Thoughts on Attorney General William Barr’s Notre Dame Speech

I find myself in agreement with a lot of Barr’s speech. Watch and decide for yourself:

Here are a few quick thoughts:

  1. Barr is correct about the founding father’s view of the relationship between religion and the American republic.  They did believe that was religion was essential for a healthy republic.  In the 18th century, Christianity was for the most part the only game in town, but I would argue that many of the founders had the foresight to imagine non-Christian religious people contributing to the good of the republic as well.  Barr fails to think about how the founders’ vision on this front applies to a post-1965 Immigration Act society.  Granted, he is speaking at Notre Dame, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  2. It is unclear whether Barr is saying that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only way of sustaining a moral republic, or just one way of sustaining a moral republic.  I would guess that he means the former, not the latter.  As a Christian, I do believe that the teachings of Christianity can be an important source of morality in a republic. As a historian I know that Christianity has been an important source of morality in the ever-evolving American experience.  (See the Civil Rights Movement for example).  And as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, when misapplied Christianity has led to some of our history’s darkest moments, including the election of Barr’s boss.  😉
  3. All of Barr’s examples of how religious liberty is threatened in America today are Christian examples.  How does he think about religious liberty for other groups?  And if Barr is correct when he says that “secularism” is a form of religion, then how are we defending the religious liberty of those who adhere to it?
  4. Barr is right when he says that the state is getting too involved in trying to regulate Christian schools and institutions.  This is indeed a religious liberty issue. I wrote a a bit about this in my posts on Beto O’Rourke’s recent remarks on tax-exempt status for churches and other religious institutions.
  5. I agree strongly with Barr about voluntary societies and their contribution to a thriving republic.  But I wondered why Barr ended his speech by saying that he will use the power of the Department of State to enforce his moral agenda for the nation.  Barr is against churches turning to the government for help in the funding of soup kitchens, but he has no problem turning to the government for help in executing his own religious agenda.
  6. Similarly, Barr seems to be speaking here not as a public or moral philosopher, but as the Attorney General of the United States of America.   How should we understand his particular vision for America–an agenda that does not seem to include anyone who is outside of the Judeo-Christian faith as Barr understands it? How does his vision apply to those who do not share the same beliefs about public schools, marriage, religion, abortion or the role of the state? How do we reconcile his speech at Notre Dame with his responsibility to defend the law for all Americans?
  7. Barr says that Judeo-Christian morality no longer has the kind of cultural power in American society that it once did.  I think he is mostly right here.  For some this may be a good thing.  For others it may be a bad thing.  But is it possible to prove that this decline in the cultural power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America has led to a rise in illegitimate births, depression and mental illness, suicide rates, anger in young males, increased drug use and general “suffering and misery?” On this point Barr sounds like David Barton, the GOP activist who irresponsibly invokes the American past to win political battles in the present.  (BTW, Barton adds lower SAT scores to Barr’s list).  By the way, abortions have been declining.  How does Barr fit this fact into his narrative of decline.
  8. I have never bought the “look what they are teaching our kids in public schools” argument that Barr makes here.  Both of my kids went to public schools and they were exposed to a lot of ideas that contradict our faith.  (By the way, in addition to the usual suspects that evangelicals complain about, I would add an unhealthy pursuit of the American Dream that understands happiness in terms of personal ambition, social climbing, a lack of limits, and endless consumerism to the anti-Christian values my kids learn in public schools).  At the end of his talk, Barr calls on families to pass their faith along to their children. He calls on churches to educate young men and women in the moral teachings of the faith.  If we are committed to doing this well, what do we have to fear about public schools?  Some of the best conversations I have ever had with my daughters revolved around the things they were exposed to in public schools that did not conform to the teachings of our Christian faith. These were opportunities to educate them in our Christian beliefs. (I realize, of course, that there will be people who will have honest differences with me here).
  9.  Barr says that real education is something more than just job training.  Amen!
  10.  Finally, this quote from Barr’s talk is rich coming from Donald Trump’s Attorney General: “[The Founders] never thought that the main danger to the republic would come from external foes.  The central question was whether over the long haul ‘we the people’ could handle freedom.  The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.  By and large the founding generations understanding of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition. These practical statesman understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good also had the capacity for great evil.  Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites and if unrestrained are capable of riding ruthlessly roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.  No society can exist without some means of restraining individual rapacity.”  I think the House of Representatives (or at least the Democrats within it, seem to understand this better than most right now).

