The New York Review of Books runs a scurrilous piece on the attorney general that takes apart not his record but his faith.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in the Congressional Auditorium at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The November 5 issue of the New York Review of Books contains a scurrilous anti-Catholic screed masquerading as a critique of U.S. Attorney General William Barr. Let it be said that the New York Review has declined appreciably in prestige and clout since the death of its co-founder and longtime editor Robert Silvers. Even so, the paper remains a useful indicator of trends in left-leaning American intellectual life. So the willingness of the current editors to run a drive-by attack on Roman Catholicism is at least worth noting.
The screed’s author is Fintan O’Toole, an Irish journalist availing himself of the apparently universal prerogative of commenting critically on the American political scene. (Do Argentine journalists opine about Irish politics? Do Nigerian writers weigh in regarding the latest doings in Dublin? Probably not, but for some reason Americans politics are like football, i.e. soccer—it’s a game that attracts a worldwide following.)
I am no fan of the attorney general and my contempt for his boss is boundless. Yet as a Catholic, I have with age acquired an acute sensitivity to the persistence of the anti-Catholicism that survives in certain pockets of the intelligentsia. O’Toole’s essay offers a case in point.
O’Toole depicts Barr as Donald Trump’s “Enabler in Chief.” As Trump’s principal henchman, he is allowing “the transition from republican democracy to authoritarianism,” a process now well underway in Washington. Indeed, according to O’Toole, “rescuing” America “from the decadence of progressivism and restoring authoritarian rule” describes Barr’s life’s work. It defines “what Barr has always wanted to do to the United States.”
What has inspired Barr to his life’s calling? O’Toole offers two answers. The first centers on Barr’s father, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who spent the bulk of his professional career as a headmaster at prestigious private schools. For O’Toole, the key to understanding the elder Barr is his 1973 science fiction novel Space Relations.
O’Toole describes the book as “atrocious,” “unreadable,” “wacky,” and “demented.” Yet he also says it reveals great truths. The father’s sci-fi novel provides an interpretive lens through which to understand the son. Space Relations “deals in a usefully unguarded way with themes that bear heavily on William Barr’s present position as Trump’s most formidable enabler.” Prominent among those themes are “the legacy of slavery, Catholic sexual dogma, and the proper response to revolt from below.” For O’Toole, Space Relations testifies to the nuttiness that is at the core of Catholicism.
Has William Barr read his father’s novel? Did it make a lasting impression? O’Toole either doesn’t know or won’t say, and obviously doesn’t care. As “a probe launched from conservative, white male America into the strange inner worlds of its own psyche,” Space Relations provides a perfect vehicle to understand what makes William Barr tick.
The second answer to what makes him tick builds on the first: Catholicism itself. Indeed, O’Toole finds a “very strong connection between Donald Barr’s hard-line Catholicism and William Barr’s present position as the main (perhaps the sole) intellectual buttress of Trump’s presidency.” The essence of that connection is a preference for authoritarianism. The Church, according to O’Toole, is anti-democratic. At least implicitly, therefore, it is anti-American.
“Authoritarian rule,” O’Toole writes, “is a defining feature of hierarchical institutional Catholicism.” Rome issues orders and the people in the pews ostensibly obey, O’Toole cites “the bans on contraception, divorce, abortion, homosexual sex, and same-sex marriage” as examples of the Church’s authoritarian rule.
As a description of American Catholicism back when Francis Cardinal Spellman presided over the Archdiocese of New York and Richard Cardinal Cushing served as the longtime kingpin in the Archdiocese of Boston, O’Toole’s characterization may have borne some correlation with reality. Over a half-century after the Second Vatican Council, in the aftermath of the clergy sex abuse scandal, and during the pontificate of Francis I, it is laughably out of date. Deference to the hierarchy is not, to put it mildly, a defining characteristic of contemporary Roman Catholicism, especially in the United States.
Yet as a committed Catholic, according to O’Toole, Barr is ipso facto an advocate of authoritarianism, asserting “the rights of a quasi-papal presidency.” As a Catholic, Barr is intent on reinstituting “moral absolutism.” As a Catholic, he seeks “to delegitimize the republican view of democracy.” As a Catholic filling the office of U.S. attorney general, he will “lie to the American people” and “flout the very principles he claims to uphold.” He will also use the power of his office to prevent citizens not sharing his religious persuasion from going to the polls. “To suppress those votes,” O’Toole concludes, will be “to uphold the authority not just of Donald Trump, but of God.”
I can’t say for sure if Barr is intent on doing any of these things. Maybe he is, although it’s not my impression that God and President Trump are playing for the same team. What I do know is this: to attribute Barr’s worldview and his actions as attorney general entirely to his identity as a Catholic is sheer bigotry. That the New York Review of Books would open its pages to such patently offensive nonsense is more than passing strange. Could it be that the editors agree?
Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.
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