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Last week Democrats Attorney General William Barr of shilling for Donald Trump following his testimony before Congress. While much attention has been paid to his defenses of Trump, there has been very little examination of how Barr’s background as a conservative Catholic informs his current political decisions. To shed some light on this topic, I interviewed , Senior Adviser for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Editor of Church & State magazine.
What prompted you to write this ?
When President Trump named William Barr to be U.S. Attorney General, just about all of the discussion in the media consisted of speculation about how Barr might deal with Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. The Mueller investigation is important, but I knew that as attorney general Barr would be our nation’s top law-enforcement official and would be responsible for lots of different issues, many of which would affect religious freedom. When Barr’s name was floated, I remembered that he held some pretty extreme views on separation of church and state. I thought it was important to bring those to light.
What does Barr’s support for Jeff Sessions signify?
Sessions was always a favorite of the Religious Right. Although the two men have different religious beliefs, their outlooks on church-state separation are very similar. Barr’s support for Sessions is an indication that under his rule, the U.S. Justice Department would continue to pursue policies that weaken church-state separation.
Why should we care about comments Barr made in the ‘90s critiquing church-state separation and secular government?
We should care because the things Barr said at that time were very extreme. This was not mild criticism of some Supreme Court rulings. Barr attacked the very concept of secular government and in one speech said advocates of secularism “are clearly fanatics.” Barr’s advocacy of “God’s law” especially alarmed me. There’s no such thing as “God’s law”—there is only someone’s interpretation of what God’s law ought to be.
There is no evidence that Barr has stepped away from those views. In fact, during his confirmation hearings, he disclosed that he has served as a director for the Catholic Information Center, the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Becket Fund. All of these groups seek to weaken or tear down the church-state wall.
We should also care because, in those early speeches and articles, Barr attacked the idea of secular government. Those of us who advocate for separation of church and state know that secular government is the platform upon which religious freedom rests. Without an official policy of secularism, our nation will drift toward theocracy. High government officials who criticize secular government should be asked what their alternative is—religious government?
Barr does not seem to grasp that a decent distance between church and state is the only way to ensure the right of every American to engage in the religious activities of their choice or to refrain from taking part in religion. We should all be concerned when a fundamental principle like church-state separation is under attack from the head of the Justice Department.
What does it say to you that during his confirmation hearings in 1991 for Attorney General under George H.W. Bush, he he does not support Roe v. Wade?
Overturning legal abortion has been a long-sought goal of the Religious Right and its allies in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Since the rise of the Religious Right, it has become more or less impossible for a Republican to be elected to the presidency if that person is pro-choice. George H.W. Bush, who early in his political life championed access to birth control and family planning on a global scale, always had an uneasy relationship with the Religious Right. They never regarded him as truly one of their own. One way Bush dealt with that was by nominating people like Barr whose anti-choice bona fides were clear.
Your thoughts on Barr being asked about his Catholic faith during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee?
It’s inappropriate to grill a nominee with personal questions about where he worships, how often he worships, how often he reads a religious text and other private matters. But there’s nothing wrong with asking a nominee if he’ll be able to refrain from basing state policy on his personal religious beliefs and/or if he will be able to represent all strands of believers and non-believers equally and respect pluralism as the Constitution commands. In fact, that type of questioning is necessary if a nominee has a past record of statements indicating that he believes that government should elevate one faith over others or anchor public policy in a narrow understanding of religion.
Since his appointment at Attorney General, what have you observed about Barr’s approach to church-state separation issues?
The Justice Department has completely shifted on church-state issues since Trump took office. This trend started under Sessions and has continued under Barr. In some cases, the Justice Department has switched sides on cases pending in the federal courts, moving from a pro-separation position to an anti-separation one and has signaled a willingness to defend laws and policies that foster discrimination in the name of religion.
Finally, what did his recent appearances before Congress teach us about how he applies the teachings of his Catholic faith?
I’m not sure it told us much. Barr signaled his loyalty to Trump with the misleading four-page summary of the Mueller report, and his testimony was more of the same bobbing and weaving on the president’s behalf.
Speaking as someone who has observed the political machinations of religious conservatives for more than three decades now, I do sometimes wonder how they can reconcile their behavior with the faith they claim to cherish. All religions preach against lying, and I recall from eight years of Catholic education that telling lies can, in some cases, be what’s called a “mortal sin”—the most serious kind of sin, one that can land you in hell. But it’s becoming clear that Barr has not been truthful throughout this process. That’s probably why Trump chose Barr. He was looking for someone who would demonstrate blind loyalty to the point where he’ll fall on his sword if necessary. Sessions was not that man but Barr is.
There’s an obvious downside to that: In all periods of history, from the Roman Empire through the time of medieval kings right up to the modern era, there have been people who got so intoxicated by being close to political power that they put aside whatever religious, ethical or moral training they may have had and propped up bad, venal or dangerous leaders. History remembers people like that as either pathetic characters or villains. But those who stand up to corrupt leaders and would-be dictators, expose their faults and rebuke them are remembered quite differently. They’re heroes. We don’t have to wait for the judgment of history to determine which camp William Barr will fall into.