The decade's most triggering comedy
Former Attorney General William Barr issued a stark warning during a recent speech about what is happening inside of America’s public education system and how Americans can take action to stop it.
Barr made the remarks while speaking at the Alliance Defending Freedom’s annual Edwin Meese III Award for Originalism and Religious Liberty.
Barr warned that the “increasingly militant and extreme secular-progressive climate in our state-run educational system” was the “greatest threat to religious liberty in America” and that too many people are only looking at the problem in relation to what it means for national unity and not what it means for long-term religious liberty in America.
Barr gave the following two examples of the types of things happening inside America’s public education system:
Other top lines from Barr’s speech:
WILLIAM BARR, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: This morning I want to take a few moments and talk about what I think is the greatest threat to religious liberty in America today and that’s the increasingly militant and extreme secular-progressive climate in our state-run educational system.
Over the past 12 months, there’s been a great deal of discussion about the radical ideology being promoted in our schools, and what it means for national unity. Much less has been said on the issue of what it means, what the long term consequences are for religious freedom.
This indoctrination in my mind is the greatest threat that religious liberty faces today. We’re rapidly approaching the point—if we have not already reached the point—at which the heavy-handed enforcement of secular-progressive orthodoxy through government-run schools is totally incompatible with traditional Christianity and other major religious traditions in our country. In light of this development, I think we have to confront the reality that it may no longer be fair, practical, or even Constitutional to provide publicly-funded education solely through the vehicle of state-operated schools.
Let me begin with an observation about the purpose and nature of education. Throughout Western history, the two have really been inseparable. Education and religion were combined, they were integral to one another. Education started off as a religious project. They’re inherently bound together and I think the whole idea of being able to separate them is actually a fallacy because education is more than just balancing your checkbook or vocational training, it’s really about at the end of the day, it’s really about the big questions. It’s about, is there truth? How do we know the truth? Why am I here? What is it to live a good life? Are there things that I have duty to do or not have a duty to do? These are the questions that every human being has and education really cannot be given without addressing or touching upon these issues.
So the idea that you could hermetically seal off education from religion is a relatively novel idea. And I think the experience of the past half century has refuted it quite spectacularly. The fact is, we’ve been able up until recently to finesse the problem, because in fact, the United States was relatively culturally homogeneous and committed to traditional Judeo Christian values in the general sense, and so we were able to finesse this issue. I see the approach to public schooling and the relationship it has to religion as having proceeded through three distinct phases. The early advocates of public education back in the 1830s and 1840s, Horace Mann in the common school movement up in Massachusetts, they saw public schools as performing two missions. One inculcating a sense of common identity, of common civic and cultural bonds, of forging v. Unum out of Pluribus. That was one mission. But the mission that interests me today is their second one, which was the moral formation of our citizens and building a moral character.
And in the first phase, the advocates of public school agreed that religion was integral to education. Their position was you cannot separate moral education from religion. And so they explicitly incorporated religion into schools. They did so through an anodyne form of Christianity, which was composed of all the sort of core or key documents of the various Protestant denominations. And they subtracted out the ones that there was sharp disagreement over. So you sort of got to the, the common denominator of general Christianity sometimes referred to as pan Protestantism was the religious focus of the public school system. And the view was you should teach religion that’s common to all, at least common to all Christians. And that was the system in the United States and all of us know that Catholics and Jews set up their own school system precisely because they didn’t like the religious approach being taken in public schools. So there you have it for over 100 years, the tension between religion and public schooling was resolved because there was explicit recognition that religion had to be included. The second phase came in the latter part of the 20th century. And this is when the left embarked on a relentless campaign of secularization intent on driving every vestigial of religion from the public square.
Public schools quickly became the central battleground for this effort. So this was where the idea arose, where that you could actually isolate education from religion. And the idea was that you would completely secularize education by stripping away the vestiges of religion or a religious belief system. So it was secularization by subtraction. That was the second phase. And despite the the effort to forcibly secularize schools, they still had this vague notion that school should be about moral instruction as well. And the framing of character. But the rich Judeo Christian tradition was replaced by sort of trite, talk about liberal values like, you know, be a good person and, you know, be caring of others. But there were no underpinnings for these values. What passed for morality had no metaphysical foundation. It’s very hard to teach someone they ought to do something, unless you’re able to explain to them why they ought to do something. So values and public school during this second phase were really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity. And it was a vain attempt to have familiar sounding ethics and morals but without God. But when you take away religion, when you strip away religion, you’re left with a moral vacuum.
