The Welfare Snare
Christian Conflict with the Liberal State Is by Design
Upon issuance, the Obama administration’s requirements concerning health insurance were immediately recognized as a threat to religious liberty. Less obvious is the fact that such infringements, and many that will be far worse, are endemic to the modern welfare state and were bound to emerge sooner or later.
To begin with, there is the king’s shilling. If private institutions accept money from the government, and come to depend on those subsidies to survive, the government will inevitably claim oversight, as to some extent it must, since the recipients of public money must be held accountable for how they use it.
The subsidies are to some degree deliberately offered as a temptation, since the welfare state tolerates agencies of private charity only reluctantly, and through subsidies it increasingly draws those charities into its net, giving them funds far beyond what they could themselves obtain and thereby subjecting them to government scrutiny.
The scope of economic welfare continually expands. In the beginning it was merely the “safety net”—aid to people temporarily unemployed or too old or sick to work. But eventually it created a class of people who depend on such support for their entire lives, who become the state’s permanent wards.
Even more important, the liberal idea of “welfare” also continually expands, in accord with continually evolving, wholly secular, concepts of the good life. Liberalism is left with only one absolute—an infinitely malleable concept of “health”—and access to contraceptives falls under that rubric. An unwanted pregnancy is viewed as a medical disorder even if it poses no physical threat to the pregnant woman.
This is because the welfare state now undertakes responsibility for the individual’s entire well-being. In the ideal liberal society, a wise and benign government, through the judicious use of both carrot and stick, would nudge people towards realizing their “full potential,” to which an unplanned pregnancy could be an obstacle.
Much of education already embodies this liberal program, having shifted its primary purpose from imparting knowledge to inculcating the proper attitudes towards things ranging from sexual behavior to smoking to gender identity. Religion is excluded, because most liberals doubt whether religious belief fosters personal well-being, and many think it impedes it.
As the education wars show, the liberal state’s claim of responsibility for people’s total welfare inevitably turns all moral questions into political issues. In theory, the liberal state espouses moral relativism in the name of personal freedom. But such a position is not sustainable, because decisions have to be made. Liberals see the state, when properly ordered, as itself embodying normative values, and as possessing the ability to “help” those people and institutions that do not share the liberal vision of the good life, and the authority to correct them if necessary.
Sexual morality is the principal flashpoint of the culture wars, and here there can be no legitimate dissent from liberal orthodoxy. People are expected to be both “sexually active” and free from the prospect of having children; thus, contraceptives must always be available, and abortion is a free “choice” except when people make the wrong choice. Medical personnel are now threatened with the rescinding of “conscience clauses,” which currently protect them from having to participate in procedures they deem immoral, and government at all levels is increasingly punitive towards people who do not accept homosexuality.
Following the present liberal trajectory, government agencies will, in time, tell churches that they must ordain women, order clergy to officiate at homosexual “weddings,” and regulate the begetting of children in various ways. Churches and even families will be monitored to ensure that they do not inculcate “unhealthy” attitudes in their members.
The conflict over health insurance is an early battle in what may not be a terribly long war. The welfare state has revealed itself as soft totalitarianism, and it is very uncertain whether it can be controlled, or even whether the citizens have the will to try.
—James Hitchcock, for the editors
James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“The Welfare Snare” first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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