Justice News

Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers Remarks at the 2020 National Religious Broadcasters Convention
Nashville, TN
United States
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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Craig, I appreciate the kind introduction.  You have dedicated your career to advancing law and faith in an era when so many of our country’s influential institutions seek to undermine both, particularly religion.  I thank you for your tireless work to counter this trend.  I know that those here, and millions of the faithful across America and around the world, appreciate it too.

Good afternoon, everyone.  It is wonderful to be in Nashville, and I am deeply honored to be with you at such an important gathering. 

We live at a time when religion – long an essential pillar of our society – is being driven from the public square.  Thank God we have the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) to counter that effort.  Since its creation in 1944, it has reached, and continues to reach, people from all backgrounds on a variety of platforms. 

Your members courageously affirm that entertainment and moral education are not mutually exclusive.  You have boldly shown that media can serve higher ends: the safeguarding of faith as well as the cultivation of the classical virtues of the mind and heart that maintain our republican experiment in self-governance.  As such, NRB’s members offer an alternative and essential platform for believers and non-believers alike.

Now, I trust that everyone has noticed the current intensity and pervasiveness of politics in our lives.  It has infiltrated and overtaken nearly every aspect of life: sports, entertainment, apparel, technology – of course, religion too – even our eating habits. 

Politics is everywhere.  It is omnipresent.  Why is that?

It seems to me that the passionate political divisions of today result from a conflict between two fundamentally different visions of the individual and his relationship to the state.  One vision undergirds the political system we call liberal democracy, which limits government and gives priority to preserving personal liberty.  The other vision propels a form of totalitarian democracy, which seeks to submerge the individual in a collectivist agenda.  It subverts individual freedom in favor of elite conceptions about what best serves the collective. 

In my view, liberal democracy has reached its fullest expression in the Anglo-American political system.  This system is responsible for unprecedented human freedom and progress.  We providentially enjoy its blessings today.

The wellsprings of this system are found in Augustinian Christianity.  According to St. Augustine, man lives simultaneously in two realms.  Each individual is a unique creation of God with a transcendent end and eternal life in the City of God.  We are created to love our Creator in this world and become united with him in eternity.  As Augustine writes in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” 

At the same time, while we work toward our eternal destiny, we live in the temporal world – the City of Man.  But this world is a fallen one.  Man is stubbornly imperfect and prone to prey upon his fellow man.  Unless there is a temporal authority capable of restraining the wicked – an authority with power here on earth – the wicked men would overwhelm the good ones and there could be no peace.

In the ancient Greek tradition, the state was a positive moral agency whose purpose was to define for men what was good and make them so.  Augustinian Christianity sharply departed from that conception.  It saw the state as a necessary evil, with the limited function of keeping the peace here on earth.

These foundational ideas gradually evolved into our current conceptions of individual dignity, personal liberty, limited government, and the separation of church and state.  This process took hundreds of years and involved the amalgamation of many different influences, including those associated with Anglo-Saxon folkways, the common law, the experiences of the English Civil War, the political thought of the English Whigs, the moderate Enlightenment, the American Revolution, and the foundation of the American Republic in 1789.

What has resulted from these centuries of experience is a system that takes man and society as they actually exist.  Precisely because it recognizes that man is imperfect, it does not try to use the coercive power of the state to recreate man or society wholesale.  It tends to trust, not in revolutionary designs, but in common virtues, customs, and institutions that were refined over long periods of time.  It puts its faith in the accumulated wisdom of the ages over the revolutionary innovations of those who aspire to be, what Edmund Burke called, “the physician of the state.” 

Liberal democracy recognizes that preserving broad personal freedom, including the freedom to pursue one’s own spiritual life and destiny, best comports with the true nature and dignity of man.  It also recognizes that man is happiest in his voluntary associations, not coerced ones, and must be left free to participate in civil society, by which I mean the range of collective endeavors outside the sphere of politics.  

The state is not the same as the voluntary associations that make up civil society.  To the contrary, it is the apparatus of coercive power.  Under our system of liberal democracy, the role of government is not to forcibly remake man and society.  The government has the far more modest purpose of preserving the proper balance of personal freedom and order necessary for a healthy civil society to develop and individual humans to flourish.

But just as our robust vision of liberal democracy came to fruition in 1789, another conflicting vision was taking shape.  This has been referred to as “totalitarian democracy.”  Its prophet was Rousseau, and its first fruit was the French Revolution.  In the two centuries since, totalitarian democratic movements of both the right and the left have appeared.

