During my final semester at Grove City College, I took a class at school on rhetorical criticism. The culmination of our rhetorical studies was a 10-15 page paper using the techniques from the class to critique a speech. We could choose a speech, and as you know, I have a passion for secularism, but I couldn’t find any legitimate speeches promoting secularism. Instead, I settled for the complete opposite: a speech on why secularism is the root of America’s “moral” chaos, and religion is the solution.
I began my paper by introducing the speaker and the setting:
“To quote the unforgettable line from Bob Dylan: ‘The times, they are a-changin’.’ And ever since the moral revolution of the 1960’s, the effects of these changes have been analyzed. One such conservative to impart his opinion on the matter was former Attorney General of the United States, William P. Barr. On October 6th, 1992, Barr delivered an after-dinner speech at a conference in Washington, D.C. held by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Associated Press, 1992). In his speech, Barr presented and defended his case that Judeo-Christian values and religious public morality are essential for successful public government. . . The claims of this man who has falsely blamed secularism for a moral decline in our country must be scrutinized and investigated just as he has investigated the actions of his fellow citizens from the lens of his own worldview.”
I then identified the audience:
“At the time that this speech was delivered, most Americans would have likely agreed with Barr’s claims, considering that 84 percent of citizens identified as either Christian or Jewish in a poll on religious composition of the nation (Religion, 1944-2018). However, this percentage increases when one hones in on Barr’s immediate audience on the night of the speech. Because the address was delivered to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Associated Press, 1992), the audience was presumably of a Catholic majority.”
After this introduction, I got into my summary of this speech and its copious logical flaws and manipulated facts. (After graduating and moving, I somehow lost both my digital and physical copies of the original speech. I’ve spent days searching for it since, including in the online database that I originally got it from. Unfortunately, even when logging in at my local library, I wasn’t able to find it. If you are able to find this speech by some miracle, please share it with me and I will be deeply grateful.)
“In the speech at hand, Judeo-Christian Tradition vs. Secularism, Barr took a specific route in achieving his goal of manipulating facts to fit his biased and selfish agenda. He carefully painted a picture of America as its morals had loosened between the 60s and the 90s, leading the audience to believe that all hope was lost for traditional values. Not to be defeated, Barr used the indignation he had stirred within his Catholic friends in an attempt to rally them to rise up against this moral revolution. In a nation that had dropped from being 96 percent Judeo-Christian in 1962 (Religion, 1944-2018) to 84 percent at the time of the speech in 1992, Barr would not rest until not a single soul was left unconverted. Without any reference to data regarding the shift in the nation’s religious demographics at the time, Barr used specific language throughout his speech to paint a narrow picture of what he wanted his audience to know, demonizing words like ‘secular’ and ‘culture’ while raising up terms such as ‘traditional morality’ and ‘natural law’.
“He presented a great moral crisis, colored by his own religious and conservative worldview. Claiming that the Judeo-Christian tradition was ‘the foundation upon which this great republic rests,’ (Barr, 1992, p. 38) Barr described how we had gone astray from our traditional morals and how the solution was a ‘moral renewal.’ His perception of this great crisis was that two fundamentally different systems of values were at odds with each other: secularism, otherwise referred to as the ‘doctrine of moral relativism,’ which was growing, and the Judeo-Christian moral system, which was being ‘steadily [eroded]’.”
After using unfounded and illegitimate quotes from the Founding Fathers to back up his position that the United States is a Christian nation, Barr finally identified the specific problem that the country was facing.
“In an attempt to demonstrate the manifestation of a self-centered moral system, Barr offered examples of how this shift in values had played out. He spoke of the rise in violence, drug addiction, abortions, suicide, divorce, and more. Ultimately, Barr identified the breakdown of the traditional family as the ‘root of most of our social problems today’ (Barr, 1992, p. 39). Considering his overall goal of restoring Judeo-Christian values, one can’t help but wonder what correlation these examples have with the nation’s shift in Judeo-Christian belief from 96 percent to 84 percent. Were the individuals involved in these cases particularly nonreligious? What does the Old Testament actually say about violence, drug addiction, or divorce? Would a restoration of a biblical authority in America truly help end these new harmful trends more than research and new solutions tailored by experts in culture, social issues, and family studies?”
