Religious Freedom and the Triumph of the Therapeutic

Religious-freedom infringement occurs quite a bit in American legal practice, and it makes sense that it does; for, those in charge of securing the common good of the community, as well as the rights of individuals, have the right and obligation to ban practices that are a direct and serious threat to it.

Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased.

The rules of health indicate activity; psychological man can exploit older cultural precepts, ritual struggle no less than play therapy, in order to maintain the dynamism of his culture. Of course, the newest Adam cannot be expected to limit himself to the use of old constraints. If “immoral” materials, rejected under earlier cultural criteria, are therapeutically effective, enhancing somebody’s sense of well-being, then they are useful. The “end” or “goal” is to keep going.

― Philip RieffThe Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

By requiring all public and private institutions to include contraception and abortion “services” in their health insurance plans, the Obama administration has infringed on the right to religious freedom of those citizens whose religion proscribes the use of or complicity with contraception. Of course, this is true, but, to put it bluntly, so what? American Mormons are legally prohibited from practicing polygamy, even though The Book of Mormon permits it; American Hindu women are forbidden to commit suicide on the funeral pyres of their husbands, notwithstanding their tradition’s commands; and pagans and Satanists cannot sacrifice human beings, no matter what the devil demands.

Religious-freedom infringement occurs quite a bit in American legal practice, and it makes sense that it does; for, those in charge of securing the common good of the community, as well as the rights of individuals, have the right and obligation to ban practices that are a direct and serious threat to it. Religious freedom, in the realm of practice at least, is not an absolute right, and so must be balanced with the competing rights of others in light of the overall common good. In short, religious practices can legitimately be proscribed.

Of course, in this case, the right of Catholics not to be forced to provide contraception, directly or indirectly (the more recent “compromise” position of the Obama regime doesn’t change things morally, as Robert George makes clear) is absolute and neither competes with any other genuine rights nor poses a threat to the common good. Indeed, as Humanae Vitae and the Catholic moral tradition teaches, it is the use of contraception itself that hurts people’s bodies and souls, can kill baby humans, and damages the common good of the family and the society at large.  Yet, this right not to become complicit in objective evil has been judged by the competent authority to interfere with the overall good of the American political community and the competing right of others to have what they consider vital health services included in their health insurance coverage. And in reaction to the HHS mandate, the American Catholic Bishops, for the most part, have couched their public protest in terms of religious freedom.

Perhaps their choice of argumentative discourse serves as the most effective, short-term strategy to defeat this particular mandate. But I am afraid that if we “win” using this strategy, it would only be because the Obama regime conceded to the Bishops’ terms out of a pragmatic, self-interested calculus—perhaps just to increase the chances of getting reelected in November. Moreover, the real issue is the evil of contraception and the threat it and our cultural of sexual license poses to the temporal and spiritual good of human beings. Another issue that is sidelined by the Bishops’ rhetoric, which I would like to discuss in this article, is their own public, moral and spiritual authority, the political influence of the Catholic Church in America. As I shall try to show, the long-term effects of playing the religious-freedom card might be disastrous for both Catholics and non-Catholics.

It is understandable why the American Catholic Bishops would protest that the religious freedom of Catholics is being infringed upon, but it is not understandable why they should think that a protest articulated in terms of religious freedom would be sufficiently effective to prevent such attacks, and worse ones, in the future. It is not understandable as both a judgment of prudence and of principle, for it appears to presuppose ideas about the nature of politics and the relation of Church and state derived from the secular Enlightenment, not the theological Tradition of the Catholic Church. By desiring to protect with state power their godless, therapeutic culture, with its cultic religious practices of baby-murder and sexual perversion, Obama and the HHS are trying to unify church and state, as it were, a principled union Leo XIII explicitly taught as the political ideal and which was not changed at Vatican II. In other words, the Obama regime is, in spite of its Rawlsian-liberal rhetoric, promoting a particular conception of the good, not merely advocating more space for the exercise of individual rights. It is attempting to inculcate what it considers “virtue” and to promote the “well-being” of human persons.

These are, all things being equal, Aristotelian and Thomistic moral and political goals, and they indicate a non-liberal role and influence for comprehensive conceptions of the good transcending the merely private and sub-political. In other words, though their evaluative moral scheme and worldview is, well, insane, and the particular values they deem good in truth wicked, by seeking to rid the political culture of a practice they deem evil and vicious, not merely infringing on someone’s rights, the Obama regime is, to this extent, behaving in a manner more in line with traditional Catholic political philosophy and theology than that implied by the Bishops’ classical-liberal-Lockean rhetoric!

