Nothing instills confidence in our constitutional government better than a government servant who can ably explain the principles of the government that he serves. U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr stands out as such a servant.
He is an able teacher with a deep understanding of the philosophical foundations that undergird American institutions. The most recent example of this was his Feb. 26 speech given to the convention of National Religious Broadcasters, gathered in Nashville. It is rich in wisdom and worth your while to read or listen to the whole address.
Barr began with the observation that politics is pervasive. It encroaches on, and then dominates, every aspect of our lives together. Not only the state house and city hall, but the school board, the grocery store, social media and sports have all become politicized. Even the weather — the last safe topic to talk about with political opponents — has been drawn into the angry narrative.
Why is that? Barr answers that the politicization of everything is the result of a movement he calls “totalitarian democracy.” In contrast with the “liberal democracy” envisioned by America’s founders, “totalitarian democracy … seeks to submerge the individual in a collectivist agenda.”
“Under our system of liberal democracy,” Barr said, “the role of government is not to forcibly remake man and society. The government has the far more modest purpose of preserving the proper balance of personal freedom and order necessary for a healthy civil society to develop and individual humans to flourish.”
Totalitarian democracy, on the other hand, “is based on the idea that man is naturally good, but has been corrupted by existing societal customs, conventions, and institutions.” It seeks to tear down all existing institutions and remake both man and society into something unnatural.
“Although totalitarian democracy is democratic in form,” Barr explains, “it requires an all-knowing elite to guide the masses toward their determined end, and that elite relies on whipping up mass enthusiasm to preserve its power and achieve its goals.” This creates two ills that poison public life today.
First, where liberal democracy enjoys a wide variety of formal and informal communities: churches, families, neighborhoods, etc., “totalitarian democracy recognizes only one plane of existence, the political.” Every mediating institution is politicized. As the dictator Mussolini put it, “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
Second, every person’s virtue “is defined by whether they are aligned with the program.” As a result, “the most militant agents for change are entirely comfortable demonizing their opponents and are all too ready to destroy those opponents in any way they can.”
This explains why so many good people are searching in vain for a place of innocence, outside of the political realm. No one is safe to think and speak without the pervasive fear of being villainized by the thought police. Totalitarian democracy has made tremendous and destructive inroads into American life. That’s the bleak truth.
But Barr does not leave us in this sad diagnosis. He next discusses the “three bulwarks” capable of defending our communities against this totalitarian impulse. These are: the freedom of religion, decentralized power, and a free press.
Religion is vital in the fight against totalitarian democracy. As John Adams put it: “We have no government armed with the power which is capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” The religious principle helps in three ways.
“In the first place,” says Barr, “it allows us to limit the role of government by cultivating internal moral values.” There is no power on earth that is capable of restraining human evil. No society of cowards, thieves, adulterers, murderers and slanderers can ever survive. Even the most detailed legislation and the most powerful police force cannot prop up such a people.
By recognizing that good and evil transcend government, religion places governmental power “under God.” Unless the majority recognize that there exist moral limits on their power, a democracy is unsafe for democracy.
In the second place, religion calms the rage of political disputes by cultivating humility. Pride believes that all evil is “out there” in the “system” and in political opponents. Humility sees the truth. It teaches, with 20th century sage Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Religion, says Barr, teaches “that the right way to transform the world is for each of us to focus on morally transforming ourselves.”
Finally, religion constantly reminds us that our part in world history is a drop in the bucket compared to the eternity of heaven. “Remember, Man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” This prevents politics from becoming the be-all and end-all of human existence.
For these three reasons, Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote in 1798: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without it there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”
Decentralized power is the second bulwark against totalitarian democracy. “The framers believed in the principle of subsidiarity,” said Barr, namely, “that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest competent authority that was closest to the people.”
Subsidiarity makes federalism more than just a localized exercise of a centralized power. It brings real power — to make, enforce and judge laws — to the local level. Such federalism means that citizens live under multiple sovereigns (state, federal, county, municipal).
Just as religion teaches that there are two kingdoms, the temporal and the eternal, and that all humankind is answerable to both, so also citizens of a federal government are involved in multiple jurisdictions simultaneously. These are distinct and must not encroach on one another’s powers.
One of the greatest causes of “our current acrimonious politics,” says Barr, is that the powers of local government have been stolen by ever-more-distant bureaucracies. Powers “imposed from outside by a remote central government … further undercut a sense of community and give rise to alienation.”
The revitalization of constitutional government requires principled and tireless local officials who will fight every attempt to move government power up the chain. School boards must jealously guard their authority to set policy and curriculum. City councils must oppose state schemes to tax their citizens and give the money back with strings attached. And states must roar whenever the federal government does the same.
Finally, Barr turned his attention to the free press. As decentralized government is needed because government has no corner on the truth, so also a free press is necessary because “the press” is not ordained to the high priesthood of truth.
Reporters are just as likely to be deceived as anyone. Therefore, a free society doesn’t need a monolithic press corps controlled by media conglomerates. Rather, it needs in every town independent, critical newspapers. That is the true diversity that can keep a people free.
All three of these institutions, religion, decentralized government and a free press, grow out of one common understanding. The evil that threatens society is found in the heart of every man. Therefore, a just and free society is built on self-control and on institutions designed to frustrate those who will not exercise it.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.