What I Learned from Viewing 37 Immigration Maps

1903 Map

Back in February 2017, VOX published a series of maps under the title “37 Maps that explain how America is a nation of immigrants.”  I recently spent some time with these maps and here is what I learned (or was reminded of):

  • Native Americans were immigrants
  • The United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world, but Luxemborg and Israel have more immigrants per capita.
  • Prior to 1965, Germany sent the most immigrants to the United States.  After 1965, Mexico sent the most immigrants to the United States.
  • The most concentrated immigrant enclaves: French in southern Louisiana, Germans in the Dakotas, Norwegians in North Dakota, Dutch in western Michigan and northwest Iowa, West Indians in Manhattan, and French Canadians in North Dakota.
  • Slaves came to America from Africa, the West Indies, and South America by the hundreds of thousands as forced immigrants.
  • Over 17,000 migrants come to America a year as victims of human trafficking.
  • More immigrants to America speak English today than at any other point in American history
  • The grandchildren of Latino immigrants “barely speak Spanish.”
  • Immigrants are forestalling the decline of the Midwest
  • America was not a “global destination” until the 1965 Immigration Act
  • “Unauthorized immigration” was in a generally steady decline between 2000 and 2010.
  • The anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party candidate, Millard Fillmore, won the state of Maryland in the 1856 presidential election.
  • The U.S. “border zone” includes Bangor, Maine; Salem, Oregon; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Burlington, Vermont.

Look at the maps here and tell me what you take away from the exercise.

Let’s Be Careful About Our Use of “The New Colossus”

Ellis_Island_arrivalsAs I write this, I am listening to Chris Cuomo on CNN talking about immigration. Cuomo, of course, is the grandson of Italian immigrants.  He is criticizing Donald Trump’s RAISE Act for its proposal to cut legal immigration in half and limit Green Cards to people who speak English and are “highly skilled.”

Cuomo, and many other critics of the RAISE Act (including his CNN colleague Jim Acosta, who mixed it up on Wednesday with Trump adviser Stephen Miller), like to quote the words of the Emma Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus.”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The Lazarus poem certainly reflects the founding ideals of the United States of America. The United States has long been an “asylum for mankind.”  This country, when it is at its best, has taken-in the “tired,” the “poor,” and the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Like Cuomo, I would not be here today if this was not the case.  Like Cuomo (and Stephen Miller and possibly Trump himself), I would not be in this country if the RAISE Act was in place at the turn of the 20th century when my unskilled, non-English-speaking Italian and Slovakian ancestors arrived.

But if we address this issue historically, it is fair to say that I probably would not be here either if my grandparents tried to migrate between 1930s and 1960s.

For example, the 1924 Immigration Act (Johnson-Reed Act) was an isolationist measure to limit immigration from certain ethnic groups, including Italians, Jews, and other Southern and Eastern Europeans.  It also restricted most Africans and banned Middle Eastern and Asian immigration completely.  These restrictions were lifted by the Immigration Act of 1965 (Hart-Cellar Act).

And then there was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.  This act barred the entry of Chinese laborers to the United States.

And let’s not pretend that most “native” Americans were happy about all these immigrants coming into the country.  Every great wave of American immigration coincided with nativist resistance and attempts at restriction.

In the end, “The New Colossus” appeals to our better selves.  But let’s be careful before we say that its message has been applied consistently in the long history of American immigration.