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White House

Misunderstanding AG Barr

Attorney General William Barr attends a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 19, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

I wrote about the Attorney General’s speech at Notre Dame University (somewhat critically) last fall, and so this passage from a profile of Barr in the New York Times Magazine sounded wrong to me:

As far as what Barr is hoping to do with his canvas, [his former colleague Stuart] Gerson says he is committed to the “hierarchical” and “authoritarian” premise that “a top-down ordering of society will produce a more moral society.” That isn’t too far away from what Barr himself articulated in a 2019 speech at the University of Notre Dame. In Barr’s view, piety lay at the heart of the founders’ model of self-government, which depended on religious values to restrain human passions. “The founding generation were Christians,” Barr said. Goodness flows from “a transcendent Supreme Being” through “individual morality” to form “the social order.” Reason and experience merely serve to confirm the infallible divine law. That law, he said, is under threat from “militant secularists,” including “so-called progressives,” who call on the state “to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility.”

Here’s one of the relevant passages from the speech

In the words of Madison, “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves…”

This is really what was meant by “self-government.” It did not mean primarily the mechanics by which we select a representative legislative body. It referred to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves.

But what was the source of this internal controlling power? In a free republic, those restraints could not be handed down from above by philosopher kings.

Instead, social order must flow up from the people themselves — freely obeying the dictates of inwardly-possessed and commonly-shared moral values. And to control willful human beings, with an infinite capacity to rationalize, those moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will — they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.

Barr goes on to complain that “militant secularists today do not have a live and let live spirit — they are not content to leave religious people alone to practice their faith. Instead, they seem to take a delight in compelling people to violate their conscience.”

You can agree or disagree with these comments of Barr. But they’re not signs of an especially “hierarchical” or “authoritarian” mindset. And it’s notable that he uses a bottom-up metaphor, rather than a “top-down” one, to describe the social order he cherishes.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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