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.

Total Welfare
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.

Totalitarian Trajectory
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.

This editorial first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Touchstone magazine and it is reprinted with permission.

James Hitchcock


James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

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  • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

    “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.” This is why school vouchers are such a bad idea. Once the parents of Catholic School Students have become dependent upon government vouchers in order to pay the tuition, and in turn the Catholic Schools have themselves become dependent upon those same funds that are funneled to them by parents, local, state, and federal government will then declare that any school accepting government vouchers must follow whatever dictates the government establishes. Since no school will be forced to continue to accept vouchers this oversight by the government will be considered completely voluntary on the part of the school. This ability to dictate policy in return for funding has repeatedly been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and the various state Supreme Courts. The USCCB and other Catholics pushing for vouchers are unwittingly laying the foundation for when Catholic Schools are nothing more than extensions of the public school system and are Catholic in name only.

  • Thesp

    “If private institutions accept money from the government, and come to depend on those subsidies to survive…” is a heck of an “If”. It seems like there’s an easy solution for these private institutions.

  • I agree with Lt. Lawler that that will probably happen. It is, however, wholly unjust. Parents who accept vouchers are NOT accepting government money. They are allocating some of their OWN money that would have been paid to the LOCAL (note well: LOCAL) government in school taxes and giving it instead, or giving a portion of it, to the school of their choice. Only a tyrannical government — which is of course what we have had — could interpret this state of affairs as a carte blanche for meddling. I think the only solution is to strangle the damned leviathan — whose food is taxes.

  • Robert

    You talk about sexual morality and I find it quite disturbing that both pornography and homosexuality have now become mainstream and accepted aspects of American society. Both of these are now available to young children as well. This is paticularly pernicious on the part of these people and downright diabolical.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Refusal of government funding will afford no protection.

    Starting with the French Revolution, Liberals have always been deeply suspicious of the power of any group or community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs, for this involves, not only freedom from outside interference, but authority over its own members. Hence, the famous declaration of August 18, 1792: “A State that is truly free ought not to suffer within its bosom any corporation, not even such as, being dedicated to public instruction, have merited well of the country.”

    As Lord Acton says, “by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, it emancipates the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own. It recognises liberty only in the individual, because it is only in the individual that liberty can be separated from authority.” Hence the principle proclaimed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen that “No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”

    Thomas Jefferson was very much of this mind, when he asserted that the nation might “change the appropriation of lands given antiently (sic) to the church, to hospitals, colleges, orders of chivalry, and otherwise in perpetuity…” In other words, individuals have rights; institutions don’t.

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  • chrisinva

    Dr. Hitchcock always inspires. In this instance, two footnotes come to mind.

    First, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on how to deal with those misfits who oppose the all-powerful Sovereign, advised by his all-wise Legislateur:

    “They must be forced to be free.”

    On education, this, from Hannah Arendt (a cite, first provided to me by Professor Hitchcock over 30 years ago, from The Origins of Totalitarianism):

    “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill
    convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.”