Published November 28, 2022
In Jack London’s The Iron Heel and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, America’s wordsmith class created a bogeyman treasured by the cultural left ever since: a fascist takeover of the country. As Helen Alvaré shows in her superb new book, Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution, the real threat to our freedom—especially our “first freedom,” religious liberty—comes from a very different direction.
But first, some backstory.
As early as 1970, the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce warned of a new kind of tyranny developing in the postwar culture of Western nations. This “new totalitarianism,” he said, is less vulgar but more thorough than any in the past. And it stands on three pillars. The first pillar is scientism; not science proper, but the materialist ideology that sees religion as delusional and scientific fact as the only true knowledge. Human beings and their affairs are, by nature, messy. Scientism, in practice, seeks to reorder society—and humanity itself—along more “rational,” manageable, scientific lines.
The second pillar is eroticism: sex without taboos or boundaries. Sexual desire is a powerful instinct. Unmoored from traditional moral constraints, it becomes a solvent to break down allegedly repressive institutions like marriage and the family. It’s thus a useful tool for disrupting and restructuring society at its roots. It’s also a helpful anesthetic to ease the pain of any resulting social turmoil.
The third pillar of Del Noce’s new totalitarianism is, ironically, progressive religious thought. Progressive theology, in practice, is a “theology of secularization.” It serves as a kind of chaplaincy to the social disruption process by providing the language for a gradual surrender of traditional morality. In the name of charity, it shifts the main focus of faith from a vertical encounter with God to horizontal social concerns, from the transcendent to the immanent—resulting in, for instance, today’s Christian confusion about homosexuality. In effect, progressive religion assists in its own extinction.
Despite its Puritan past, America was (for Del Noce) uniquely prone to this new totalitarianism. The reason is simple. Americans have a genius for science, a ravenous appetite for technology, and a history of radical individualism. Fragmented, self-absorbed individuals are far more easily tracked, tutored, and controlled than organized communities of faith. Which means that “conservative” Christian Churches, and especially the Catholic Church, pose an annoying problem because of their attachment to a biblically-based anthropology and sexual morality.
And therein lies the root of today’s legal battles over the nature and limits of religious freedom. It’s also why Helen Alvaré’s new book is so important.
A distinguished scholar in the fields of marriage and family law and First Amendment issues, Alvaré is the Robert A. Levy Chair in Law and Liberty at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. She divides her text into separate chapters on the religious nature and identity of Catholic institutions (what they are, what they do, and why); the increasingly difficult cultural and legal context in which they minister; and the specific kinds of backlash Catholic institutions now face in pursuing their mission—not just from hostile outsiders, but from their own employees and the wider, if poorly catechized, Catholic community. She never speaks of a “new totalitarianism,” but her analysis tracks with Del Noce’s early warnings in some striking ways. She notes that
Together, the legal and cultural developments of the last several decades have valorized and strengthened the influence of new sexual expression norms unlinking sex, marriage, and parenting. Given the sheer number of laws and regulations that affect myriad aspects of religious institutions—health care, employment, insurance, housing, services, operations and others—these legal and cultural dynamics are pressuring one of the last pockets of resistance to the new norms: the Catholic Church.
“Suffocating” rather than “pressuring” the Church might better describe the legal tactics deployed today against recalcitrant Christian ministries. As Alvaré writes, the Christian virtues of modesty and chastity are now seen as abnormal by much of the surrounding culture in which Catholic institutions must operate. The result is not a happy one. Constitutional protections for religious freedom in the United States are strong by the standards of other nations. But they’re not invulnerable. Religious freedom needs to be continually asserted and defended, which means that believers must find a way to stay fully awake in a culture that produces and thrives on a narcoleptic haze of consumer appetites and distractions.
Organizations like the Becket Fund and Alliance Defending Freedom punch well above their weight. They do an extraordinary job of fighting for religious liberty in our courts. But in the end, religious freedom survives only when religious practice remains vigorous. And this is so, as Alvaré explains, because people are moved not by ideas, and even less by rules and norms, but by role models who actually live and embody the convictions that their institutions claim to serve. Personal example has power. A key strength of Alvaré’s book is that she provides not just a thorough outline of the challenges facing faithful Christian institutions, but also a vocabulary of sexual responsibility and sanity to answer them.
Toward the end of her text, Alvaré notes that
The task before the Church [today] is clear. It seems increasingly undeniable that Christianity is being asked to step up at this time in history to preserve individual and community well-being in the realms of sex, marriage, and parenting. This work can also promise insights into various human and divine truths that romantic and familial relations are designed to illuminate. Even small Catholic institutions can’t duck and run. They are potentially one of the few lights to their communities on these matters. They maintain the personal relationships within which hard conversations can be had in fellowship and love . . . [and which] can ultimately illuminate the human and divine truths that these personal relationships point to.
Simply put, Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution is a work of uncommon clarity and intelligence in a time of toxic political conflict. As an explanation and defense of Catholic institutions, it’s an invaluable resource. And it testifies to the wisdom and Christian character of the author.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.