On Oct. 11, Attorney General William Barr spoke at an event sponsored by the Notre Dame Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. The speech was applauded by some (Rod Dreher of the American Conservative called Barr a “Religious Liberty Warrior”) and blasted by others. One Christian organization filed an official complaint requesting that the speech be removed from the Department of Justice website and that Barr apologize for “making remarks in favor of Christian nationalism.”
The central thesis of Barr’s speech was that over the past 50 years -- since roughly 1970, I suppose -- “we have seen the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and ... the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism.”
Barr catalogued what he called “the bitter results of the new secular age:” “the wreckage of the family ... 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.”
There is no question that there has been a seismic shift in ethical values in recent decades. But to lay all that conservatives think is wrong with American culture at the feet of secularism goes way beyond the evidence.
Consider the “soaring suicide rates” that Barr considers one of the “consequences of this moral upheaval”: Suicide rates are indeed at their highest since World War II. In 2017, the suicide rate stood at 14 per 100,000 population. The last time the rate was that high was in 1942.
On the surface that seems to be consistent with Barr’s claim that morality has collapsed in the last 50 years, a casualty of a war being waged on religion.
Except for those pesky things called facts.
The suicide rate was 50% higher in 1908 than it was in 2017. That was a long time before secularism began insinuating itself into our collective consciousness.
The suicide rate peaked at 22 per 100,000 in 1932, the height of the Great Depression. Even if economic hard times were accompanied by loss of religious faith, which led to a loss of the will to live on the part of some people, that is not the same as saying the record-setting suicide rate was the result of the “growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism,” as Barr claims.
Or consider “the wreckage of the family.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Studies, divorce rates doubled from 1960 to 1980, but they have been declining since. The divorce rate for 2017 was roughly what it was in 1970, when, according to Barr, the “campaign to destroy the traditional moral order” began.
As for an “increase in senseless violence,” the opposite is true. According to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, violent crime has decreased 51% since 1993. That is the opposite of what one would expect if Barr’s thesis were correct.
One would think that the attorney general would be familiar with the UCR. After all, the FBI is in the Department of Justice, which is Barr’s bailiwick.
This critique of American culture is not unique to Bill Barr. It is a common argument by some conservatives who want to place the blame for cultural shifts not to their liking on secularism and, by extension, to “so-called progressives” (Barr’s words).
To acknowledge that divorce rates are about where they were 50 years ago, or that the suicide rate is dramatically lower than it was 100 years ago, or that violent crime has been reduced by half in the past 25 years would not support the thesis that American culture is going to hell in a handbasket and that non-religion is the cause of it all.
In Barr’s worldview, the “war on religion” is “organized destruction.” The forces of secularism are intent on “driving religious viewpoints from the public square.”
“Public agencies, including public schools, are being secularized,” Barr opines.
Well, yeah. That’s why we call them “public.” As opposed to private, parochial or religious.
Whether there is an organized assault on religion, what is clear is that religion no longer enjoys a privileged place in the marketplace of ideas. Its truth is being challenged, and it must be defended without appeal to special privilege.
Religion must stand on equal footing with its opponents and, as Scripture requires, “Always be prepared to give a defense of the hope that lies within you.”