With Billy Barr on the Sawdust Trail

I’ve heard this sermon before, and so have you.


The evangelist comes to town or television and bemoans the sad state of affairs.


“We live in a degenerate time,” he declares. “Breakdown in the family, decline in the church, drugs, sex, and alcohol everywhere, and nobody cares about the country—we need a revival of religion.” And then the earnest preacher answers the question on everybody’s mind: “Who can we blame?”


This summarizes what our elders were saying back when I was growing up during the 1960s. But it is also states what the Attorney General said last week in South Bend, Indiana.


William Barr gave a speech at the law school of Notre Dame University, and it was attended by many important people. He spoke with dignity, clarity, and a little humor. But at the end, all I could say was: “I’ve heard this before!”


His list of social ills is familiar: illegitimate births (by which he means a baby born to parents who are not married), depression and suicide, drugs, and violence.


Barr blames these on the residue left behind by “the vapor trails of Christianity” and “the force, fervor, and comprehensiveness of an assault on religion”. The result is “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square”.


What is the enemy of religion, morality, and the American people? Secularism, he says!


“Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives’ have marshalled all the forces of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.”


Thus, “secularists” and “progressives” stand in the dock where once Englishmen stood, and after them, Indians, Catholics, Mormons, Confederates, Yankees, Industrialists, Unionists, Liberals, Suffragists, Communists, Rockers, Democrats, Elites, and Globalists. This is the succession of enemies of America that, one by one, have been blamed for the (supposed) decline of our culture and the erosion of religion.




What is interesting are the social ills that do not make the list set forth by the Attorney General: poor people and refugees, global warming, debt and bankruptcy, political manipulation and foreign interference, sexual abuse and racial violence, and the growing divide between the extremely rich and extremely poor—the most socially destabilizing reality in the human community.


Neither did he mention that paragon of immorality occupying the White House, setting an example in speech and conduct that none of us wish our grandchildren to imitate.


Barr did not mention a single “secularist” or “progressive” by name, or book, or deed, or platform. Just vague accusations against unnamed violators of his traditional religious values.


Who was he talking about?


Perhaps the nine men of his own profession (law) that recognized the constitutional right to privacy in 1973; or the one man of his own religion (Roman Catholicism) that cast the deciding vote to grant civil rights to gay people in 2015; or the leader of his church—Pope Francis himself—who has deplored the administration policy of caging refugees and separating children.


No, Barr didn’t mention any of these people who have played leading roles in the supposed devolution of American society.


He did distinguish between what he called micro-morality and macro-morality. The former is what guides a person to choose the right and resist the wrong; the latter are those public policies that promote either equality or discrimination, opportunity or oppression.


Barr, of course, thinks the former is now ignored while the latter is embraced; and, of course, he asserts that the former is of chief importance: “Christianity teaches a micro-morality…. The new secular religion teaches macro-morality.”


I don’t know what Bible the Attorney General is reading, or if he is reading one at all. He obviously is a modern-day Jefferson, taking scissors to the text and cutting out all those laws, admonitions, prohibitions, and demands that do not fit his world view.


Like: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos). Or: “The Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and to let the oppressed go free” (Jesus). Or: “Hallow the fiftieth year…. It shall be a jubilee….You shall return to your property….You shall not lend your money at interest….Slaves shall be freed….” (Moses).


All of us know, contra Barr, that righteousness in a nation is sustained by a combination of individual morality and public justice, of personal discipline and public law, of individual accountability and social responsibility. It takes both; and if our country is going to continue to cultivate what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”, it will demand the respect and collaboration of all Americans, those that worship and those that don’t, those called conservative and those called progressive.


The Attorney General needs to stop demonizing Americans who don’t attend his church and start demonstrating an empathy with the struggles of people who don’t live in his straight, white, conservative, religious world. He needs to be an advocate for all Americans, especially those who are queer, colored, progressive, or secular; for we, also, are Americans, and we also are committed to the Common Good of our great nation, some of us, even, in the name and spirit of Jesus!!


Besides all that, he needs to lead the celebration for all that is right with America: prosperity, creativity, diversity, enterprise, liberty, beauty, community, education, hospitality, justice, opportunity, and yes, Jesus! An invitation to join that grand experiment just might get me off the back-row pew and kneeling in the sawdust at the altar of God and Country!