Totalitarian democracy is based on the idea that man is naturally good, but has been corrupted by existing societal customs, conventions, and institutions.  The path to perfection is to tear down these artifices and restore human society to its natural condition.  

This form of democracy is messianic in that it postulates a preordained, perfect scheme of things to which men will be inexorably led.  Its goals are earthly and they are urgent.  Although totalitarian democracy is democratic in form, it requires an all-knowing elite to guide the masses toward their determined end, and that elite relies on whipping up mass enthusiasm to preserve its power and achieve its goals.

Totalitarian democracy is almost always secular and materialistic, and its adherents tend to treat politics as a substitute for religion.  Their sacred mission is to use the coercive power of the state to remake man and society according to an abstract ideal of perfection.  The virtue of any individual is defined by whether they are aligned with the program.  Whatever means used are justified because, by definition, they will quicken the pace of mankind’s progress toward perfection.

As one political scientist has noted, while liberal democracy conceives of people relating on many different planes of existence, “totalitarian democracy recognizes only one plane of existence, the political.”  All is subsumed within a single project to use the power of the state to perfect mankind rather than limit the state to protecting our freedom to find our own ends.  It is increasingly, as Mussolini memorably said, “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

While many factors have contributed to the polarized politics of today, I think one significant reason our politics has become so intense and so ill-tempered is that some in the so-called “progressive” movement have broken away from the fold of liberal democracy to pursue a society more in line with the thinking of Rousseau than that of our nation’s Founders.  That has played a major role in our politics becoming less like a disagreement within a family, and more like a blood feud between two different clans.

Over the past few decades, those further to the left have increasingly identified themselves as “progressives” rather than “liberals.”  And some of these self-proclaimed “progressives” have become increasingly militant and totalitarian in their style.  While they seek power through the democratic process, their policy agenda has become more aggressively collectivist, socialist, and explicitly revolutionary.

The crux of the progressive program is to use the public purse to provide ever-increasing benefits to the public and to, thereby, build a permanent constituency of supporters who are also dependents.  They want able-bodied citizens to become more dependent, subject to greater control, and increasingly supportive of dependency.  The tacit goal of this project is to convert all of us into 25 year-olds living in the government’s basement, focusing our energies on obtaining a larger allowance rather than getting a job and moving out.

Political philosophers since Aristotle have worried that democracies are vulnerable to just this form of corruption.  Probably the greatest chronicler of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, foresaw that American democracy would be susceptible to this evolution.  As he described it, our society was vulnerable to a soft despotism wherein the majority would gradually let itself be taken care of by the state – much like dependent children. 

Yet this process would be slow and imperceptible.  The tyranny that results, Tocqueville wrote, “does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces [the people] to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” 

It would be totalitarianism beneath a veneer of democratic choice.  As Tocqueville summed it up:  “By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again.”

Historically, our country has relied on a number of bulwarks against this slide toward despotism, each of which has been essential in preserving the liberty that has defined our democracy.  Today, I would like to discuss three institutions that have served this vital purpose: religion, the decentralization of government power, and the free press.

The sad fact is that all three have eroded in recent decades.  At the end of the day, if we are to preserve our liberal democracy from the meretricious appeal of socialism and the strain of progressivism I have described, we must turn our attention to revivifying these vital institutions.

Let me first address religion.

As I discussed in a speech I gave last fall at Notre Dame, while the Framers believed that religion and government should be separate spheres, they also firmly believed that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government.  As John Adams put it: “We have no government armed with the power which is capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.  Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

Tocqueville was especially emphatic on this score.  He believed that religion was democracy’s most powerful antidote to any tendency toward a tyrannical majority hijacking the system for despotic ends. 

How does religion protect against majoritarian tyranny?  In the first place, it allows us to limit the role of government by cultivating internal moral values in the people that are powerful enough to restrain individual rapacity without resort to the state’s coercive power. 

Experience teaches that, to be strong enough to control willful human beings, moral values must be based on authority independent of man’s will.  In other words, they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.  Men are far likelier to obey rules that come from God than to abide by the abstract outcome of an ad hoc utilitarian calculus.

These fixed moral limits did not just apply to individuals, but to political majorities as well.  According to Tocqueville, in America, religion has instilled a deep sense that there are immovable moral limits on what a majority can impose on the minority.  It was due to the influence of religion in America, he explained, that no one “dared to advance the maxim that everything is permitted in the interest of society.”

