Bill Barr, warrior for theocracy: Why didn't we know about this?
It has long been an article of faith (no pun intended) among some on the left that the culture war was simply a cynical tool of the conservative movement to fool the rubes into voting against their economic interests. In this reading, right-wing leaders had no intention of ever following through on culture-war issues. They would string the voters along forever, promising to deliver on abortion or gay rights or guns but never really getting the job done, the assumption being that they could keep the conservative base's intensity at full throttle if those voters believed they were on the cusp of getting their agenda passed. Meanwhile, as the marks were distracted by endless culture-war skirmishes, the big money conservatives would pass laws that benefited themselves and harmed their own voters.
As it happens, it did indeed go down that way. The conservative movement benefactors made out like bandits while Republican voters got screwed economically. But the notion that the rich men in charge would never have to deliver on their culture-war promises was always wrong. Eventually, they would have to pay the piper.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled that they were ready when he withheld the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland during Barack Obama’s last year and then confirmed the Federalist Society’s darling, true blue social conservative Neil Gorsuch, as soon as Donald Trump took office. Evangelical leaders rushed to Brett Kavanaugh’s defense when he was under fire for his decadent youthful behavior and was accused of sexual assault during the confirmation hearings because they had been assured he would hew to the party line. Kavanaugh's threats to take revenge on all who opposed him probably reassured the religious right that he would vote the right way on the cases they care about.
McConnell’s Job No. 1 was to get a Supreme Court majority that would protect the interests of the wealthy and ensure the government didn’t burden business with inconvenient regulations. But he also made sure he got justices who would give the social conservatives what they had been demanding. The lower courts are now packed with the most far-right extremists he could find.
This week 38 U.S. senators and 168 House members filed an amicus brief in an abortion case the Supreme Court is hearing, urging it to "reconsider" Roe v. Wade as well as Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which barred states from placing an undue burden on access to abortions. They are ready to reward the religious right for their years of loyalty. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, I have a feeling any cracks in the Republican coalition will miraculously mend right up.
As it happens, some very important people in legal circles are true believers themselves. The man most responsible for putting Gorsuch and Kavanaugh on the court as well as more than 100 lower court judges, is the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo. He is a member of the ultra-conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei and has served on the board of its affiliate, the Catholic Information Center, whose goal is to influence and convert members of the political elite. (Among the converts are Larry Kudlow, Trump’s economic adviser, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.)
William Barr, the attorney general of the United States, has also served on the board of the Catholic Information Center, although Opus Dei has officially denied that he is a member. Just as the political and media establishment conveniently overlooked Barr's long-term commitment to the "unitary executive theory" in its most extreme form, they didn’t seem to know that he was even more committed to far-right social conservatism. It wasn’t until Barr gave a speech at Notre Dame last October that everyone finally understood to what degree he is a religious crusader.
In that speech he said many things, blaming “secularists” for causing immense pain and suffering and “moral chaos.” He suggested that “the law is being used as a battering ram to break down traditional moral values and to establish moral relativism as a new orthodoxy” and went on to detail how he was counteracting that as attorney general. His views are what Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson identified in a New York Times op-ed as "religious nationalism," which basically implies either a theocratic state or a single-religion state.
Barr made his beliefs explicit:
Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct and religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline. The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.
Apparently the law and the Constitution are just wallpaper, which is an unusual thing for a U.S. attorney general to imply.
As Stewart and Fredrickson point out, this explains why Barr is so willing to lie and cover for the libertine Trump:
Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyperpartisanship is the symptom, not the malady. At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic Party and its supporters are routinely described as “demonic” and associated with “rulers of the darkness.” If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative. And as the vicious reaction to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial demonstrates, any break with this partisan alignment will be instantly denounced as heresy.
Bill Barr may be the most unvetted attorney general in history, which is strange since he had served as AG under George H.W. Bush and was well known in DC circles. How could he have been confirmed as the nation's top law enforcement official when nobody knew that he was a far-right religious extremist on a mission to use the law and the executive power to enforce a moral code? How many others like him are buried within the Trump administration, protecting this licentious president in order to Make America Christian Again?
CORRECTION: As originally published, this article asserted that William Barr is a member of Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic organization. Opus Dei has issued an official statement asserting that he is not. Salon regrets the error.
Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.