Attorney General William Barr is worse than a simple right-wing partisan, wrote religious nationalism biographer Katherine Stewart and former American Constitutional Society president Caroline Fredrickson for The New York Times.
Rather, they argued, he is best understood as a fanatical theocrat who believes America is damned to burn in hell — and seeks to use the powers of his office to course correct the nation's sinful ways.
"Why would a seemingly respectable, semiretired lion of the Washington establishment undermine the institutions he is sworn to uphold, incinerate his own reputation, and appear to willfully misrepresent the reports of special prosecutors and inspectors general, all to defend one of the most lawless and corrupt presidents in American history? And why has this particular attorney general appeared at this pivotal moment in our Republic?" they wrote. "A deeper understanding of William Barr is emerging, and it reveals something profound and disturbing about the evolution of conservatism in 21st-century America."
"At least since Mr. Barr’s infamous speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, in which he blamed 'secularists' for 'moral chaos' and 'immense suffering, wreckage and misery,' it has become clear that no understanding of William Barr can be complete without taking into account his views on the role of religion in society," they wrote. "For that, it is illuminating to review how Mr. Barr has directed his Justice Department on matters concerning the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a state religion."
"In Maryland, the department rushed to defend taxpayer funding for a religious school that says same-sex marriage is wrong," they noted. "In Maine, it is defending parents suing over a state law that bans religious schools from obtaining taxpayer funding to promote their own sectarian doctrines. At his Department of Justice, Mr. Barr told law students at Notre Dame, 'We keep an eye out for cases or events around the country where states are misapplying the establishment clause in a way that discriminates against people of faith.'"
"When religious nationalists invoke 'religious freedom,' it is typically code for religious privilege," they wrote. "The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power ... Mr. Barr has a long history of supporting just this type of 'religious liberty.' At Notre Dame, he compared alleged violations of religious liberty with Roman emperors forcing Christian subjects to partake in pagan sacrifices. 'The law is being used as a battering ram to break down traditional moral values and to establish moral relativism as a new orthodoxy,' he said."
As they pointed out, Barr has been espousing this worldview long before Trump. "In a 1995 article he wrote for The Catholic Lawyer, which, as Emily Bazelon recently pointed out, appears to be something of a blueprint for his speech at Notre Dame, he complained that 'we live in an increasingly militant, secular age' and expressed his grave concern that the law might force landlords to rent to unmarried couples. He implied that the idea that universities might treat 'homosexual activist groups like any other student group' was intolerable."
And while Barr is one of the most visible and powerful elements of the administration seeking to impose Christian supremacy under law, he is not alone.
"Mr. Trump’s presidency was not the cause of this anti-democratic movement in American politics. It was the consequence," they concluded. "He is the chosen instrument, not of God, but of today’s Christian nationalists, their political allies and funders, and the movement’s legal apparatus. Mr. Barr did not emerge in order to serve this one particular leader. On the contrary, Mr. Trump serves a movement that will cynically praise the Constitution in order to destroy it, and of which Mr. Barr has made himself a hero."
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