He spoke about how he used religion to guide his leadership, though not his decision-making. He spoke about how the administration is echoing the lessons of the Bible in speaking truth to China and Iran and in calling out the suppression of religious freedom. He talked about being a responsible steward of the department’s resources.
Only once did he specifically tie together religion, his work and a mandate from Trump. That was on the question of abortion.
“I need to be intentional — we each need to be intentional — about carving out time to pursue the mission of defending human dignity,” he said. “I’m proud to say that President Trump has let our State Department do that. Indeed, he has demanded that we do.”
Pompeo understood that even his modest speech would raise eyebrows, predicting “some people in the media will break out the pitchforks when they hear that I ask God for direction in my work.” He needn’t have worried, though. Barr’s much more direct insistence about the primacy of Judeo-Christian values attracted most of the media’s flak.
Speaking at the University of Notre Dame’s law school, Barr made a pointed argument. America was founded on the idea that citizens could self-govern only in the context of religion, only for “a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and to man-made laws and [who] had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.” Specifically, Barr argued, self-governance as conceived demanded adherence to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
“Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as sort of otherworldly superstition imposed by a killjoy clergy,” Barr told the audience. “But in fact Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct. They reflect the rules that are best for man not in the by-and-by, in the here-and-now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and the best operation of human society.” Instead of Americans tempering themselves, though, he warned that anti-religious actors were instead demanding that the government intercede — with disastrous results.
“We start with an untrammeled freedom,” he said at one point, “and we end up as dependents of a coercive state.”
The nation’s chief law enforcement official argued that the consequences of an embrace of “moral relativism” and an erosion of Judeo-Christian values has “by any honest assessment … been grim.” He pointed to the rise in single-parent families since the 1960s and recent increases in drug overdose deaths. He identified “an increase in senseless violence,” a claim at direct odds with the data compiled by his own agency.
“I won’t dwell on the bitter results of the new secular age; suffice it to say that the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has coincided with and I believe has brought with it immense suffering and misery,” Barr said. “And yet the forces of secularism ignoring these tragic results press on with even greater militancy. Among the militant secularists are many so-called progressives, but where is the progress? We are told we are living in a post-Christian era. But what has replaced the Judeo-Christian moral system?”
“Today militant secularists do not have a live-and-let-live spirit,” he said, having already identified those secularists as directing “mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry and academia.” “They are not content to leave religious people alone to practice their faith. Instead they seem to take delight and compelling people to violate their conscience.”
He warned that the shifts might be permanent.
“I do not mean to suggest that there is no hope for moral renewal in our country,” Barr said, “but we cannot sit back and just hope that the pendulum is going to swing back towards sanity.”
There’s little question that Barr was articulating beliefs held as sincerely as were Pompeo’s. The two presented different manifestations of the role of religion in government, with Pompeo describing a system of guidance and Barr outlining a necessary moral dependence.
And then there was Trump.
The president spoke on Saturday at the Value Voters Summit, an annual gathering centered on merging politics with evangelicals and other religious conservatives. He echoed Barr’s concerns about the decline of Judeo-Christianity — but in much more explicit terms.
“On every front, the ultraleft is waging war on the values shared by everyone in this room,” Trump said. “They are trying to silence and punish the speech of Christians and religious believers of all faiths. You know it better than anyone. They are trying to use the courts to rewrite the laws, undermine democracy and force through an agenda they can’t pass at the ballot box.”
“They are trying to hound you from the workplace, expel you from the public square and weaken the American family and indoctrinate our children,” he continued. “They resent and disdain faithful Americans who hold fast to our nation’s historic values, and, if given the chance, they would use every instrument of government power, including the IRS, to try to shut you down.”
Where Barr’s articulation of the threat posed by secularism was broad, touching tangentially on current cultural battles, Trump embraced the war on religion as fought in the conservative media. He defended, for example, a student at the University of California at Berkeley as embodying the face of anti-religious oppression.
Trump has never been a religious man in the same manner as someone like Pompeo. His embrace of religion has tended to overlap with his outreach to religious Christian voters, and his speech this weekend was no exception. His campaign’s focus on the nostalgia of an America gone by is often understood as a focus on older Americans and, specifically, on the decline in the density of the country’s white population.
It can also be understood as a reaction to the decline (real and perceived) in the density of Christianity in the United States. Barr’s presentation of a country that’s turning its back on religion isn’t reflected in the fact that three-quarters of Americans still identify as Christian and that, 30 years from now, the Pew Research Center estimates that two-thirds of Americans will still identify in that way.
More immediately, Barr is focusing on the decline of more conservative Christians, including the Catholics at Notre Dame. Trump has consistently focused on white evangelical Protestants like those at Value Voters Summit — a group, which recent analysis suggests, is for the first time in decades smaller than the number of Americans who don’t profess any religious faith.
What we had this weekend, then — intentionally or not — was an administration defending the intertwining of Christianity with government on three tiers: Pompeo speaking broadly to Christians of every stripe, Barr speaking to conservative Christians more specifically and Trump targeting hard-right, political evangelicals.
That may simply be a reflection of the speakers and audiences. It was also, though, certainly an opportunity for an embattled White House to bolster its bases of support.