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The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Bill Barr Gives a Speech” – Prof. Hadley Arkes in The American Mind

JWI Founder & Director Hadley Arkes, in a piece for The American Mind titled, “Bill Barr Gives a Speech,” takes up the defense of Attorney General Bill Barr and his October 2019 speech at the Notre Dame Law School. Prof. Arkes responds to critics who mocked Barr’s address on religious liberty as one of the foundational aspects of the American regime. Prof. Arkes reinforces Barr’s argument that religious believers are under attack from a hostile secularism of the Left. Prof. Arkes notes that the Left, while claiming neutrality, is instead pushing to replace an understanding of the founding of the United States as based in a recognition of natural law with their own account of the founding in the ever-shifting tenets of contemporary progressivism persistently at odds with the religious. Finally, Prof. Arkes points out a further challenge of the Attorney General’s speech: to wake up conservatives from their hazy sleep of moral ambiguity. This moral uncertainty, committing only to tradition, has placed conservatives on uneven ground that remains open to attack from a morally charged and vigorously advancing Left. Instead, Prof. Arkes agrees with the path Barr outlines in offering coherent moral arguments rooted in natural law that can defend and nourish our legal and political culture.

A few excerpts from the piece:

“Thomas Jefferson, when he was President, would attend Christian services taking place in the Capitol itself, in the hall of the House of Representatives. And he would ask Congress to provide aid to the Kaskaskia Indians in order to support their Catholic priest. What Toobin offers as his authoritative account of the history of the American law and the jurisprudence of religion is but a fable, a retelling and falsification of history, to suit the current worldview of the Left. It bears on the historical record with the same accuracy as Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part I.”

“Even the libertarians who favor same-sex marriage have pointed out that there is no need to prosecute bakers or florists who decline to engage their arts in celebrating that form of marriage. For there are many other bakers and florists more than willing to have the business. What delivers the surprise to the libertarians is that the activists are driven by nothing less than the “logic of morals” itself—that what is rightful should be pursued and promoted, and what is wrongful should be avoided or even punished. The gay activists are powerfully driven to insist on the moral rightness of their position. Those who would deny it are clearly stamped as wrongdoers who should be condemned and punished… [T]he matter turns solely on our judgment on the rightness or wrongness of same-sex marriage.”

“Hence the challenge for Bill Barr. He has been enduring in making the case for the natural law, but now he finds the need to make that case ever more within the circles of his most committed friends, and with faculties in Catholic schools who now find that teaching too precious to take seriously. Bill Barr understood that his speech was part of his mission of recovering truths long fading from the public understanding. He knows that there has been a falling away from those truths even in the circles of conservatives. He knows that the task he had set for himself long ago has become ever harder.”

Read the complete piece here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790