The Nanny State as Mother Church

The modern state has for some time been trying to become a new universal church. It does so based on two large claims, one practical, the other moral. It gives the impression of being able to provide for everyone from cradle to grave. And it professes to welcome all groups and viewpoints. Both claims, of course, are nonsense, and more obviously so every day. It will be interesting to see if we learn anything from that realization – or will simply continue, towards disaster.

We have to appreciate the true scope of this problem. We talk about the “Nanny State,” as if what’s wrong is merely a set of meddlesome restrictions on smoking, unhealthy foods, and the environment. But the modern state has become much more than a starchy old fussbudget. This nanny likes to think of herself as something approaching Holy Mother Church.

People mistrust government just now. But don’t be fooled. The lack of trust is largely one with the belief that the state should, somehow, fix everything. If it does not, it’s only because someone, somewhere, is to blame. It used to be the barest wisdom that we live in a world often beyond our knowledge and control, and that we should be very wary of those who make unreal promises. Political campaigns today are largely, as you may have noticed, competing mirages.

Take the responses to the current economic crisis. Misguided state efforts to encourage people to buy homes and failure to monitor derivatives from those risky loans – sometimes also the result of malfeasance in the private sector – is well enough known not to need repeating here. Still, all that might have been manageable if decades of government spending and promises of future entitlements had not left us with little margin for error.

Last week, for example, the Social Security fund went negative for the first time in thirty years and will start to contribute to the already massive deficit. People who want to trim benefits in order to preserve the system for the truly needy in the future often claim that it was never supposed to guarantee income to virtually all the elderly – and certainly not for twenty or more years. It was a limited insurance program for the older poor.

It’s difficult to gauge that claim, but anyone with parents old enough to remember has probably heard a different story. They are almost all convinced that politicians promised them a bonanza, financed by their own contributions. The resistance among seniors to changes in Social Security, I’m convinced, is not selfishness (the changes wouldn’t affect them, anyway). It’s moral outrage at having been lied to.

Some analysts believe everything would have been fine if there had not been a demographic implosion here and in other developed nations, coupled with an increased life expectancy. Perhaps so. But the governments in those nations have also engaged in a crusade against overpopulation. If you think overpopulation is a problem, just wait until you see what under-population will do here and in Europe (and in China owing to its one-child policy).

The signs do not lead in the same direction.

Is it really possible that, for decades, no one noticed the collision that lay ahead between these two large public aims? Or, more likely, is it just that democratic politicians find it easy to make promises and let others figure out how to make them work?

These breakdowns, and many more, however, fall only on the practical side in the modern state’s efforts to become a kind of church. On the moral side, the state professes openness, tolerance, multiculturalism, humaneness. All sounds welcoming and neutral, with the state standing above and embracing all.

The obvious problem – even more obvious than the collision between promises and costs – is that the neutrality is not neutral. There’s a definite creed behind this alleged openness. And its dogmas, backed by the police power, are not inclusive, as most modern Christians know.

The first sign was the legalization of abortion. Prior to the 1960s cultural revolution, abortion was widely stigmatized in the West because of our recognition of the sanctity of all human life. The state’s first duty is to protect everyone from internal and external threats. That’s why we authorize deadly force to defend the innocent via the armed forces and the police power. Once the state declared some persons outside that protection – for reasons of convenience – a new article was added to the modern state creed. Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide are next.

But it hasn’t stopped there. The institutions that most directly nourish life – family, marriage, religion – and that, at least in America, still have some capacity to resist state dogmas, have come under heavy assault. Family and marriage were blithely redefined with no recognition of their roots in nature and reason.

We talk fervently about human activities that threaten “fragile ecosystems” and say we want to respect nature. But when it comes to human nature, we think we can remake marriage and family, experiment on human embryos (which is to say experiment on our own offspring), and deny or falsify our religious history, all in the name of humanity, tolerance, and “respect for science” – without consequences.

A single step of this sort might be taken as a mere error to be corrected. But we’re now seeing a coherent body of dogma emerge, a true creed, and with state power to enforce those beliefs. We’ve gotten used to authorities prosecuting “hate crimes” and “hate speech.” Now, even the U.S. military will be re-educating soldiers about homosexuality.

The churches and secular forces that object to this massive reorientation of our public life – in some cases turning what were recently crimes into aggressive new rights claims – are under threat and are being portrayed as sectarians for defending what was once mere common sense. They are likely to be squeezed more and more from the public square.

A Nanny State? Nannies were never so intrusive – or ruthless.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.