It’s not enough that Attorney General William Barr, whose office is supposed to be nominally independent of the president’s, is busy pursuing Donald Trump’s paranoid global and domestic grudges around the world. Barr is also finding time to denounce his own country. In a histrionic speech at Notre Dame Law School on Friday, he blamed “secularists” and “so-called progressives” for destroying society and precipitating the crises of family dissolution, crime, and drugs, while talking of a war between religious and nonreligious Americans. Scary shit.
“This is not decay,” Barr intoned darkly at Notre Dame. “This is organized destruction. Secularists and their allies have marshaled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.”
“Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground,” he continued. “Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence and the deadly drug epidemic.” He accused the government, with no evidence, of blocking the “passing on of the faith” from parents to their children, which he called a “monstrous invasion of religious liberty.”
According to Mother Jones, Barr’s extremist talk “shocked legal experts, who saw Barr’s defense of religious freedom as an assault on the First Amendment’s protection against the government’s establishment of any religion.” On Twitter, legal experts were horrified. As former government ethics lawyer Walter Schaub declaimed:
This is repugnant. I’m comfortable talking about faith in public, but he was invited to speak at a law school because he’s the Attorney general. His job is to defend the 1st Amendment. But this immoral, unpatriotic borderline monarchist and defender of corruption has other ideas.
But they shouldn’t have been surprised: The buttoned-down, establishment-seeming Barr is actually neck-deep in a web of extremist conservative Catholic institutions, and he has been for the last three decades.
Barr disclosed on a questionnaire submitted during his Senate confirmation process that he’s been an active leader of several far-right Catholic and Christian groups. As recently as 2017, he was on the board of directors of the DC-based Catholic Information Center, led by the ultraright and secretive group Opus Dei. He’s not alone in being tied to that center. Its board includes the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone is a former board member. “The small center—its members and its leaders—continue to have an outsize impact on policy and politics,” The Washington Post wrote this year.
Larry Kudlow is another fan of the center. Its longtime president, Father John McCloskey, converted Kudlow from Judaism when he was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. “I’d like to unleash him on Capitol Hill,” Kudlow told The Washington Times in 2001. “A few doses of Father McCloskey, and we’ll turn this country around. In some ways, the Catholic Church has fallen short in its evangelizing mission, and I think Father John is awakening that.” McCloskey also baptized modern ultraright stalwarts like former Kansas senator Sam Brownback and über–GOP fixer Newt Gingrich, whose wife is now the ambassador to the Vatican. (I kid you not.)
McCloskey left the center in 2003 after two credible allegations of abusing women who went to him for pastoral advice, and the center settled at least one of the complaints for almost a million dollars.
For 21 years, Barr was also on the board of the DC-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, perhaps best known in recent years as the firm behind the Hobby Lobby case that let corporations violate women’s rights by denying them coverage for contraception. For five years in the 2000s, he was also on the board of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative religious think tank that’s a touch more ecumenical, declaring itself sworn to Judeo-Christian values but always hewing to conservative politics.
And in the late 1990s, according to his Justice Department questionnaire, he was a “Supreme Board Member” of the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal order of Catholic men. Today, he describes himself as a mere member. Brienne of Tarth notwithstanding, women cannot join these knights; it is a patriarchal cosplay group (though I gather the costumes are rare lately) that goes back to the 1880s, doing admirable charity work, providing insurance and investment services I can’t vouch for, plus—what I know best, with a father and uncles and cousins who all belonged—a web of lodges that can be rented for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, or anniversary parties. And also patronized on Saturday nights. The K of C is a little backward, but it’s the least snooty of all Barr’s Catholic affiliations, so I almost give him credit for it. Almost.
Another reason no one should have been surprised to find Barr body-surfing the fever swamps of Catholic paranoia this past weekend is that he’s been here before. The venerable Constitution-backing group Americans United has been documenting his crazy Catholic-right pronouncements since at least the 1990s. In 1992, he told a Milwaukee-based governors’ conference on juvenile crime that a “moral lobotomy of public schools, based on extremist notions of separation of church and state,” was causing schools trouble. Six months later he told the wing nut Catholic League it was time to impose a “moral consensus” based on “natural law”—which conservative Catholic theologians believe means Catholic law.
In 1995—and this is maybe my favorite—he penned an essay in Catholic Lawyer in which he blamed secular America for “soaring juvenile crime, widespread drug addiction and skyrocketing venereal diseases.” Unfortunately, according to Americans United, it also featured a quote ostensibly from James Madison lauding the 10 Commandments that’s been repeatedly shown up as false, and a perverse horror story about the supposed problems of an unnamed California public school, likewise debunked by The New York Times.
All those anti-Trump establishment lawyers who stood up for Barr this year did so either knowing about all of this Catholic wing-nuttery or not caring enough to know. Meanwhile, he’s one of the four tent poles of modern conservatism, as I wrote last week, and it’s worth noting that Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were all also raised Catholic—but Pence and Pompeo went one better than Barr and joined the official GOP denomination, White Evangelical Protestantism (some of whose members believe Catholicism was established by Satan).
I couldn’t wish these guys better company to spend time with in hell. But I don’t (really) believe in hell, and they still run the country with Trump. Let’s hope Barr’s utter unfitness to head the Justice Department of a secular state becomes more clear in the weeks to come—and then we take down the rest of them, too.