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US Atty General Barr: Militant secularists co-opted ‘separation of church and state’ to attack religious freedom

Barr said that secularists have attempted to 'drive religion from the public square, and to exclude religious people from bringing a religious perspective to bear on conversations about the common good'
Wed Sep 23, 2020 - 4:18 pm EST
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U.S. Attorney General William Barr at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Sept. 23, 2020

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WASHINGTON D.C., September 23, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — U.S. Attorney General William Barr said today that “no concept is more misunderstood than the notion of separation of church and state,” and explained that “militant secularists” have long seized on that slogan “as they drive religion from the public square.” Yet, Americans must know that “‘separation of church and state’ does not mean, and never did mean, separation of religion and civics,” he said. 

Barr offered his remarks upon receiving the “Christifideles Laici Award,” presented to him during the  National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.  Barr spoke from his Department of Justice office during the virtual gathering.    

After recounting the important role that religion played in the founding of America as a free nation, Barr lamented, “Unfortunately in the last half-century, that foundation of our free society has been increasingly under siege.” 

“Traditional morality has eroded, and secularists have often succeeded, not only in eliminating religion from schools and the public square, but in replacing it with a new orthodoxy that is actively hostile to religion,” said Barr. 

“The consequences of this hollowing out of religion have been predictably dire,” he continued. “Over the past fifty years, we have seen striking increases in urban violence, drug abuse, and broken families.  Problems like these have fed the rise of an ever more powerful central government, one that increasingly saps individual initiatives, co-ops civil society, crowds out religious institutions, and ultimately reduces citizens to wards of the state.”

A.G. Barr spoke of three important victories for religious liberty in which the Department of Justice, under his leadership, sought to support the free exercise of religion.  

In one case, the court reaffirmed the principle that the government can not discriminate against religion in general funding programs, and struck down a provision of the Montana Constitution that had been interpreted to exclude religious schools from a scholarship program for underprivileged students.  

In another case, the Court held that the First Amendment prohibits courts from intervening in employment disputes involving teachers at religious schools who are entrusted with the responsibility of instructing their students in the faith. 

In the third case, the Court considered a regulatory mandate requiring employers to provide contraceptive coverage for employees and upheld the Administration’s rules exempting the nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other employers with moral and religious objections.  

“In a sense, it is dispiriting that the disputes in these cases ever arose,” noted Barr.  “In each case, the religious litigants were not asking for anything more than the basic freedom to exercise their faith.”   

“Advocating for religious liberty is just one way that lay Catholics and others can answer the call to serve. In his exhortation Christifideles Laici,” said Barr, “Saint John Paul II noted that the lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation in public life.  At the same time, he emphasized that faith is first and foremost about how we live our daily lives, for the daily life itself of a truly Christian family, makes up the first experience of the Church.”  

“Whatever our vocation in life, it is never too late to work in the Lord’s vineyard,” concluded the Attorney General.  “Our spiritual renewal and the renewal of our national character depend on it.”

Catholic teaching: Distinction, not separation

The Catholic Church teaches that there is a distinction between church and state, but not a total separation. Pope Pius IX called it an error in his 1864 Syllabus of Errors to hold that The “Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.” Pope Pius X touched on this teaching in his 1907 encyclical to the Church in France titled Une Fois Encore (Once again). Here the Pope addressed the faithful who were experiencing persecution, letting them know that the Church demands of the state “respect for its hierarchy and inviolability of its property and liberty.” 

Dr. Taylor Marshall explained in a 2015 video that, properly understood, there is a “distinction” between church and state, where each governs according to its particular competence, but not a strict separation, where one has nothing to do with the other. 

Christendom College co-founder Dr. Jeffrey Mirus wrote in a 2018 article about the proper relationship between church and state:

The Catholic position has always been what Pope Gelasius described in the late fifth century as the doctrine of “the two swords”. The State (the temporal order) is a natural society over which government presides with a natural authority, exercising that authority for the common good of the community it rules. This is the “temporal sword”. The Church, on the other hand, is a supernatural society which presides with a supernatural authority over souls, exercising that authority for the spiritual welfare of the community, both as a contribution to the common good and so that all its members may attain their final end, which is eternal life with God. This is the “spiritual sword.”

It follows that the Church is our authority for defining moral truth (which is inscribed in natural reality by the Creator) and also the truth which God discloses to us solely through Revelation. To expound these truths is the purpose of what we call “Christian doctrine”. It also follows that the State is our authority for devising and implementing the measures necessary to enforce the moral law most effectively for the good of the commonwealth, as well as the many other measures which will be needed to secure and advance the common good of all under its jurisdiction.

Mirus said that the proper relationship between Church and State in the governance of the human community is that the Church “must determine the moral ends of natural government and the moral means by which natural governments may justly rule. The State, on the other hand, must govern prudentially within the framework provided by this absolute moral understanding.”

Left-wing against Barr’s award

The live-streamed event, in which President Trump and Bishop Robert Barron also spoke, was watched online by thousands, but not all Catholics were enthused about Barr being honored with the Christifideles Laici Award.

“I am horrified that they are giving an award to Attorney General Barr who had reinstituted executions of people on death row, which is shocking and counter to Catholic social teaching. It is abundantly clear, 'thou shalt not kill', and he is doing that and he is being given an award,” Sister Simone Campbell, leader of the left-wing “Nuns on the Bus,” told Newsweek.

“I raise my voice in fervent opposition to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast's scandalous offer of an award to Attorney General Barr for his 'exemplary Christlike' behavior,” said Sister Helen Prejean in a Tweet. “I urge the group to immediately rescind their invitation, and I urge anyone reading this to join me.”

