April 6, 2023 - 6:00pm

Every so often someone expresses concern at the minority of “integralist” Catholic political theorists who propose ordering state power to Christian precepts, sometimes calling them would-be “theocrats”. But in truth, theocracy has been back for a while.

State power across the Anglosphere is ever more explicitly ordered to religious beliefs; it’s just that these beliefs aren’t Roman Catholic. Instead, what’s now granted state backing is a belief in the absolute moral sanctity of bodily self-creation. 

In Canada, legislation has just been proposed that would ban protests within 100 metres of a Drag Queen Story Hour. This proposal echoes an existing provision in the UK that bans even silent prayer in the vicinity of abortion clinics. And over in the USA, a Christian mother is suing the state of Oregon, which has barred her from adoption for saying she wouldn’t accept a putative adoptee’s self-declared pronouns or permit them to take puberty blockers. 

What, then, is the sacred value being enforced here? In the words of one supporter of both abortion and gender ideology, the common thread is “bodily autonomy and attempts to define the futures of others”. From this perspective, power should be ordered to the sacred value of self-creation, even over normal aspects of our organism such as puberty, pregnancy, or sex dimorphism. There is no sense in which our bodies should be accepted as a given, and anything we don’t like about them is a problem we’re entitled to solve as we see fit. 

Increasingly, the laws now being rolled out across the West to give this belief the backing of state power serve as a new set of Test Acts. These 17th century English laws, whose intent was to limit the access of professing Catholics to power in national institutions, compelled anyone seeking public office to take an oath renouncing key points of Catholic doctrine. It’s just that the doctrine that must be renounced this time is that there’s any normal, natural baseline for the human body. Under the new religious tests, an otherwise good candidate to adopt can be barred from doing so. Elsewhere, someone may be fined $25,000 or arrested on the street, just for expressing views consistent with a belief that human nature exists. 

This should bring home what’s happening: the liberal interregnum in which “religion” was a private matter for individual conscience is over. For contra that small (and now, if they’re paying attention, increasingly furious) cohort of Gen X Right-liberals who came of age in the brief period where you really could say anything, total freedom of belief isn’t actually a workable basis for a functioning polity. You need sacred values, or you don’t have a coherent social order; and these are enforced via blasphemy codes. 

Accordingly, the battle is now joined over what those sacred values should be. And the human body is the central battleground. I suspect the resulting round of religious upheaval will be as far-reaching as the Reformation, and will see increasingly bitter religious and political schisms over what (if anything) is sacred about the human organism. 

A glance at news headlines from just the last fortnight or so affords no shortage of grim examples of such disputes erupting into violence. Brace yourselves: it’s going to get worse. And staying neutral will not be an option.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.