William Barr and the binary God

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Besides wandering the globe apparently looking for the “real killer” in the O.J. Simpson case, Attorney General William Barr made two recent high-profile speeches that are disturbing on several levels. His November 15 speech was to the right-wing, highly political Federalist Society (from which have come all recent Republican Supreme Court nominees), where he complained about aggressive oversight from Congressional Democrats.

At this speech, Barr failed to mention that the Trump advisor felon count is now up to eight, all convictions resulting from the actions of his own Justice Department and the Federal courts. [1] Perhaps that oversight is warranted. And if he is suggesting that Congressional meddling in the Executive Branch is somehow new, then the words “Merrick Garland” come to mind.

God versus not-God

The second speech was on the topic of religious freedom, delivered at Notre Dame University on October 11. This speech served to pull the Trump administration deeper into efforts to tear down barriers between church and state, made all the more troubling by his powerful position as Attorney General as well as his insertion of personal religious views.

Mr. Barr likes to invoke the concept of what I call the “binary God.” In Barr’s world, there is “God,” by his Venn diagram-like definition, and “not-God,” to which he casts not only non-believers, but also other Christians, and even other Catholics, who do not profess his own narrow vision of morality, ethics, divinity and sacredness. In Barr’s binary world, his “God’s people” get political priority over the rest of us, who worship “not-the real-God” or worse, “no God.”

Binary God

I have noted in the past that philosophers and theologians have long parsed the difference between the terms ethics and morality, but in practice it often comes down to the latter word being invoked into some form of “something, something, sex.” Barr does not disappoint here; his past writings have long portrayed issues of sexual orientation and legal forms of contraception as somehow threatening to his religious freedom.

As far as I can tell, every reader of this blog still has an unfettered Constitutional right to act in a cisgender fashion and to refrain from using any method of birth control. Yet, the Attorney General’s Venn diagram interpretation of “religious freedom” clearly consists of “the Barr God view,” which he wants the courts to enforce on all of us, and “the wrong God view” on these topics, which must be made illegal. Here he confuses legality with morality. They are not the same thing. [2]

Homosexuality in Barr’s world, for instance, is not only a sin against his God, but also requires legally protected exclusion from public commerce and cohabitation. All who hold a different worldview are tagged by Barr as “militant secularists” and a “threat to American democracy.”

The primary “dog whistle” issue at the heart of the most recent “religious freedom” court cases has been the extent to which people with Barr’s “God view” need to abide by public accommodation laws. How do civil rights protections apply when it comes to serving people of whom they disapprove? This country went through a 100-year experiment in what happens when people offering public services like hotels and restaurants get to decide whom they serve. Both openly in the Jim Crow South and more surreptitiously in Northern communities, millions of people of color and of differing sexual orientations learned that Constitutional freedoms and rights did not apply to them.

Without public accommodation, full citizenship cannot be realized for those millions of Americans. Bigotry well-disguised by professed religion or political libertarianism is still bigotry. The difference today is that the Attorney General openly sides with the religious bigots.

Two Catholicisms

In choosing a traditionally conservative Catholic university for this speech, Barr took not only a particular denominational Christian position, but also a particular subset of that denomination. In much of Protestant Christianity as well as Judaism, Barr’s views of sex versus the law have mostly self-sorted themselves among the denominations (with some groups still in that sorting process). Southern Baptists and American Baptists, for instance, take very different stances on the role and rights of women in the church. For Catholics, that fight remains largely internal. However, Barr has staked out his side of that inter-sect battle for a public fight, and attempts to bring the force of the government in on his side of a religious doctrinal dispute.

I am not Catholic, although I did study graduate-level ethics at a Jesuit university in the mid-1990s. [3] During these years this inter-Catholic battle began to hit the local and national news in ways that were often embarrassing, not to mention ruinously expensive due to legal judgements.

Despite an often-ugly history of religious intolerance, the Jesuits from at least the 1980s onward have been among the more progressive religious orders in the church. [4] The current Pope Francis, himself a (relatively) progressive Jesuit, is the most visible result of that evolution, and undeniably a factor in the Barr opposition. William Barr has long been associated with the ultraconservative Catholic organization Opus Dei, which maintains a tense relationship with Pope Francis, often opposing his reforms.

The battle in mid-1990s in my region was over who was in control over the local Catholic schools and religious orders of priests, monks and nuns. The Jesuit university asserted independence from the control of the very conservative Archbishop. The university-housed parish had become somewhat of a haven for divorced, remarried and LGBTQ (although this term did not exist at that time) Catholics. The local newspaper often quoted professors there when they made progressive comments on issues of sexism, sexuality, and political violence, which angered the Archbishop. [5]

The priests saying mass in this parish church typically “did not ask questions” about who presented themselves for the Eucharist and other sacraments. In one mass attended by a parishioner friend, the priest dutifully read a letter from the Archbishop reminding improperly remarried Catholics that they could not receive the communion. He then intentionally invited everyone to come forward.

The university also worked with a local order of very feminist nuns, whom I wrote about last year in this post about their “nuanced” view of abortion rights. The nuns wanted to get a full theological education because they were being called on to administer many “backroom” parish functions in the absence of sufficient numbers of male priests. When the Archbishop chastised them for “getting all dressed up with no place to go” they performed their own Ash Wednesday service on the sidewalk outside his cathedral.

Back to Barr’s God

William Barr’s version of Catholicism is much less “Jesuit Pope Francis” than it is that of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. When I was studying at the Jesuit institution, Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed “the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” once known by the name of “the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.” Several of my classes delved into the often-dense theological pronouncements from this body on matters of ethics and morality, although I was admittedly out of my element at these times. [6]

In recent years the primary Jesuit ethical emphasis has shifted to empathy and justice, which Pope Francis has publicly preached just this week in Nagasaki, Japan. The Ratzinger/Barr ethical world, on the other hand, is much more traditional rule-duty deontology and “divine command” ethics (i.e., “God says so!”). The difference is very important in practice. The treatment of asylum seekers on America’s southern border by Barr’s own Justice Department would be seen as far more “immoral,” indeed a far greater “sin” by many of his own church’s religious orders (and likely by the Pope himself) than would be any mutually-agreeable cohabitation arrangement between two consenting adults.

Both sides of this ethical debate use a lot of “God language” in their discussions, and there are people of faith, as well as many non-believers, in both ethical camps. However, in Attorney General Barr’s world, only one side of that ethical debate deserves his (and God’s?) view of special protection. Freedom for me, but not for thee.


Notes:

  1. In case you are counting, eight men have been convicted of felonies or have plead guilty to felonies relating to their associations with the Trump campaign: Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and Alex van der Zwaan.
  2. The confusion of legality with morality is a common logical error. Here is my take on the subject.
  3. I recognize that my authority to speak on this subject may sound like “I stayed at a Holiday Inn last night.”
  4. The 17th-century Jesuits waged a doctrinal battle in Italy against the emerging mathematics of infinitesimal calculus, which I wrote about in this earlier post.
  5. In the Reagan years, Jesuits and other orders of priests and nuns were on the front lines of the political and social troubles throughout Central America, much to the consternation of many conservative Catholic leaders.
  6. One of the more curious was a very legalistic opinion from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith endorsing the use of a “perforated condom” in medical procedures for improving fertility in Catholic women so as to not violate prohibitions on birth control. Of course, these women could not get pregnant even without normal birth control. The reasoning is quite convoluted, and it has been jokingly called the “Holey Condom” rule.

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