And that leads us to phase three, because things were sort of benign, up until recently, relatively benign, compared to what we’re seeing around us today. We no longer see secularization by subtraction. We’re now seeing an affirmative indoctrination with a secular belief system and worldview, that is a substitute for religion, and is antithetical to the beliefs and values of traditional God centered religion. In other words, purging schools of any trace of religion created a vacuum and we are now seeing a substitute system, an explanatory system as a substitute being affirmatively interjected into public education, and it is subversive of the religious worldview. Now, in many places, in our country, the state of our public schools is becoming an absurdity that is scarcely to be believed. While an astonishing number of public schools fail to produce students proficient in basic reading and math, they spare no effort or expense in their drive to instill a radical secular belief system that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Consider this one example. Earlier this year an Iowa Public School District, Iowa, taught transgenderism and homosexuality to students at all grade levels, including preschool as part of the Black Lives Matter at school week of action program. The school district distributed children’s coloring book that teaches on a page, I saw it, it says, everyone gets to choose if they are a girl, or a boy, or both, or neither, or someone else, and no one else gets to choose for them. Now, one thing we know, this is not established science, it is a moral, psychological, and metaphysical dogma of the new progressive orthodoxy. In fact, until recently, virtually no one in America had heard of these radical notions. Yet now they are thoroughly institutionalized in many public schools, and in some states, students are permitted to select new genders without the consent of their parents.
Now, this is not a matter of isolated ideas sort of occasionally popping up in such a discreet and fleeting way that they sort of don’t do much harm. What is taking shape is a full blown, may I say, systemic subversion of the religious viewpoint. While the secularists may view each lesson such as transsexualism as a discrete subject, these lessons embodied broader ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the religious worldview. Telling children that they get to choose their gender and no one else has anything to say about it doesn’t just contradict particular religious teachings on gender and the authority of parents. It is a broadside attack on the very idea of natural law, which is integral to the moral doctrines of a number of traditional religions. Now, as of this school year, about 1/5 of Americans live in states that mandate LGBTQ curriculum in public schools. In the absence of a statewide mandate, curriculum are frequently adopted in particular school districts. These new laws often prohibit opt outs for parents. In Orange County, California, for example, the Board of Education issued an opinion that, quote, ‘parents who disagree with the instructional materials related to gender, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, may not excuse their children from this instruction.’ But this only really scratches the surface. This gender and sexuality agenda only scratches the surface of the kinds of things being taught in public school these days.
In recent years, across the country, we’ve seen this rush to embrace critical race theory. Now critical race theory is nothing more than the materialist philosophy of Marxism, substituting racial antagonism for class antagonism, that’s all it is. It posits all the same things as traditional Marxism, that there are meta-historical forces at work, that social pathologies are the result of societal conventions and power structures that have to be torn down. That conflict between the oppressed and the oppressors provides the dynamic and progressive movement in history, and that the individual morality to the extent there is such a thing in a materialist philosophy, is determined by where one fits in with these [historical forces]. And since it’s very inception, Marxism I’m talking about, just about everyone from the Catholic Church on down, I don’t mean to really suggested direction down from the Catholic Church, but from the Catholic Church on down, has observed that traditional Marxism is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. It posits a view of man and man’s relationship to society and to other individuals that is just antithetical to the Christian viewpoint. Now, it seems to me that for the government to get into the business through public school indoctrination of students and secular belief systems that are directly contrary to religion of the students, the beliefs for the students, and the families raises fundamental constitutional problems. It certainly raises a free exercise problem. As the Supreme Court has recognized, there’s nothing more fundamental as a part of religious liberty and a part of our basic liberties, than the right of parents to pass along religion to their children, and it’s monstrous, for the state to interfere with that by indoctrinating students into altered alternative belief systems. So it seems to me that if a school is going to propose to teach a child that they get the pick their gender, and no one else has anything to say about it, that’s infringing on the free exercise of religion.
