say that Barr is concerned about the alleged “assault on religion we are experiencing today,” policies designed to “starve religious schools of generally-available funds,” and policies designed to “force religious schools to adhere to secular orthodoxy.” He ends the speech by calling for a resurgence of Catholic education.
I don’t know about the dissolution of “traditional moral order” if only because such statements can mean just about anything to anyone. Concern about conflict-of-interest is, apparently, not part of such traditions. Through this speech Barr, who is the chief law enforcement officer for the United States and who publicly identifies himself as Catholic, is calling for unaccountable diversion of tax-payer dollars to prop up the Catholic private education system. Go figure.
The other parts of what we might assume are part of the “traditional moral order,” are unsaid, which is not surprising given that any direct comment about individual ethics like honesty, honor, charity, civility, etc., would clearly put his boss in a poor light. Nevertheless, whether intentional or not, Barr managed to skim along this topic when he argued that without Christian traditions to guide our potential for “great good,” the capacity for “great evil” will gain prominence. “Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites, and, if unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and community at large.” Remind you of anyone?
As a purely secular, tax-paying, law-abiding citizen, I take umbrage at the argument that Christian traditions are the only thing holding back the tide of evil in the world. The world is rich with traditions that offer alternatives that can guide the potential for “great good” and minimize the prominence of “great evil.” A notable exception is the Catholic Church, which has fallen particularly short of the mark when it comes to moral authority.
The most glaring example, of course, is what appears to be hundreds of years of church-sanctioned clergy child abuse and rape, not to mention similar treatment of adults. Check out the Wikipedia webpage entitled, “Catholic Church sexual abuse cases by country,” for what is probably a very incomplete accounting of these atrocities against the most vulnerable and powerless amongst us. Pope Francis gets some credit for trying to stem the tide, but it is notable that it wasn’t until last month that he finally got around to abolishing the “pontifical secrecy” rule that has long been used to protect pedophiles, silence victims and block criminal investigations. Speaking as a secularist, all I can say is, “how pathetic.”
We don’t have to look much further to find a long list of religiously inspired failures of moral leadership. Whether it be the sexual abuse scandals of the Southern Baptists, or the refusal of the “United” Methodists to recognize LBGT inclusion and same-sex marriage, the older generation must look pretty unhinged from the perspective of Millennials and younger people. This is certainly not helped by the merging of the politics with evangelical religion, which is the equivalent of deciding it is fine to roll in the manure if it buys you power and influence. Prosperity theology (Trump’s preferred belief) is another great way to grow cynicism about religion.
The Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life has been carefully tracking religious views in America since 2007. The percentage of adults identifying as Christians dropped from 78 percent in 2007 to 65 percent in 2018/19. The percentage of “religiously unaffiliated” increased from 16 percent to 26 percent, with the largest affiliation declines attributed to Protestants and Catholics, particularly amongst Millennials (16 percent). The number of religious “nones” in the U.S. has increased by nearly 30 million over the past decade. Hypocrisy comes with a clear cost.
Barr can blame secular forces for the dissolution of the traditional moral order in America, but it is clear that what he sees has purveyors of such order have been exposed and it isn’t a pretty sight. Not only are these institutions failing now, but they have been for decades if not since their inception. The problem is not religion per se, but the lack of transparency and accountability in these institutions. Unfortunately, Barr prefers to blame the woes of moral order on “the secularists” and avoid calling for genuine reform that would benefit all Americans.
Douglas Call is a microbiologist. He and his family have lived on the Palouse for more than 20 years.