by Carlo Invernizzi-Accetti
The US attorney general William Barr’s speech at the University of Notre Dame last week has been widely decried by liberal commentators for violating the separation between church and state. In his speech, Barr portrayed “secularists” as enemies of American democracy. Yet few seem to have grasped the deeper political significance of Barr’s remarks.
On their face, none of Barr’s claims appear particularly new. The idea that “militant secularism” undermines the moral fabric of society, leading to all sorts of “social pathologies,” and the idea that “free government” requires the “moral discipline” afforded by religious belief, have been central tenets of official Catholic doctrine for at least a century and a half.
What is more original – and troubling – is the political use the US’s chief law-enforcement officer has made of these traditional religious themes. By subtly reworking some of the core tenets of Catholic social doctrine, he has constructed a new political theology in the service of Trumpism – one which aims to offer conservative Christians a set of principled, not just pragmatic, reasons for supporting the current US administration.
Three intellectual moves define this new political theology. First, by describing “secularists” as engaged in an “unremitting assault on religion and traditional values”, Barr presented an American majority group (self-identified Christians) as a victimized social group. This feeds into Trump’s broader appropriation of the logic of identity politics, which has converted it into a tool for defending the interests of previously dominant social groups by tapping into anxieties about “cultural replacement”.
Second, by establishing an equivalence between morality and religion, and between religion and Christianity (or, as he sometimes also put it, “Judaeo-Christian values”), Barr excluded two key social groups from the remit of those he deemed capable of “free government”: non-believers and non-Christians. For anyone keyed into the mainstays of Trump’s discourse, it should be clear who is here being stigmatized as a “threat”, not just for religion but for American freedom in general: urban elites and recent immigrants. Take these two groups out and you have a pretty good cross-section of Trump’s electorate.
Finally, by talking of a “wreckage of the family”, “record levels of depression and mental illness” and “an increase in senseless violence”, Barr also echoed the idea of an “American carnage” employed by Trump during his inaugural address to present himself as a providentially ordained “savior” called upon to re-establish “order” and “civility”.