Ya Got Trouble, My Friends

February 11, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Attorney General of the US, when he isn’t using his office to make sure Trump remains in power, tells us that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. In a speech at Notre Dame last year, he claimed that  “Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.”

He’s wrong, of course. Most of those measures show that things are getting better, though there are some troubling numbers (suicide, drug addiction and overdose).  Claude Fischer has the data  at his Made In America blog. He also looks at Barr’s explanation for the nonexistent downward trend — “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.” That trend too, says Fischer, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  We’re not losing our religion, and certainly not our religiousness; we’re losing our church affiliations.

Barr might also be wrong about the effects of religion or its absence. Fischer’s data seems to suggest that when it comes to social pathology, losing our religion might not be such a bad thing. States with higher levels of “religiosity” also tend to have higher levels of pathologies — things like violence and sexually transmitted disease. Even drug overdoses, historically the province of more urbanized and less religious states, have now become a big problem in the religious heartland.

(Click for a larger view.)

Of the variables in the graph, the one that stands out is Incarceration. Tell me what proportion of a state’s population is in jail, and I can make a very good guess as to how religious it is. But that doesn’t mean that religious states have more crime and criminals. It does mean that their laws and policies are more punitive. They favor harsh punishment for people who have broken the law. Not all laws and not all people, just those who by their actions and personal characteristics can be judged as outside the society — as not one of Us.

This preference for punishment is especially popular among fundamentalists and other religiously conservative Protestants. It is that same kind of fundamentalism that underlies Barr’s view of social problems. His speech reads like a sermon from a fire-and-brimstone revival preacher. (Barr’s actual delivery from the podium may have been different in style.) The odd thing is that Barr himself is a Catholic and he was speaking at Catholic university. This seeming contradiction puzzled Fischer too.

The speech sounds much more like one of the jeremiads Puritan ministers unleashed on their congregants centuries ago than it does like a Catholicism traditionally more tolerant of human failing. The underlying individualism in Barr’s account is also very Puritan Protestant. Social ills emerge from individual willfulness. The role of the community is to instill fear of God to check that willfulness

In this way, Barr is one more data point in a historical narrowing of differences between Protestants and Catholics. As Catholics became more similar to Protestant, as the social, economic, and geographic spaces they occupied grew more diverse, their views on social and political issues also became more varied. So it’s not surprising that in the 21st century we have a Catholic attorney general channeling Cotton Mather.*

* In the 1980s, another Catholic cabinet member, Education Secretary William Bennett, made similar noises. Like Prof. Harold Hill in “The Music Man” (and like Barr), Bennett told us, “Ya Got Trouble.” Hill blamed the pool table, Barr blamed secularism, and Bennett blamed the decline of virtue. That was convenient since he then went on to sell his Book of Virtues for parents to read to their kids just as Harold Hill sold trombones. Right now the only thing Barr seems to be selling is Donald Trump.

UPDATE: As I said in the fourth paragraph above, moralizers like Barr are especially fond of punishment when the offender is one of The Others. When the offender is One of Us, their sternness melts into compassion. Later in the day I wrote this, Mr. Barr’s justice department recommended a lighter sentence for Roger Stone, a friend of Trump, who had been convicted on a variety of charges. In doing so, DOJ was tearing up the recommendations of longer sentence from the prosecutors who worked on the case.

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