Donald Trump and Bill Barr Are Setting a Religious War Trap

An attempt to deflect attention from the impeachment inquiry by goading the base.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on Friday in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on Friday in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

In a speech at Notre Dame Law School on Friday, Attorney General William Barr took a break from hassling Rupert Murdoch and running interference on the quickly widening impeachment inquiry into the president to remind this Christian-majority nation that they are the victims of “secularists” and “so-called progressives” and their “campaign to destroy the traditional moral order.”

This was not a call for a collective reckoning about morality. It was, instead, an attack on anyone who exists outside of what he called “Judeo-Christian” values. “This is not decay,” Barr clarified. “It is organized destruction. Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives,’ have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.”

You may be forgiven for hearing, in Barr’s assault on “progressives” with their unholy control over “mass communications” and “the entertainment industry” and “academia,” the kind of dog whistle that is now audible to not-dogs. You could also be forgiven for noting, as Pema Levy did, that Barr himself actually profited off both the cursed mass communications and entertainment industries before he turned against them. As Levy explains, Barr “served as general counsel at Verizon for eight years, held a paid position on the board of Time Warner for nine, and represented telecoms giant GTE in the 1990s.”

After details of the speech, which was a closed-door event, got out, progressives objected to Barr’s embrace of a broad American theocracy and willingness to blame American ills on the fact that “public agencies—including public schools—are becoming secularized.” In asserting that it’s progressivism, atheism, and secularism to blame for “the wreckage of the family … record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence and a deadly drug epidemic,” the nation’s top law enforcement officer was blaming non–Judeo-Christian Americans for social trends for which they are not to blame and also are not even true. Unsurprisingly, his defenders took the wrong lesson from all this. Barr deftly positioned himself as a religious hero performing religious heroism yet again. William McGurn at the Wall Street Journal jumped to blame “the left” and “leftists” for overreacting to Barr’s temperate views:

Even those who strongly disagree with Mr. Barr ought to have found this an invitation for thoughtful and vigorous debate. But rather than engage, some imply there is something unseemly about an attorney general’s even speaking at a Catholic university. Given the hostility that holding such a conversation engenders on campuses today, perhaps America can count itself fortunate it still has a university where this can happen.

See what he did there? In objecting to the attorney general deriding Americans who are not of his religion, “leftists” are attacking Notre Dame and free speech and also campus freedom. The nonreligious hate us, see, and the proof lies in the fact that when the attorney general says they are intentionally destroying American institutions, the nonreligious disagree.

But Barr was only one of three religious warriors with things to say this past weekend. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a similarly sectarian speech Friday at the American Association of Christian Counselors’ World Conference in Tennessee. Pompeo’s remarks, entitled “On Being a Christian Leader” came with a warning that if non-Christians were to object to his comments, it must mean they cannot tolerate a reasonable debate (see McGurn, above). “I know some people in the media will break out the pitchforks when they hear that I ask God for direction in my work,” Pompeo said. The State Department home page devoted Monday to promoting his speech under the banner “Being a Christian Leader.” The speech was moved off the home page Monday night, ostensibly in response to outrage, but the point had been made. The haters had, in objecting to the State Department’s unitary religiosity, shut down Christian speech again.

Not to be outdone, President Donald Trump himself spoke Saturday at the Value Voters Summit, where he managed to make Barr’s comments sound rather temperate: “On every front, the ultra-left is waging war on the values shared by everyone in this room,” he said. “They are trying to silence and punish the speech of Christians and religious believers of all faiths. You know it better than anyone. They are trying to use the courts to rewrite the laws, undermine democracy and force through an agenda they can’t pass at the ballot box.” In case it wasn’t clear what the secularists were up to, he further explained, “They are trying to hound you from the workplace, expel you from the public square, and weaken the American family, and indoctrinate our children. They resent and disdain faithful Americans who hold fast to our nation’s historic values, and if given the chance, they would use every instrument of government power, including the IRS, to try to shut you down.”

Paul Krugman was not wrong to observe that there was a reason these three people, all at the epicenter of a sprawling national scandal over a shadowy foreign policy dedicated to boosting Trump’s 2020 electoral fortunes, might choose this as their path of deflection:

This outburst of God-talk is surely a response to the way the walls are closing in on Trump, the high likelihood that he will be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. Trump’s response to his predicament has been to ramp up the ugliness in an effort to rally his base. The racism has gotten even more explicit, the paranoia about the deep state more extreme. But who makes up Trump’s base? The usual answer is working-class whites, but a deeper dive into the data suggests that it’s more specific: It’s really evangelical working-class whites who are staying with Trump despite growing evidence of his malfeasance and unsuitability for high office.

In Krugman’s view, this comes down to the “the efforts of Trump’s henchmen to use the specter of secularism to distract people from their boss’s sins.”

Distraction is a partial answer, and the three-for-one makes more sense if you consider that Barr, Pompeo, and Trump each took a slightly different tack while still generally taking a wrecking ball to any notion of church/state separation.

None of this is a distraction and it isn’t a mere attempt to goose the white evangelical base, either. It’s working to push a narrative about civil war, holy war, and religious war that pits Americans against Americans; a narrative the president is quick to deploy and quicker to exploit. As Charlie Warzel put it, Trump threatens civil war because “for liberals, it is a warning: Don’t push churchgoing, gun-loving conservatives too far, or there’ll be dangerous consequences.” It’s why Dallas megachurch the Rev. Robert Jeffress recently said on Fox News: “I do want to make this prediction this morning: If the Democrats are successful in removing the president from office, I’m afraid it will cause a Civil War–like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”

Jeffress is not expressing a real fear—this is not something he’s actually afraid of happening, it is a warning of the power he wields. But the way speakers who purport to be faith leaders have floated and retreated from this idea has made it impossible to refute: Any objection is read as an act of goading them into the toxic positions they’ve already expressed. This reveals a rhetorical circle: Criticize those insisting America is a religious state, and you will bring holy war down on yourself. Progressives aren’t supposed to take Barr’s threats about the blanket immorality of secular Americans, or the State Department’s triumphal Christian website, or Trump’s latest rantings about the war on religion seriously, because if progressives respond seriously, progressives hate religion.

That the “religious” argument is also devoid of anything that resembles, well, religion is a footnote. Barr talks about an absence of religious morality in the midst of the most immoral administration in modern history. In Barr, Pompeo, and Trump’s roll call, they define morality in terms that make no space for leaving Kurdish allies to die or demonizing Somali immigrants in Minnesota. Their cry of faith is not for anything so much as it is against anything that is not-them: liberalism, secularism, and progressivism, in all their flavors. Their target audience seems perfectly and disturbingly fine with this zero-sum brand of religiosity and implied threats, violence and all, which is why they keep pressing it. And the rest of us have figured out no effective way to counter it. Turn the other cheek at your own peril. Pay attention, and you are adding fuel to the spiritual war.