Thus, as one scholar observes, Tocqueville concluded that “democracy requires citizens who believe that the rules of morality – and hence the rights of their fellow citizens – are not merely convenient fictions,” wholly dependent on the will of men, but are instead rooted in the immutable transcendent truth.

Thus, it is safe to give the people power to rule, but only if they believe there are moral limits on their power.  Tocqueville’s call to preserve this moral system is not, as scholars have explained, “a rejection of pluralism; it is an effort to preserve the moral and religious foundation on which a successful pluralism can exist.”

There is another way in which religion tends to temper the passion and intensity of political disputes.  Messianic secular movements have a natural tendency to hubris.  Their goal is to achieve paradise in the here and now.  Those who participate in these movements believe their goals are so noble, they tend to see their opponents as evil and believe that any means necessary to achieve their objectives are justified.  That is why the most militant agents for change are entirely comfortable demonizing their opponents and are all too ready to destroy those opponents in any way they can.

This is not to deny that religion can also lead to self-righteousness.  Of course it can.  But religion usually has a built-in antidote to hubris in the form of sharp warnings against presumption.  In the case of Christianity, Christ repeatedly warned against self-righteousness:

  • “First cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”
  • “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
  • “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And so on.

Indeed, the very essence of Christ’s message counsels for modesty and restraint in secular politics.  The mission is not to make new men or transform the world through the coercive power of the state.  On the contrary, the central idea is that the right way to transform the world is for each of us to focus on morally transforming ourselves.

Thus, unlike those who see the line between good and evil as running between them and their opponents, the Christian outlook is expressed by Solzhenitsyn’s observation that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Religion also tempers the acrimony of our politics by making clear that what happens here on earth is only transient – not eternal.  “Remember, Man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” 

Unfortunately, this vital moderating force in our society has declined over the past several decades.  In recent years, we have seen the steady erosion of religion and its benevolent influence. 

Some of this has been caused by the misinterpretation of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of our Constitution by our courts.  Instead of recognizing the benefits of religion to a healthy society and seeking to accommodate religion, we seem to have adopted the posture of official hostility to religion.  That is directly contrary to the Framers’ views.  As Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote in 1798: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion.  Without it there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” 

While most everyone agrees that we must have separation of Church and State, this does not require that we drive religion from the public square and affirmatively use government power to promote a culture of disbelief.  As Tocqueville would have predicted, this weakening of religion is contributing to ill-temper in our political life. 

The next essential check on despotism I would like to discuss is decentralization of government power.

Both Tocqueville and James Madison believed that the first step toward tyranny in a democracy was the formation of a consolidated and galvanized national majority, sufficiently roused by a common idea to ride roughshod over an opposing minority.  Both men thought that decentralization of power – reflected in the American system of federalism – would help prevent the coalescence of such an energized national majority.

As we all know, under our federal system, individuals are subject to two sovereigns: the national government, and their state government. 

The Framers believed in the principle of subsidiarity – that is, that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest competent authority that was closest to the people.  That is the level of government at which the individual was most empowered.  It is where he or she could play the largest role and have the most direct involvement.  The Framers conceived that the vast majority of collective decision-making by the people about their affairs would be done at the state and local level.

The federal government was supposed to be a government of limited powers.  It was primarily supposed to handle two things that had to be achieved at the national level: first, conducting foreign relations and providing for the national defense and, second, integrating economic affairs across the states so we could have a single national economy.

The Framers included the Commerce Clause for this second purpose, but that provision has since ballooned far beyond its original understanding.  Nowadays, it is hard to tell whether a particular measure is regulating commerce to promote integration of the nation’s commerce, or whether it is simply an effort by the national government to regulate a domestic matter within a state.

Sadly, most restrictions on federal power under the Commerce Clause have broken down.  Virtually any federal measure can be justified no matter how much it invades the prerogatives of the states.  As a result, the federal government is now directly governing the country as one monolithic entity with over 300 million people. 

I believe that the destruction of federalism is another source of the extreme discontent in our contemporary political life.  We have come to believe that we should have one national solution for every problem in society.  You have a problem?  Let us fix it in Washington, DC.  One size fits all.

The Framers would have seen a one-size-fits-all government for hundreds of millions of diverse citizens as being utterly unworkable and a straight road to tyranny.  That is because they recognized that not every community is exactly the same.  What works in Brooklyn might not be a good fit for Birmingham.  The federal system allows for this diversity.  It also enables people who do not like a certain system to move to a different one.  It is easier to run away from a local tyranny than a national one.  If people do not like the rule in a state, they can vote with their feet and move.  

