Monday, December 30, 2019

Attorney General William Barr acting on behalf of (Judeo-)Christian Nationalism

Religious nationalism—be it Zionist (at least most of its forms, the exceptions being rather unpopular if not existing only on paper), Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, what have you—is extremely dangerous wherever it rears its hydra-headed individual and group pathologies, and thus not only, say, in Israel, Iran, India, Myanmar, or Poland, but in the U.S. as well. This is a regressive, anti-Liberal, and anti-democratic ideology that refuses to comes to grip with the values of institutional secularism and genuine political pluralism for democratic societies, while denying the fact that non-religious worldviews are perfectly capable of finding adherents who abide by moral principles and are capable of being as ethical—and sometimes far more ethical—than any avowed religious believer (as M.K. Gandhi well understood). This form of toxic nationalism is extremely simple-minded in its putative diagnosis of what ails contemporary societies, and its prescriptive phantasies, when not messianic or apocalyptic in intent, are messianic or apocalyptic by default, in any case, they envision an irrational, impossible, and purely regressive return to a world that never existed. 

From The New York Times (Dec. 29, 2019), “Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to HellAnd he’s on a mission to use the ‘authority’ of the executive branch to stop it. By Katherine Stewart and  

[….] “ … [A]t 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. 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. 

Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the ‘religious liberty’ rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke ‘religious freedom,’ it is typically code for religious privilege. 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.

This form of ‘religious liberty’ seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this ’religious liberty’ rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion. [….] 

This form of ‘religious liberty’ is not a mere side issue for Mr. Barr, or for the other religious nationalists who have come to dominate the Republican Party. Mr. Barr has made this clear. All the problems of modernity — ‘the wreckage of the family,’ ‘record levels of depression and mental illness,’ ‘drug addiction’ and ‘senseless violence’ — stem from the loss of a strict interpretation of the Christian religion.

The great evildoers in the Notre Dame speech are nonbelievers who are apparently out on the streets ransacking everything that is good and holy. The solutions to society’s ills, Mr. Barr declared, come from faith. ‘Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct,’ he said. ‘Religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.’ He added, ‘The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.’ 

Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyper-partisanship 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.

It is equally clear that Mr. Barr’s maximalist interpretation of executive power in the Constitution is just an effect, rather than a cause, of his ideological commitments. In fact, it isn’t really an interpretation. It is simply an unfounded assertion that the president has what amount to monarchical powers. [….] Mr. Barr’s constitutional interpretation is simply window dressing on his commitment to religious authoritarianism. And that, really, gets to the heart of the matter. If you know anything about America’s founders, you know they were passionately opposed to the idea of a religious monarchy. And this is the key to understanding the question, ‘What does Bill Barr want?’ 

The answer is that America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about ‘originalism’ and ‘judicial restraint’ — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices

Mr. Trump’s presidency was not the cause of this anti-democratic movement in American politics. It was the consequence. 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.” [….] The entire piece is here.


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