The Personalist Project

Americans are used to believing, and have thought since their beginning in 1776, that they are the freest country in the world—nay the very embodiment of freedom, and the firmest column of the “Axis of Good”, opposing the forces of the “Axis of evil,” and quite especially all totalitarian states in which human rights go without the unconditional respect they command, and in which freedom and liberty are trampled upon. It is certainly true that the US has in many situations, most notably in the disarmament of one of the most diabolical totalitarian states, Nazi Germany, lived up to the great historic mission of this country. (And I, as Austrian who was born just three months before the end of the most heroic liberation-act in US history, feel a deep debt of gratitude to the USA for its selfless commitment to protecting, frequently with the sacrifice of their own lives, the freedom and countless lives of people in other countries.) US history is unparalleled in this respect and justifies the pride—and more so the gratitude—of its citizens to live in the freest and most freedom-and human rights-protecting country on this earth.

But if we free ourselves of wholly unfounded clichés, we must ask ourselves a very serious question the inevitable answer to which points in the opposite direction: Has the US, the country that prides itself as no other country on being a free country, instead turned into a totalitarian state?

I believe that the answer must certainly be ‘yes’; at least in many ways.  Why so?

If, as the Declaration of Independence has it, “governments are instituted among men to secure” fundamental human rights of which the Declaration names, among others, the rights to life and to liberty, the latter including quite clearly the right to freedom of religion and to conscientious dissent, then the present health plan of the Obama administration and many other previous laws and Supreme Court decisions since 1973 have turned the US into a country diametrically opposed to the venerable words with which the Declaration of Independence precedes its separation from the British Empire: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

A state becomes totalitarian when these fundamental human rights, chief among them (for different reasons) the rights to life and the right to freedom of conscience and religion, are no longer protected and, still worse, are deliberately attacked by the state itself and its laws.

There are quite explicitly two fundamental rights gravely violated by several US governments, laws, and by some infamous Supreme Court decisions: 1) The right to life and 2) the right of self-determination of other states. But at this historic moment we are faced with a most serious violation of a third right: 3) The right to the freedom of conscience and religion.

(1)  The right to life does not mean that any one of us has a right to exist in an absolute sense: our life is a gift. But the right to life, which is in one sense the most fundamental of all rights, because it protects the condition of all other rights, means: Once a human being lives, it has the unalienable right to have his or her life respected and not attacked by others.

(2) The right to free self-determination means that, within the limits of truth and of “natural law” and basic human rights, each state has a sovereignty  with regards to its own laws and basic principles of its politics. If therefore the United States – which it has been doing for decades on a large scale – bribes, or virtually forces other states to accept its exportation of contraception, abortion, etc., as a condition of receiving humanitarian aid, which, for example, “forced” Chile contractually, as the Bachelet government confessed, to demand recently that all health centers in Chile distribute (gratis) the “the morning after pill” to girls and women from 14 years on,  the United States not only violates rights (of conscientious dissent) of their own citizens, but also those of other peoples. (The Chilean Supreme Court declared parts of this government decision and contracts invalid).

3) The right to the freedom of religion and conscience means that every person has a right to abstain from any actions that are forbidden by her genuinely religious and moral beliefs and no one has a right to demand that any person violates the sacred voice of her conscience. To do so, or to put someone who follows his conscience and religious creed into some professional or other disadvantages, is one of the gravest, and in some sense, the gravest, attack on human dignity and the fundamental human rights: Because no other freedom or liberty has such a profound and transcendent weight as religious and moral liberty.

A State exists chiefly to secure the protection of these fundamental human rights. As soon as a State ceases to “secure these rights,” it loses its most important reason for existing, as the Declaration of Independence puts it: “...whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”

Now the United States, including its Supreme Court that ought to be the ultimate safeguard of these evident truths and fundamental rights, have already a long time ago abolished the protection of the right to life of the unborn who are no less human persons than any one of us.  Millions, more than those killed by the Nazi regime and Stalinist concentration camps put together, have died in consequence of this under the “blessing of the law”.

But for a good while the United States have not touched, at least not on US territory,  the freedom of their own medical doctors, nurses, or pharmacists, private hospitals, etc. to object to such horrendous violations of human rights and to abide by their consciences. They have respected the rights of Christians, adherents of other religions, and many atheists:

- never to perform an abortion (even if no other clinic that performs abortions is near);

- never to refer women to other clinics for such “services;”

- never to sterilize women or distribute contraceptives among them;

- never to commit euthanasia, etc.

These and others are not only Jewish, Christian, or Muslim ethical prohibitions. No, they are all contained in the medical oath of Hippocrates, a pagan who lived centuries before Christ. They are in fact eternal and prepositive (“natural”)  laws and rights which no state or human majority can bestow or take away from human persons and the existence and ethical implications of which are evident to human reason, let alone their obviously being embraced by many religious beliefs.

