New Rules of Engagement: Christ Instead of the Modern State

Judie Brown
by Jeffrey Mirus
December 10, 2012
Reproduced with Permission

The bishops of Pennsylvania cut right to the core of our fundamental political problem in their message to voters on November 1, in preparation for Election Day in America. They identified this problem as the totalitarian war of the secular state not only against natural human rights but also against the authority of institutions which are prior to the state:

Today's Catholics face a growing and deeply troubling effort that seeks to extend the reach of government into every aspect of social life. In turn, this generates a demand for exclusive allegiance of individuals and groups to the requirements of the state. This demand denies the primacy of associations that exist prior to the state, such as the family, church, or synagogue, and even fraternal and charitable agencies.

It is getting more and more difficult for people to see such intermediary institutions as enjoying a legitimate scope and authority in their own right - more and more difficult to grasp the fact that the state ought not to be viewed as the summit and source of all authority in heaven and earth.

One reason for this difficulty is our growing practical atheism, aided and abetted by the conviction that everything that is not purely private must, for reasons of civility, be completely secular. In the United States, about 20 percent of the population now regards itself as without religious affiliation of any kind, a huge increase over the past generation. And many others who, for the moment, retain some desire to worship God publicly have swallowed the propaganda of the modern West that religion is necessarily a private affair, which must not be allowed to have any bearing on public life.

As the bishops put it: "Americans would do well to realize that many of our country's leading thinkers in law, higher education, and the social sciences simply no longer believe in the idea of inalienable natural rights guaranteed by a Creator higher than the state - one of the cornerstone principles of the American experiment."

Another reason for this difficulty is our increasing reliance on the state. We have, over multiple generations, slipped into habits which diminish self-reliance and concede more and more decisions to governmental bureaucracy. The bishops point out that democracy provides no special protection against state control, for it is all too easy for democracy "to lose its soul by little steps." Citing Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote about American democracy 150 years ago, Pennsylvania's bishops explain that "'it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life' - because the more the state provides, the more it inevitably controls."

We need to think seriously about these developments. As I argued in both "Coercion v. Tolerance: The Real Crisis of Public Life" and "The Light Dawns: American Bishops and the State," the key problem in public life today is no longer abortion. It is no longer gay marriage. It is no longer education or economic policy or health care. It is the neo-totalitarianism of the modern state, which claims to subsume everything, define everything, and control everything in societies which now largely take for granted that this ought to be so.

Past Failures and Catholic Renewal

Too many Christians, including too many sectors in the Church herself, have welcomed the growth of bureaucratic government over the past century, blissfully unaware of the nature of the monster they were feeding. Looking back, we can see the massive and deleterious social shifts encouraged and protected by entitlement programs. Even something as seemingly innocuous as the American Social Security system has contributed to a lack of personal economic responsibility by citizens and to the breakdown of extended family ties, as the next generation concludes that it need not worry about the preceding generation - and vice versa - because they are taken care of by government.

Indeed, irrespective of the merits or demerits of each social program, we must admit that a healthy proactive self-reliance and the mutual interdependence of families and local communities have largely been replaced by a sense that government really will take care of us. The same tendencies are also fostered by Medicare (and now Obamacare) and by what are commonly called "welfare" programs, and let us not forget public education. We tend to take all these things so much for granted that we are reluctant even to ask how well they work! The result is that citizens expend much of their political capital fighting over entitlements, and the government increasingly controls our lives. As if this were not clear enough before, the HHS mandate shows how prone government can be to making up its own morality and imposing it on its dependents.

In the United States, deeply committed Catholics have long lamented the tendency of the American bishops to advocate one federal program after another, insisting that government must take care of just about everything, which is a radical misreading of Catholic social teaching, and ignores the timely warnings issued by Pope John Paul II against the "social assistance state" in Centesimus Annus (see especially #48). Despite these warnings, there has been a grave tendency to praise government intervention in the name of "solidarity" which, as Pope Benedict made clear in Caritas in Veritate, cannot, by its very nature, be imposed by the state.

As recently as May of this year, Phil Lawler pointed out a continuing pattern at the USCCB of obscuring moral and spiritual imperatives by a reckless support of one federal program after another, a trend we might now expect the bishops of Pennsylvania, at least, to resist (see USCCB statements on other political topics are harming the campaign for religious freedom). And immediately following the confirmation of President Obama's anti-natural law presidency in Tuesday's election, the USCCB's Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development (DJPHD) has reopened for business at the same old store, sponsoring a webcast to explain why no federal program which claims "to help" should be diminished in any way.