But if it is one size fits all – if every congressional enactment or Supreme Court decision establishes a single rule for every American – then the stakes are very high as to what that rule is.  When you take a controversial issue about which there are passionate views on both sides, such as abortion, and say we are going to have one rule nationwide, it is a recipe for bitter conflict over that rule.  And when that rule must govern widely-divergent communities, the conflict is between combatants who often do not even comprehend their opponents’ perspective.

The result is our current acrimonious politics.  And because the rules that result from these struggles are then imposed from outside by a remote central government, they further undercut a sense of community and give rise to alienation.

In short, we have lost the idea of diversity in this country – real diversity, where communities can coexist and adopt different approaches to things.  That, too, erodes an important check on despotism.

Now, finally, let me turn to freedom of the press.

In addition to religion and the decentralization of government power, the free press was an institution that Tocqueville believed would serve as a check on the despotic tendency of democracy. 

This was not because Tocqueville believed that the American press did a particularly good job elevating the public’s understanding and discourse.  On the contrary, he generally took a dimmer view.  As Tocqueville put it: “The characteristics of the American journalist consist in an open and coarse appeal to the passions of the populace; and he habitually abandons the principles of political science to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life, and disclose all their weaknesses and errors.”

Tocqueville’s view was that a free press did not so much perform a positive good, as prevent an evil.  It achieved this precisely because it was highly fragmented and reflected a wide diversity of voices.  In that sense, a free and diverse press provided another form of decentralization of power that, as long as it remained diverse, made it difficult to galvanize a consolidated national majority.

In 19th-century America, the press was so fragmented that the power of any one organ was small.  The multiplicity of newspapers, even in one city, cultivated a wide variety of views and localized opinion.  Tocqueville contrasted this to the situation he saw in Europe, where news outlets were consolidated in major urban centers, such that a few voices were capable of influencing the opinions of the entire country.

When the diverse organs of the press begin to “advance along the same track,” wrote Tocqueville, “their influence becomes almost irresistible in the long term, and public opinion, struck always from the same side, ends by yielding under their blows.”

Today in the United States, the corporate – or “mainstream” – press is massively consolidated.  And it has become remarkably monolithic in viewpoint, at the same time that an increasing number of journalists see themselves less as objective reporters of the facts, and more as agents of change.  These developments have given the press an unprecedented ability to mobilize a broad segment of the public on a national scale and direct that opinion in a particular direction.

When the entire press “advances along the same track,” as Tocqueville put it, the relationship between the press and the energized majority becomes mutually reinforcing.  Not only does it become easier for the press to mobilize a majority, but the mobilized majority becomes more powerful and overweening with the press as its ally. 

This is not a positive cycle, and I think it is fair to say that it puts the press’ role as a breakwater for the tyranny of the majority in jeopardy.  The key to restoring the press in that vital role is to cultivate a greater diversity of voices in the media. 

That is where you come in.  You are one of the last holdouts in the consolidation of organs and viewpoints of the press.  It is, therefore, essential that you continue your work and continue to supply the people with diverse, divergent perspectives on the news of the day.  And in this secular age, it is especially vital that your religious perspective is voiced.

So where does that leave us?  It might not seem like it, but I am actually an optimist, and I believe that identifying the problem is the first step in correcting it.  Our nation’s greatest days lie ahead, but only if we can alter our course and pay heed to the lessons of the past.  

This means fostering a culture that is truly pluralistic.  It means all viewpoints must be treated fairly – not simply the viewpoints favored by our cultural elites.  And it especially means giving our respect to religion as a vital pillar of our society.  Religion is something we should celebrate, not disparage.

This also means working to devolve democratic choice to the lowest possible level.  While the wizards in Washington might think they know best, the reality is that there is no unified “best” for every community and every person in our vast country.  The solution to social ills is not to exhaust ourselves devising the perfect rule for everyone; it is to let our villages, cities, and states set the rules for their communities.  That allows people with principled disagreements to peaceably coexist, and prevents politics from becoming zero-sum nationwide.

And finally, this means encouraging diverse voices to speak out – whether on television, over the radio, or in print.  When Tocqueville visited America, there was “scarcely a hamlet which has not its own newspaper.”  We need to get back to that.  We need to support local journalism and local voices, and each of you needs to continue the great work you are doing. 

In sum, your voices and your perspectives are essential to reversing the different trends I have discussed today.  I look forward to working together to restore the separate spheres that have long sustained our society.  It is not too late to stem the tide, but we need to get to work.

Thank you all for the opportunity to talk with you today. 

Updated February 26, 2020