What Barr Got Right — and What He Might Add

Attorney General William Barr delivers opening remarks at a summit on “Combating Anti-Semitism” at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., July 15, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
He singled out for criticism those who believe that, in effect, government social programs could replace the virtues instilled by religion.

Attorney General William Barr finds himself the target of criticism for remarks he made at the University of Notre Dame in which he made the case that a decline in religiosity — and, indeed, attacks on the beliefs of the religious — might have something to do with personal and social dysfunction in the United States.

For this — and his expressed view that “militant secularists” might actually prefer to replace the “traditional moral order” — Barr stands accused of endorsing some sort of Christian theocracy.

Barr, of course, hardly endorsed the idea the church–state divide should be erased in the United States. Nor did he insist that only the religious could live a healthy and productive life. Rather, he singled out for criticism those who believe that, in effect, government social programs could replace the virtues instilled by religion. It’s an important distinction. Since the New Deal, and increasingly since the Great Society, we have done exactly what Barr asserted: We have “called on the state to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility . . .”

One tends to think in this regard of financial social-safety-net programs — the social-welfare state. But much more is involved in what might be termed the social-service state — the huge constellation of social-service “providers” who claim they can use counseling techniques to improve the lives of the addicted, the promiscuous, the domestic abusers. The distribution of federal funds to these not-for-profit organizations has, as Barr suggested, reflected a dramatic shift in values.

In the early 1960s the so-called independent sector was truly independent of government, but today, social-service providers have become creatures of government. Indeed, the Urban Institute has found that government agencies enter into some 350,000 contracts and grants annually with about 56,000 nonprofit organizations — much of which is social services meant to pick up the pieces of unfortunate life choices. Indeed, the Administration for Children and Families, a major part of the Department of Health and Human Services, distributes some $53 billion annually for a variety of treatment programs, as well as advocacy efforts aimed at increasing the amount of such spending.

This is exactly what Barr highlighted in his powerful story of his recent visit to church, during which a member of the parish social-action committee deplored the extent and state of the homeless in Washington, D.C. and the importance of soup kitchens to help them. “I expected him to call for volunteers to go out and provide this need,” Barr said. “Instead, he recounted all the visits that the committee had made to the D.C. government to lobby for higher taxes and more spending to fund mobile soup kitchens.”

What Barr describes is a long-term shift from an understanding that a robust civil society, including religious institutions, could promote healthy norms such as sobriety and self-discipline to a belief that government could be relied upon for rehabilitation, the term emphasized by the Kennedy administration when it first authorized federal grants for social services. This has not simply been a change in who pays for the same types of services. Rather, we have moved away from an emphasis on the formative — values that guide a productive, purpose-based life — to the reformative, based on the idea that social workers, paid by government, can cure our ills.

Religion, to be sure, has always played a key role in imparting formative values. But prior to the growth of the social-service state, major non-government-funded civil-society organizations did so as well.

In 19th-century New York, Charles Loring Brace, concerned about homeless street children, founded the Children’s Aid Society — with a board comprising Protestants, Catholics, and Jews — not only to provide shelter for newsboys and bootblacks but to counsel them on their life choices. “If you are selling papers,” Brace advised, “do honestly by everyone who deals with you, work early and late and you will soon begin to save money. This is the way men acquire wealth — by constant saving and hard work. (And) whether you are rich or not, you make an honest living and have no reason to be ashamed of your work.”

This civil-society “formative” tradition — often inspired by faith (Brace was a Methodist minister) but not itself about proselytizing — has had many subsequent institutional incarnations. Settlement houses taught English and the basics of American citizenship to immigrants; early social workers believed that “friendly visiting” to promote what we would now call bourgeois norms was the crucial means to impart to the poor the tools of self-improvement. Such institutions include the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, 4-H, and YM/YWCA. Because all these rely on philanthropy and volunteers, the growth of the social-service state — by diverting wealth and promoting the idea that government can cure our ills — undermines them.

William Barr has performed a great service by pointing out not only the way that government has diverted resources, both human and financial, from our civil society but the way it has distorted the way we think about how to assist those in need and, indeed, prevent need from arising.

Howard Husock is an adjunct scholar in domestic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on local government, civil society, and urban-housing policy.


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