I said that the United States for quite a while, at least within its own territory, did not touch these human rights of freedom of conscience and religion, which regard as it were the innermost sanctuary of the human person. Nothing therefore can be more totalitarian and more opposed to the genius of the United States than violating these rights.

And just this is going on NOW in this country (as well as in Europe, in China, and in many parts of the world).  If those who see these self-evident truths pronounced in the Declaration of Independence and constitution, do not cry out against such an abuse and prevent that the US turn into a lawless state, a state that steers into a new and most terrible direction and in which, after the right to life, now also the liberty of religion and conscience, so to speak the “arch-American human rights,” are violated, then the America we admire and love will be dead. Let us not allow such an overturning of the principles on which the USA has been built!


I add my reply to Mr. Segall's objections below, here because they may be of general interest:

Dear Rhett:

Thank you for your reply and interesting questions. I think that neither American pluralism nor the respect and tolerance individuals, states and laws should have towards individuals and groups within a society that hold a plurality of different moral and religious beliefs justify imposing on Catholic and other private institutions purchasing, distributing or recommending contraceptives or performing interventions and abortions which are intrinsically evil and which Catholics and other persons consider to be murder and ground of excommunication. I think that a state that suppresses this deepest human right of the freedom of conscience and religion, and that not only condones killing of human persons but virtually forces others to do so against their conscience, violates the two most fundamental rights the Declaration of Independence lists and, in oppressing moral and religious freedom, turns a state into a (from the point of view of prepositive law) lawless and partly totalitarian one.

The case of Christian scientists is another one. First of all, if a doctor saves a child’s life by a blood-transfusion, against the parents’ will, he neither is forced nor violates his conscience nor does he violate the parent’s conscience as he does not force them to act against their religious convictions. Rather, here we have to do with a conflict between what two consciences demand and between two spheres of authority and responsibility and with the hard question which moral judgment in this situation overrides the other and what are the limits of parental authority and the extent of the medical duty to save lives. And these are entirely different problems, a solution to which is difficult. In many states the doctor is forbidden to save a child’s life by blood-transfusion against the will of parents, but he can refuse treating a patient under such conditions and restrictions. In other countries, he will be allowed to act in such a case according to his and society’s conscience because the obligation issuing from a person’s life and that person’s interests are deemed to possess priority over the obligation to respect parental authority.

You think it is premature to call American laws or the newest oppression of consciences elements of “totalitarianism.” I agree that as long as Americans still have the freedom to organize themselves in order to change the laws, we find in the USA elements of free society that other people in fully totalitarian regimes lack whose refusal to obey will be punished with prison or death.

Nevertheless I see in the pseudo-democratic oppression of the right to life of millions under the pretext of affirming a non-existing right to abortion, and even more in forcing people to act against their conscience and religion clear elements of a totalitarian oppression of the most important rights to freedom. Telling Catholics or other opponents of abortion that they either have to close their hospital, abandon their profession, or perform criminal or other wrong acts which violate in a grave way their consciences, contradicts the core of the right to liberty more profoundly than jailing them without due process, as it is customary in totalitarian states.

Of course, there are many degrees of the evil or totalitarianism. For example, the forced abortions in China are much more totalitarian measures than the claim that each woman has a right to kill her baby and the violation of the children’s right to life. And forcing medical doctors to perform abortions or else going to prison is more totalitarian than giving them the choice between complying with a state order to perform abortions if they alone are on duty or else closing their clinics or leaving their jobs.

Your interesting questions certainly invite us to open a new discussion on the difference between dictatorships, totalitarian states, “democratic oppression of human rights,” etc.  I hope we will be given an opportunity to engage in such a dialogue.

Comments (11)

Teresa Manidis

#1, Mar 3, 2012 8:59pm

This post is tragic. But tragic because it is true. I heartily concur with all of the points contained therein. WIth respect for neither Life nor Liberty (religious liberty, in this case) America, as such, simply cannot stand.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Mar 4, 2012 8:37am

Thanks for connecting the violation of the right of self-determination of other states with the current violation of the religious freedom of its own citizens and institutions. I had not thought of it. In some ways Americans are now experiencing the same sort of treatment that they or at least their government has inflicted on nations around the world for years. Let's hope that the shock of the recent HHS mandate, will truly wake us up to see all the violations of basic human rights in and outside the country. And that our efforts to fight back are accompanied by a sober awareness of the fact that we were not as appalled by the violations of the rights of others as we should have been.

On the question of self-determination of the level of states, I'd love to hear some more about it. Especially about the difference between foreign intervention (even military) for humanitarian purposes, and the sort of obviously illegitimate interference you refer to above. The question has come up in comments (here for instance). A future post perhaps? It is certainly worth a separate discussion.

