My Dear Mr. Barr
I read your address to the Notre Dame Law School given on October 11th of this year and also your article in the Catholic Lawyer titled “Legal Issues in a New Political Order”.
I would like to address some of the assumptions and premises you articulated in presenting your point of view.
You argue that religion is essential to a free and democratic society.
“From the Founding Era onward, there was strong consensus about the centrality of religious liberty in the United States. The imperative of protecting religious freedom was not just a nod in the direction of piety. It reflects the Framers’ belief that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government”.
That strikes me as an intuitive leap that I am not willing to take. I would argue that the Founders would agree that personal beliefs — including the belief that God does not exist, or that God is expressed in the form of Krishna or Allah is the imperative that the founding fathers were articulating in their protection of religious freedom?
You also quote John Adams who said “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.”
In your essay, you left out the text in italics. Different from your point of view, it is my understanding that it is virtue, not religion that the Founders thought was essential for a successful democracy. The deadly sins listed in the Adams quote can be committed by the religious as well as by atheists. But those who commit those sins would not be considered virtuous by either.
Secondly, you argue that government is by its very nature coercive, while religion is not. I would argue that equal justice under the law is not a coercive power but the great leveler, providing justice for the powerful and the powerless. Religion on the other hand uses fear, ostracism and punishment to instill the “moral discipline and virtue” you find so necessary for the survival of free institutions. Religion has been used to conduct brutal wars, imprison whole nations and force millions to hide their beliefs from those in power. This was why the Founders would not allow a state sanctioned religion. So that the beliefs of those in power would not be imposed on the citizens without their consent.
You sight “the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism” as the ethical cancer of our age. If moral values flow from a transcendent Supreme Being, why are there religious wars. Can you explain the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people by the Buddhist majority? Or the slaughter of the Yazidis by Isis? It could be said that these non-Christians have a flawed religious system that created the possibility for such actions. That is until we examine the genocide of the Native Americans by Christian settlers in America. Or the oppression of black slaves, justified in part with Gods’ words taken from the Bible, where I assume these moral values flow. This, the “golden age” of American democracy, was stained with slavery, genocide and oppression.
The “decadent age” from the 1960’s on has seen the rise of civil rights for African Americans, women’s liberation and at least an attempt to enforce some kind of environmental justice in a country apparently determined to destroy the natural beauty and God given resources that we all share.
Depression, mental illness and drugs are clearly the ills of a modern age. But what has God or the United Sates Government, in their divine wisdom, provided to address these issues? Is it treatment? Compassion? No. We offer the back of our hand, as society emptied the mental hospitals in the 80’s and turned these poor souls out on to the street. We offer prison to the drug users rather than treatment. I attended a debate of candidates for district attorney in my local county here in Maine. When asked what they would do to solve the drug problem, every candidate stated that the most important single action that needed to be taken was to expand Medicaid under Obamacare so that these suffering human beings could get some treatment.
Moral relativism has nothing to do with it.
Finally, you spend a lot of time complaining about the “government’s monstrous invasion of religious liberty”. Apparently, your firmly held belief that homosexuality is a sin and a moral failing is at odds with the Supreme Court and the settled law of this country. Marriage between two people who love and wish to commit their lives to each other is legal in the US. This is equal justice for all under the law which you, sir, are sworn to protect and defend.
Some years ago, I attended a marriage ceremony. It was not sanctioned by the state or the nation at that time. It was a glorious and joyous occasion, held in a church in which the couple were members and the ceremony was presided over by the minister. I was also a member of that congregation and sung in the choir that day to honor my friend’s union. They had been together for 25 years before this event and lived happily together for a number of years after until one man died suddenly. Neither the state nor the nation recognized the other man as the spouse. As far as the law was concerned, they were not connected in any way. That is not equal justice under the law and the Supreme Court ended that injustice in a decisive ruling.
Mr. Barr, I was raised a Catholic. I attended parochial school for the first eight years of my education. I am not a practicing Catholic, but I do attend church every Sunday. I sing in the choir. I have done everything from serving on the Governing Board to chopping vegetables for the community dinner we serve monthly to our neighbors, many who are hungry or homeless or both. Oh, and by the way…I don’t believe there is a God. I think we are differentiated wisps of energy that exist for a short time in this earth. Living a moral and ethical existence means showing compassion to my fellow human being and attempting to do as little harm as possible. To sum up my ethical beliefs, I try to live a virtuous life. And I don’t need God to tell me what is right or wrong.
When I consider my LGBT friends, or my African American neighbors, or my friends who have become new citizens after seeking asylum from oppression in their country, or even the woman who has made the difficult choice to end a pregnancy, I see citizens who are as deserving as you and I of the full protection of equal justice under the rule of law. I would expect you to protect and defend them with as much conviction as you would for any citizen regardless of your personal ethics or religious convictions. May it be so.
John P. Schaberg