In Brief: Bill Barr Defends Religious Liberty
The former attorney general says the greatest threat comes from “our state-run education system.”
Former Attorney General William Barr is no stranger to the battle over religious liberty, having defended it before. But on May 20, 2021, he accepted the Alliance Defending Freedom’s annual Edwin Meese III Award for Originalism and Religious Liberty, and he gave remarks about “the greatest threat to religious liberty in America today,” which he says is “the increasingly militant and extreme secular-progressive climate of our state-run education system.”
Over the past 12 tumultuous months, there has been a great deal of discussion about the radical ideology being promoted in our schools, and what it means for national unity, public safety, and the health of our politics.
Much less has been said about an issue of perhaps even greater long-term consequence: what this indoctrination in public schools means for the rights of people of faith.
We are rapidly approaching the point — if we have not already reached the point — at which the heavy-handed enforcement of secular-progressive orthodoxy through government-run schools is totally incompatible with traditional Christianity and other major religious traditions in our country. In light of this development, we must confront the reality that it may no longer be fair, practical, or even constitutional to provide publicly funded education solely through the vehicle of state-operated schools.
He spoke about the “purpose and nature of education” in Western civilization, and the need to pursue truth, which often includes moral and religious virtue. In fact, he said, “The notion that we can hermetically seal off religion from education is a relatively novel idea.”
The American approach to public schooling and its relationship to religion has proceeded in three distinct historical phases. …
In [the] first phase, the advocates of public schools agreed that religion was integral to such an education. You could not separate moral education from religion. …
The second phase of public schooling came in the latter part of the 20th century. This is when the Left embarked on a relentless campaign of secularization intent on driving every vestige of traditional religion from the public square. Public schools quickly became the central battleground.
This was the period where it was thought you could completely isolate education from religion. The idea was that education should be completely secularized by stripping away all vestiges of religion or religious belief systems. It was secularization by subtraction.
Yet even as the schools were forcibly secularized, the notion of moral instruction did not simply go away. The rich Judeo-Christian tradition was replaced with trite talk of liberal values — be a good person, be caring.
But there was no underpinning for these values. What passed for morality had no metaphysical foundation. It is hard to teach that someone ought to behave in a certain way unless you can explain why. …
Just in the last several of years, we have entered phase three of public education.
This no longer secularization by subtraction. Now we see the affirmative indoctrination of children with a secular belief system and worldview that is a substitute for religion and is antithetical to the beliefs and values of traditional God-centered religion.
In other words, purging schools of any trace of religion created a vacuum by eliminating the explanatory belief system undergirding moral values. Now, we are seeing the attempt to push into the schools an alternative explanatory belief system that is inconsistent with, and subversive of, the religious worldview.
Barr proceeded through numerous examples of where this phase has led, and the destructive nature of the new indoctrination, whether through gender, Critical Race Theory, or other ways. In fact, he called the Left’s work a “systemic subversion of the religious worldview.”
Now it seems to me that for the government to get into the business through public schools of indoctrination of students into secular beliefs systems that are directly contrary to the traditional religious beliefs of students and their families raises fundamental constitutional problems.
It certainly raises a free exercise problem. As the Supreme Court has recognized nothing is more fundamental that the right of parents to pass religious faith to their children. It is monstrous for the state to interfere in that by indoctrinating children into alternative belief systems that are antithetical to those religious beliefs.
In short, Barr concludes, “To save religious liberty, we must save our families and their children from the extreme secular-progressivism that pervades our current system of public schools.”
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