Josef Seifert

#3, Mar 4, 2012 9:07am

Dear Jules,

Thank you for your response. As you say, the question of the self-determination of states deserves a separate discussion. Best regards


Rhett Segall

#4, Mar 4, 2012 11:07am

Dear Josef:

Granted the HHS mandate Imposes Catholic institutions to provide the opportunity for its employees to purchase contraceptives and in so doing violates Catholic principles, isn't this governmental action something to be evaluated within the context of American pluralism?

Thus the government mandates that those people who believe that only prayer should be used in response to sickness (Christian scientists) can be forced to provide medical care for their children, which would be against the parents' conscience.

Similarly, New York State mandates that tax money be used to provide bus transportation and text book funding for parochial school children. In doing so, it forces those who are against the philosophy of parochial schools to indirectly help them.

I think Catholics have the responsibility to fight against the HHS mandate but if it is passed then it can be followed in good conscience under the principle of the double effect. 

I think refering to the government at this point as "totalitarian" is premature in as much as people still have the opportunity to organize to change the law. This is true regarding the Roe v Wade situation too.



Josef Seifert

#5, Mar 4, 2012 2:45pm

Dear Rett:

Thank you for your reply. As my reply may be of general interest, I add it on to my post. Thanks  Josef

Josef Seifert

#6, Mar 4, 2012 11:15pm

Dear Rett:

I also wrote a new piece in which I agree with your objection (your defense of the USA not being totalitarian) on many points and explain better what I meant and what totalitarianism is.

richard sherlock

#7, Mar 6, 2012 1:31am


You are very insightful. I think you are right. What we have now is the soft despotism of relativism. Relativism is a soft despotism because it does not ask any of us defend our moral conviction. "If that is what you believe then its right for you". ( but just don't say i'm wrong to believe otherwise). I just gave an interview to our student newspaper about abortion. The editor interviewed me and I said point blank that a planned parenthood clinic was equivalent to Auschwitz. You could have seen her jaw drop 10 feet. In the article she quoted a student who is simply an incoherent divine voluntarist" since my church hasn't said when human life begins I can believe whatever I want and be strongly pro-choice" 

Josef Seifert

#8, Mar 6, 2012 8:37am

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your comment. Yours are other examples of the soft, or less soft, tyranny of relativism, according to which absolute truth is that all is relative, as my psychology Professor at the University said, when I pointed out to him that he contradicted himself because he thought that it is objectively and absolutely true that all truth is relative. He hit the table with his fist and shouted with a furiously angry voice that seemed to exclude any objection: "Yes, this is the only thing that is absolutely true: Everything is relative!", without noticing that he did not only presuppose that this judgment was absolutely speaking true, but also the reasons that prompted him to defend relativism, and the volume of his shouting certainly did nothing to eliminate the contradiction.

Josef Seifert

#9, Mar 6, 2012 8:37am

Making relativism the only absolute truth is not the foundation of free democracies, quite the contrary: if there is no objective truth about human dignity, human rights and all other foundational values of a democracy, all cornerstones of a free and just state are gone. If there is no truth, everything is "permitted," including every dictatorship and totalitarianism, if it pleases the ones in power. It does not stop there: relativism itself, not tolerating any critique of its falsity, becomes a super-dictator: to call something objectively true or false, right or wrong, is no longer tolerated in Universities or in the public square; and having eliminated any truth that could limit its tyranny, the state becomes even free to enslave the consciences of other people, not allowing them to act according to what they hold to be absolutely true, right, or wrong.

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Mar 6, 2012 8:55am

Josef Seifert, Mar. 6 at 8:37am

... if there is no objective truth about human dignity, human rights and all other foundational values of a democracy, all cornerstones of a free and just state are gone. If there is no truth, everything is "permitted," including every dictatorship and totalitarianism, if it pleases the ones in power. It does not stop there: relativism itself, not tolerating any critique of its falsity, becomes a super-dictator...

This is exactly it.  Our dignity as persons stems from our dwelling in Truth, our freely relating ourselves to truth and value.  If there is no objective truth, no objective value, there remains only force.

I am going to quote this when I introduce Lily's public lecture on Thursday.

Josef Seifert

#11, Mar 6, 2012 1:38pm

I am glad we agree on this important truth, even though I believe we must distinguish four different dimensions of human dignity, what you said belonging to the third one:

  1. The ontological dignity which each human person, whether embryo or born, conscious or unconscious, healthy or sick, possesses does not stem from freely relating ourselves to truth and value which presupposes conscious awakening of a certain level of clarity.
  2. Also the dignity of the thinking awakened conscious person does not depend on the good use of our intellect and will, our relating adequately to truth and value, which is our vocation.
  3. And if we fulfill it, we acquire a new - moral – dignity which the evil person does not possess.
  4. There are also purely given forms of dignity as a gift from outside or above all human efforts, bestowed on us by human or divine persons, such as the dignity of the king or judge, of the beloved or of the redeemed person, a dignity which cannot be acquired by our will.

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