Stephen Schneck of the Franciscan Action Network went so far as to suggest that because of Barr being honored today, “The National CATHOLIC Prayer Breakfast needs to change its name."  Schneck is a former Obama White House appointee and a board member of the USCCB’s Catholic Climate Covenant, an organization that asserts, “Catholics do care about climate change.”

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Text of the major portion of Attorney General William Barr’s remarks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, delivered on September 23, 2020:

This is a challenging time for many Americans, but times of trial have a way of reminding us how much we have to be grateful for.  As people of faith, we take comfort in the knowledge that God has a purpose and a plan, and as citizens we gain strength from the knowledge that our forebears confronted and overcame even greater tests.

In coming together for the strength and health of our country, we carry on a tradition that goes back to the beginning of the republic.  During the summer of 1783, General George Washington gave his first major address following the Revolutionary War, a war the young nation nearly lost. 

He delivered a famous prayer that continues to be read aloud every day at Mount Vernon.  He asked God not only to protect the nation from external threats, but to maintain the character of its citizens.  As he put it:  

To dispose all to do justice, to love mercy, and to comport ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the divine author of our blessed religion, and without which, we can never hope to be a happy nation.   

As Washington and his fellow founders understood, religion is at the heart of the American experiment in self-government.  In his farewell address, Washington said:  

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.  

What he meant was that self-government begins with self-restraint, and there is no greater teacher of restraint than religion. 

That is why John Adams declared that our Constitution, which recently celebrated its 233 birthday, was made only for a moral and religious people.  

As Fr. John Courtney Murray later put it, the American idea is not that free government is inevitable, only that it is possible, and that its possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral order.  

That crucial link between religion and liberty, so well understood at the founding, is all too often forgotten today.

In American public discourse, perhaps no concept is more misunderstood than the notion of separation of church and state.  

Militant secularists have long seized on that slogan as a facile justification, attempting to drive religion from the public square, and to exclude religious people from bringing a religious perspective to bear on conversations about the common good. 

Yet as events like this remind us, ‘separation of church and state’ does not mean, and never did mean, separation of religion and civics.  

As late as 1952, Justice William O. Douglas would write for a majority of the Supreme Court that we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a supreme being.  

Alexis de Tocqueville, the keenest observer of the early American republic, praised America’s separation of church and state while extolling America’s union of the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty as the key to its success. 

Tocqueville identified religion as perhaps the greatest bulwark against the descent into tyranny.  

How does religion preserve liberty?  In the first place, as our founders recognized, religion assists in the formation of virtuous citizens who are prepared to exercise liberty responsibly, whereas in democratic times, individuals have a tendency to withdraw from public life and  pursue private self-gratification.  

Religion builds community, strengthens social cohesion, and turns our attention to the common good.  At the same time, religion safeguards individual rights by warding off what Tocqueville calls the ‘impious maxim,’ that everything is permitted in the interest of society.

For all these reasons, Tocqueville referred to American’s religion as the first of their political institutions.  

Unfortunately in the last half-century, that foundation of our free society has been increasingly under siege. Traditional morality has eroded, and secularists have often succeeded, not only in eliminating religion from schools and the public square, but in replacing it with a new orthodoxy that is actively hostile to religion. 

The consequences of this hollowing out of religion have been predictably dire. 

Over the past fifty years, we have seen striking increases in urban violence, drug abuse, and broken families.  Problems like these have fed the rise of an ever more powerful central government, one that increasingly saps individual initiatives, co-ops civil society, crowds out religious institutions, and ultimately reduces citizens to wards of the state. 

As patriotic Americans and people of faith, we cannot be complacent about these trends.  Yet nor should we give in to despair.

More recently, thanks in part to organizations like this one, we have seen some small but significant steps toward the restoration of religion to its rightful place in American public life.

Some notable advances which admittedly are of particular interest to me, have come in the legal arena.  They’re the results of decades of hard work, advocating for sound jurisprudential philosophies, and appointing principled judges to state and federal courts.  

The most recent term of the Supreme Court, for example, saw three important victories for religious liberty.  In each of these cases, the Department of Justice filed briefs supporting the free exercise of religion.  

In one case, the court reaffirmed the principle that the government can not discriminate against religion in general funding programs, and struck down a provision of the Montana Constitution that had been interpreted to exclude religious schools from a scholarship program for underprivileged students.  

In another case, the Court held that the First Amendment prohibits courts from intervening in employment disputes involving teachers at religious schools who are entrusted with the responsibility of instructing their students in the faith. 

In the third case, the Court considered a regulatory mandate requiring employers to provide contraceptive coverage for employees and upheld the Administration’s rules exempting the nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other employers with moral and religious objections.  

In a sense, it is dispiriting that the disputes in these cases ever arose.  In each case, the religious litigants were not asking for anything more than the basic freedom to exercise their faith.  

Nevertheless, the recognition of those rights by courts is encouraging, and all involved —from the litigants and lawyers, to those who pray for the wisdom of judges— can take solace in having achieved a just result.  

Advocating for religious liberty is just one way that lay Catholics and others can answer the call to serve.  

In his exhortation Christifideles Laici, for which the award I have the honor of accepting today is named, Saint John Paul II noted that the lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation in public life. 

At the same time he emphasized that faith is first and foremost about how we live our daily lives, for the daily life itself of a truly Christian family, makes up the first experience of the Church.  

Whatever our vocation in life, it is never too late to work in the Lord’s vineyard.  Our spiritual renewal and the renewal of our national character depend on it. 

God bless you all, and God bless America.

LifeSite’s Pete Baklinski contributed to this report


  catholic, national catholic prayer breakfast, religious liberty, secularism, separation of church and state, william barr

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