The truth is that we live in an officially “therapeutic” state, in the Rieffian sense of this term, with the old revelatory “god-terms” and religious “interdicts” having been replaced at some point in the 60s with the Freudian “self-terms” and their obligatory transgressions. In other words, in spite of the First Amendment, and our delusional insistence that we have a multicultural and pluralistic society, there is an established religion and culture in America, one embodying a particular conception of the sacred, namely, the sacredness of unfettered, individual human desire in its pursuit of worldly and psychological well-being. The HHS decision reflects the desire of those in power to make this established religious and cultural outlook more official by defending it with state power, so much so that it is no longer willing to tolerate public practices that threaten its hegemony, such as Catholics witnessing against the good of deliberately sterile sex by refusing to offer “free” contraception.  In a perverse sense, then, the political authorities are simply doing their duty to protect the common good, therapeutically understood, and to help people attain well-being, as they perversely define it.

Thus, the main political problem with HHS is not its infringing on religious freedom or individual rights, for these are not absolute, as we have said, but that the regime subscribes to and is motivated by the wrong religion and cult. One might concede this point and still protest their un-American desire to make this cult publicly authoritative, but this is also wrongheaded. It may be un-American, but perhaps that is a virtue in this regard. There really is no such thing as a private cult, just as there is no private culture, and, as Catholic social teaching maintains, anyone in a position of political authority has the right and obligation to promote the common good as he sees it, within limits imposed by the natural law, the genuine rights of persons, and reasonable constitutional and legal restrictions upon his employment of coercive force.

When Catholics argue merely for their right to religious practice, that argument is necessarily heard by other Americans in Lockean terms, in which “every religion is orthodox to itself,” and in which the sole power and authority over all matters pertaining to the things of this world is the secular state. Religion is, by this definition, strictly otherworldly, and there is no non-subjectivist way of knowing the truth of religious dogma or judging between conflicting doctrines and practices. In other words, religious relativism is the official lens through which all judgments on the proper bounds of church and state are made in America—ab initio, as  William Cavanaugh, has recently argued. If religion is private, idiosyncratic, and otherworldly, not public, truth-embodying, and world-implicated, it cannot have an authoritative, public role in ordering common life. Defined as a private cult claiming no authority over anything but its own private doctrines and practices, perhaps the Obama regime might concede the Church and its institutions the right to its rather bizarre and barbaric proscription against “responsible sexual activity,” but it would never do so for a Church defining herself as the Mystical Body of Christ and demanding from this regime and all governments the libertas ecclesiae, that is, a liberty prior to, and higher and more privileged, as Dignitatis Humane makes clear, than the generic religious liberty accorded to persons, due to the Church’s unique divine identity and mission.

Indeed, the Obama regime did not decide to offer a compromised position for any other reason than self-serving pragmatism, with some ideological lip service given to a radically individualist conception of the right to “conscience,” meaning, in this case, the right for Catholics to believe in a cruel, sex-hating god, and to play-act in accordance with their fantasy. Are the Bishops satisfied with the Church over which they rule being characterized and treated by the state as nothing more public and authoritative than some superstitious debating society, as long as it can continue to enjoy tax-exempt status and some private freedoms of conscience for its members? Is this trulylibertas ecclesiae?

Again, I think the Bishops should try to win this battle using any moral means necessary; and perhaps using the purely practical strategy of appealing to liberalism’s own principles might work—this time. But I fear that playing the religious-freedom card alone won’t work again. The Bishops need to make a straight-forward public declaration of the immorality of contraception, the Church’s authority to make such a declaration (an authority bound up with its divine identity that has been made evident by definite signs in the world and therefore cognizable by unaided human reason), the obligation of political authority to privilege the libertas ecclesiae (while supporting the religious freedom of all); and finally, they need to uphold the natural law as the ultimate legitimizing ground of the employment of coercive power. Without such declarations, their religious-freedom rhetoric may have the effect of securing Catholics the right to refuse contraception, but it would promote, indirectly, the secularist political liberalism that has led to a contraceptive culture-of-death in the first place.

Do the Bishops want to send the message to Obama that his main sin is not being Lockean enough, in not adequately respecting the sacred “wall of separation” between church and state, in mixing politics and religion? Obama is being a bad liberal in not respecting the freedom of religion of some of the citizens, but he is also being a bad man in promoting an objectively evil practice. Do Catholics want to pressure other Americans in power to be merely good liberals, even if that would win Catholics a short-term reprieve? Should not the Bishops consider more carefully the long-term benefit for our country of declaring the truth, in and out of season, especially when it is becoming quite clear that nothing short of mass conversion to the Gospel can save us?


This article was originally published by the Center for Morality in Public Life in their blog, Ethika Politika.


  • Thaddeus J. Kozinski

    Thaddeus Kozinski is the author of “The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can’t Solve It.”

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...