Regardless of the true correlation between the religious landscape in America at the time and the problem at hand, Barr offered what he thought was a solution.
“He encouraged his listeners first to ‘[put] our principles into practice in our own personal daily lives.’ From there he urged them to teach the faith to the next generation, place an emphasis on the ‘moral education’ of their children, and ‘do all we can to promote and support religious education at all levels.’ Barr’s final piece of advice was for his listeners to fight for and defend their values whenever they come under attack.”
This is where I began to apply what I learned in my rhetorical criticism class. I used a technique called “situational criticism” as an unbiased way of determining, once and for all, the quality of Barr’s speech. In this section, I reveal my overall research question and my breakdown of why my answer is “no”.
“It does not take an atheist to know that religious education and indoctrination aren’t the solutions to all of the world’s problems. True as this may be, any reasonable skeptic wouldn’t accept such an assertion without researching even their own criticism and conclusion in regards to claims such as Barr’s. As a rhetorical critic, I truly want to know: ‘Was William Barr’s speech, Judeo-Christian Tradition vs. Secularism, a necessary and fitting response to the changing moral and cultural situation in the United States in 1992?’
“The best and most unbiased way to find this out is to explore how his speech interacted with the nation’s situation. To identify whether rhetoric is called for in a particular situation, three primary constituents must be identified, namely the audience, ‘who are capable of being influenced by discourse and of being mediators of change’ (Bitzer, 1968, p. 8); the constraints, which are ‘persons, events, objects, and relations which . . . have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence’ (Bitzer, 1968, p. 8); and the exigence, or the obstacle to be overcome.”
I identified that Barr’s speech did in fact have a capable audience and constraints (the previously held beliefs of the audience and himself, although they weren’t very constraining, considering that everyone in the room were devout Catholics). What became an issue was that his proposed solution—a resurgence of religious values—doesn’t even begin to address the exigence, or the crisis at hand.
“Barr’s examples of the manifestation of ‘the doctrine of moral relativism’ in the United States range from increased rates of violent crime, drug addiction, venereal disease, abortion, psychiatric disorders, divorce, and poverty to teen pregnancy, suicide, and rape, to landlords being required to treat a married couple as they would a cohabiting couple, to schools being required to treat homosexual student activist groups the same as other student groups.
“Giving Barr the benefit of the doubt that his statistics on these trends are correct, three conclusions can immediately be made in response to his list. First, his examples run a wide gamut; in no stretch of the imagination is activism for homosexual equality on the same plane as psychiatric disorders or violent crime. Because of the inconceivable diversity of Barr’s list, one could reasonably conclude that each of these trends requires a very individually tailored solution—albeit only for those which can be demonstrated as having real negative consequences, unlike gender equality.
“This leads us to the second obvious flaw: certainly not all, and probably none, of these cultural manifestations can be solved by Barr’s proposed solution of preaching religious moral rules to the unchurched and the young. Finally, a resurgence of religious morality would simply not be an appropriate solution to this crisis, because 84 percent of Americans at the time were already religious. In fact, Catholicism, the demographic of his audience, had risen since the moral revolution began (Religion, 1944-2018). Without exhaustive sociological studies, we have no conclusive way of knowing that the primary moral deviants were not Christians the entire time. This necessitates the conclusion that Barr’s speech is not a fitting response to the changing cultural situation.
“If one were to dig deeper to find empirically effective solutions to the problems that plague us, from abortion, to suicide, to poverty, these solutions would more closely resemble education (including sex education), stable and safe family environments, and opportunities for those born in dreary circumstances to advance and rise out of poverty. If Barr had researched the raw sources of these problems and used his platform to encourage his audience to do their part as citizens and work towards a real solution, perhaps he, as a rhetor, could have been an active agent of change. Instead, Barr presented a pejorative solution brimming with uplifting but empty jargon under a thin veil of religious unity.”
Thus ends the paper that I have spent months working on! I turned it in a matter of weeks ago, but I had to take some time before sharing it with you, because I just couldn’t stand to look at it anymore. Upon the publication of this post, however, I can finally lay this essay to rest. I encourage you to read my paper in full here.