I also think we’ve reached the point where the establishment clause is implicated. When we’re no longer talking about stripping religion out of the school curriculum and now talking about indoctrination into an affirmative belief system, a new credo, resting on materialist metaphysics, and substituting for religion, then the question is whether this involves the establishment of religion. I’m not the first to observe that the tenants of progressive orthodoxy have become a form of religion, with all the trappings and hallmarks of a religion. It has its notion of original sin, of salvation, it has its clergy, it has its penance, it has its dogmas, its sensitivity, that whiff of any heresy, and even the burning at the stake. So far only metaphorically. The decades long secular project has ended up by proving the truth of the late writer David Foster Wallace when he said, ‘There’s actually no such thing as atheism. There’s no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.’ Indeed, secular progressivism has already recognized, it has already been recognized as a religion in the courts, when it suits the secularists. So when non-believers saw a conscientious-objector status during World War II, the second circuit construed the phrase ‘religious training or belief’ to include that anything that is ‘equivalent to what has been thought a religion or thought a religious impulse.’ The Supreme Court followed suit in a similar case during the Vietnam War. Instead of a belief system in the Supreme Being, as the relevant statute required, the Supreme Court held that the objector to military service need only demonstrate a belief that is sincere and meaningful, and occupies a place in the life of its possessor, parallel to the that filled by traditional religion. So in other cases, implicating the free exercise, the court referred in passing to secular humanism, Buddhism and Taoism as examples.
But while secularism has been afforded the protection of the religious clauses, it has generally not been the subject or subject to the prohibitions in the Constitution. And this creates an often overlooked constitutional double standard, particularly when it comes to education. The courts, in fact, have foreseen the potential for secularism itself, becoming an established state religion, and one of the first cases, abolishing school prayer, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the state may not establish a religion of secularism, in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion. Thus preferring those who believe in no religion over those who believe. It’s time to consider whether our public schools as currently constituted are doing exactly that. If secular, progressivism indeed occupies the same place as religion, and by all appearances it does, then how is it constitutional to have state run schools fervently devoted to teaching little else? And how on earth can these institutions be allowed to use the state to punish traditional religious doctrines as hate speech? The current posture of public schools raises another question. Other than providing public funding for basic education, the other purpose of it was to effectuate the melting pot, to instill a sense of common identity to promote a solidarity among students as Americans. But now the schools have taken the opposite mission of separating us, of teaching unbridgeable differences, of dividing us into many different identities destined to be antagonistic. If that’s the purpose of education now, to separate us from each other, to drive us apart, then why shouldn’t we have diverse school system?
The time has come to admit that the approach of giving militantly secularist government school a monopoly over publicly funded education has become a disaster, it is deformed. It has deformed and impoverished the very nature of the educational enterprise, first by purging it of any moral or spiritual dimension, and then by trying to substitute for religion, an irreconcilable rival value system. Parents wishing to opt out from the government secular progressive madrassas are subject to a harsh penalty in the form of private school tuition that most cannot afford. As a result, our public schools have inevitably become cockpits for a vicious winner take all culture war over the moral formation of the next generation. It doesn’t have to be this way. Public funding of education does not require that instruction must be delivered by means of government-operated schools. The alternative is to have public funds travel with each student, allowing the student and the parents to choose the store.
In this environment, vouchers may be the only workable and the only constitutional solution. And they would promote diversity in education. And the left talks about diversity, they are not for diversity, they’re for standardization. Diversity is freedom. Diversity is the ability to live your life and to hold views that may not be compatible with with the dominant cultures. It’s freedom. And we stand for diversity. And there’s nothing to fear from diversity. There’s nothing to fear from schools that parents set up for the education of their children. The other thing about it is it addresses I think, the real issue of systemic racism in our country, which is our public school system in the inner cities, where we’ve relegated inner city school children to these failing schools, depriving them of a future, depriving them of opportunity. That’s the system of systemic racism. So President Obama waltzes into Washington, President Obama waltzes into Washington, enrolls his two daughters in the most exclusive private school there, Sidwell Friends, and one of his earliest acts is the terminate a broadly supported and bipartisan program in the District of Columbia that provided scholarships to inner city kids to go to parochial school. So, confronting this issue, I think, is the most urgent task for people are concerned about religious liberty. Religious liberty is not safe in the United States as long as we have the kind of public school system we have, the forced monopoly and the indoctrination of children into these radical secular progressive orthodoxies. Thank you very much.