On paper, Joe Biden will be the second Catholic to hold the office of US President. In reality, he will govern in accord with a very different faith. His policies and rhetoric will be based not on Roman dogma but on a creed which might be called “therapeutic technocracy”. This is the unacknowledged religion of much of America. It promises that by listening to science and the voices of the suffering we can ensure our nation’s physical and psychological health.
Biden’s adherence to this faith was made clear in his victory speech. He declared that he would defeat coronavirus with a plan “built on a bedrock of science” and “constructed out of compassion, empathy and concern”. These are the quasi-religious pillars of his legitimacy. By invoking them he claims an authority that goes beyond the merely human, just as a king once might have claimed divine favour. Why does therapeutic belief (“compassion, empathy and concern”) go along with faith in technocratic expertise? Because it justifies the technocrats’ right to rule. This new class lacks the more traditional forms of legitimacy – sacred anointing, popular acclaim, or loyalty to a national history. Instead, they claim to be experts in soothing our pain.
As Biden’s vice-president-elect Kamala Harris promised: “Know that Joe Biden and I will wake up every single day thinking about you and your families.”
The figure of the therapist exemplifies a particularly attractive form of expertise. He is not tasked with overcoming external technical problems, in which success or failure would be obvious. He is charged with the more ambiguous – and in some ways more ambitious – task of resolving all the problems of the psyche. If an engineer doesn’t know how to build a bridge, his incapacity will become disastrously clear. The competence of a therapist can never be tested in the same way.
A ruling class incapable of increasing the median wage or restoring American industry can still vow that it is overcoming the internal darkness of hatred and bigotry. A soft, therapeutic technocracy can promise more and deliver less than a hard technocratic regime devoted to, say, cold fusion or the abolition of age.
Over the past year, it has become obvious that this ethic motivates many of our public health experts. Their recommendations – on masks, travel bans, and more – have been inconsistent in part because they have been motivated by the desire to vanquish non-therapeutic outlooks and to buttress technocratic authority.
So don’t expect Biden to blink if any American bishop threatens to withhold communion from him due to his position on abortion. The only clerisy he will seek to keep happy is the one embedded in the administrative state and other bureaucracies, the one that seeks to promote public health and non-judgmental diversity. “Look, I think it’s important to follow the science,” Biden said in April. “Listen to the experts. Do what they tell you.” What will they tell Joe Biden? Because they value their conception of health over any religious duty, they are likely to urge him to insist that the Little Sisters of the Poor pay for contraception. Because they perceive any alternate loyalty as a threat to their authority, they are likely to denigrate national loyalty and religious belief. They will diagnose disagreement as a symptom of mental or moral disease.
Because the promises of therapeutic bureaucracy outstrip its abilities, Biden is likely to leave disappointment in his wake. No matter how closely we follow the recommendations of public health authorities, we will not be able to vanquish disease. No matter how devoted we become to anti-racism, the Biden era will not see the end of bigotry. In fact, our commitment to safetyism and diversity is bound to make us ever more sensitive to ever-smaller irruptions of disease and bigotry. We will be increasingly disturbed by these things without being better able to combat them. Disappointed hope will breed revolutionary rage among some. Overreach will inspire furious backlash from others.
At the end of his victory speech, Biden quoted the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings.”
“It captures the faith that sustains me and which I believe sustains America,” he said. It is not clear that that faith is entirely Catholic.
After all, no Catholic politician would dare treat Pope Francis with the public deference Joe Biden shows to America’s chief health official Anthony Fauci. And say what you will about the tenets of Roman Catholicism, it is less changeable and arbitrary than the declarations of our public health experts.