Last night I dreamed I was a student at Notre Dame. I suppose that university was floating around in my consciousness after reading about Attorney General, William Barr’s speech at Notre Dame’s law school. The closed-door speech, reported to address religious freedom, was in actuality a screed against secularism—the freedom from religion—in the public sphere. “Among the militant secularists are so-called progressives,” Barr said, suggesting that Christianity should “fill the void in the hearts of the individual person.”
Barr continued: This is not decay. This is organized destruction. Secularists and their allies have marshaled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.
Whose traditional values? I would like to ask the top law enforcement officer in a nation whose Constitution demands the separation of church and state.
Back to the dream. I find myself in a classroom filled with students and a professor. The professor announces he will form a panel comprised of three students to lead a discussion on a subject relevant to our current studies. He then names three male students—two of whom I recognize to be bombastic, know-nothing, know-it-alls—to lead the exchange. I ask the professor, “Why are the panelists all men?” Fade out.
Fade in to a bedroom in my parents’ home—not really my parents’ home, but their dreamscape home—where I am staying. My mother knocks on the bedroom door and comes in. “You have a visitor,” she announces. A Catholic priest, handsome and clean cut, not unlike Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley from the 1945 film The Bells of St. Mary’s, follows her into the room. I immediately recognize him to be the Provost of Notre Dame University. He is carrying a large basket filled with candy and small gifts.
“This is for you.” The smiling priest presents the basket to me.
“Thank you. Thank you so much,” I say and take the basket from him. “What is this for?” When he doesn’t answer right away I hesitate for a moment then continue, “Does it have anything to do with the question I asked in class today?”
He slowly shakes his head yes.
It’s a bribe.
“Do you understand,” I argue, “that women need to be represented fairly? That we can be leaders, too? That we should at least be given the opportunity?”
My mom drops into a chair and covers her face with her hands. “I’m so sorry, Gary.” Really? The guy’s name is Gary? Gary walks across the room and stands with his back to me.
“I appreciate the gifts. It’s very nice of you to bring them.” I don’t want to seem ungrateful. Mom looks at me, and displeased, shakes her head. I feel guilty for disappointing them. They think I’m demanding, unappreciative, self-centered. They think I don’t know my place. It’s the velvet glove of oppression used by authoritarians on good girls who step out of line. Withdrawal of approval—of love—a simple and effective tool for keeping women in their place.
“You can’t buy me,” I say and awake from my dream.
That morning I read about the tragic murder of Havrin Khalaf, Secretary General of the Future Syria Party. Khalaf, a Kurd known for her leadership on women’s rights, was dragged out of her car, raped, shot, then stoned to death by Turkish fighters. Sometimes when the velvet glove is not sufficient, authoritarians will bring out the iron fist—the ultimate weapon of oppression to administer the ultimate punishment for resisting their program.
The velvet glove and the iron fist may be miles apart in their destructive consequences, but the motives are identical: to keep the hierarchy of power intact. Likewise, William Barr’s words in his address at Notre Dame were uttered in the service of the power structure. For now, the theocracy Barr and others are promoting is applying a velvet glove approach to “the militant secularists”—those who would uphold the concept of separation of church and state. But understand this: The iron fist will not be far behind.