On the other hand, there are other more encouraging signs. I have noted elsewhere that more bishops are now drawing attention to the principle of subsidiarity, and it was clear after the HHS mandate was announced that many more became willing to speak of resistance to federal power. A new and very different leader has already been appointed to head the USCCB's DJPHD and will take office in December. These are early fruits not only of particular circumstantial pressures but of a long and agonizingly slow process of authentic Catholic renewal. We are fortunate that episcopal renewal is beginning to take root just as the anti-Christian nature of the modern state is becoming crystal clear. We may hope, and we must pray, that this renewal will be effective politically soon enough to prevent the inevitable martyrdoms, both dry and wet, which must otherwise ensue, as they did in France in the late 18th century and in both Germany and the Communist nations in the 20th. Is it now our turn?

New Terms of Engagement

To fight Leviathan successfully will require a significant shift in the allocation of our resources. No longer will it be sufficient to focus purely on abortion and related issues, as if it is possible to politically win battles that have already been culturally lost. The political enemy must be identified not merely as sin but as state coercion to sin; not merely as Godlessness but as state coercion of Godlessness; not merely as a separation of the authority of the Church from that of the state, but as a war by the state on God, churches, believers, and the natural law.

This shift in our political focus must be swift and sure; the old categories of political resistance are passing rapidly away. Being pro-life within the system today hardly even strikes a nerve. Compare this with denying rights erroneously defined by the state or openly resisting the state's monopoly on authority. Meanwhile, we no longer have the luxury of advocating this or that intrusion into the lives of citizens by central government just because that intrusion seems to be "for our own good." The dangers are already demonstrably far too great.

Instead, our political emphasis must be on denying the involvement of the highest level of government wherever possible, simply as a matter of principle in the face of a hostile state. Here organizations like the USCCB department cited earlier are currently taking exactly the wrong approach. Insofar as they are politically oriented at all, they should be campaigning for the failure of every federal bill which increases government involvement in an alleged desire to "take care" of people. They should be mounting a univocal resistance to all extensions and intrusions of central governmental power. In addition, all of us must begin to see the world's current poor economy as an ally. When an argument is advanced that we cannot any longer afford to have government do X or Y, that argument should be raised high and carried forward as an oracle from God. The modern secular state is the enemy of the Church, the enemy of Christians, and the enemy of man. It must be resisted not just when it is clearly doing something bad, but even when we might presume it is trying to do something good.

But of course politics is not enough. The Church especially, and all men and women of good will, must also offer a broader social response. We all need to work hard to prove the whole point at issue here - that in all but a very few matters, we do not need the state to "take care of us." At the most local level possible, all those who understand what human flourishing truly means need to establish strong intermediary organizations to assist those in need in a truly personal way, encouraging mutual collaboration in finding solutions to each particular problem, and refusing to turn anyone over to a government bureaucracy. This is what solidarity means. It is born of love.

In the United States, the federal government has begun to exclude Catholic charitable efforts from state-controlled service to the community. Very well: It was a mistake to be thus engaged in the first place. So let the real work of Catholic charity now begin anew. The state will always attempt to marginalize or exclude Christians, but it is also true that a healthy Christian society always marginalizes the state, rendering all but the most basic claims of government redundant and even laughable.

Winning Hearts and Minds for Christ

Even with a more radical approach, however, political and social activity alone will not suffice. Our elites and the governments they sponsor will be hard at work marginalizing their opponents through everything from education and the media to bread and circuses. What is heating up is not the battle for tolerance but the battle for hearts and minds, a battle in which the dictatorship of relativism is never neutral, and a battle in which our own neutrality is always a defeat. Such a battle cannot be won without evangelization - without conversion.

Our task is to form citizens who will no longer be willing to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage (Heb 12:16), citizens who will believe God instead of the world, who will trust God instead of the world, who will serve God instead of the world. We must create a culture in which lies, subterfuge, and empty materialistic promises cannot move sufficient numbers to support worldly power without forcing the state to reveal itself in a blatant show of force. In the Church herself, we must create a culture in which the first recourse of all will be a recourse to Christians, in which collaboration with evil will be considered a betrayal of Christian responsibility, and in which persistent public collaboration with evil will result in exclusion from communion with Christ.

Never has it been more timely to have had a Synod on Evangelization, or to begin a Year of Faith!

The overall scope of this battle does not depend primarily on Republican or Democratic victories, just as the victories of one party over the other across the past 50 years and more have made no significant difference to the dominant trend. Any party war here is tangential to the war for souls. We need to reject the fashionable world's rules of engagement. Again, the bishops of Pennsylvania have it right: "Ideas have consequences. Beliefs shape our culture. . . . We strive to fulfill the human vocation in our own day, just as all the saints have done in past ages." We must, as they recommend and in absolutely everything, "bring our faith to bear."