Recovering Right and Wrong


If you ever doubted the complete triumph of the therapeutic culture in America, look no further than this week’s news.

Take NASA for example. How did it respond to the sad and bizarre story involving a love triangle and an astronaut charged with attempted murder? It wants to tighten psychological screening procedures for astronauts! Now, I find it hard to imagine more rigorous screenings than those already given to naval aviators and astronauts.

How about sin? It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out what happens when you crowd attractive men and women into a space capsule.

Or take the recent case of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Following his election in 2003, Newsom was considered a rising political star. Times have changed: Now, he’s the butt of late-night comedians’ jokes, and his political future is, at best, uncertain.

A few weeks ago, Newsom confirmed reports that he was involved in an affair with his campaign manager’s wife. He claimed that he was “deeply sorry about that,” but then announced that he was “seeking counseling for alcohol abuse.”

“Upon reflection” he told reporters, “I have come to the conclusion that I will be a better person without alcohol in my life.”

Newsom is hardly alone in his approach to moral failure. If a politician or celebrity is caught up in a scandal, you can pretty much count on their entering rehab soon afterwards. (And these “rehab centers,” by the way, are like little Ritz-Carltons.) This is true even if the behavior that caused the scandal has little, if anything, to do with alcohol or drugs, as in Newsom’s case.

Thus, after being caught on tape spewing anti-Semitic nonsense, Mel Gibson checked into rehab. After his behavior toward underage congressional pages became known, Congressman Mark Foley (R-Fla.) — what else? — entered rehab.

In all these instances, the message is the same: The booze made me do it. Even when some personal fault is acknowledged, the unstated assumption is that once the drinking or drug use is dealt with, everything will be okay.

In all these instances, the message is the same: The booze made me do it. Even when some personal fault is acknowledged, the unstated assumption is that once the drinking or drug use is dealt with, everything will be okay.

This is a prime example of what sociologist Philip Rieff called “the triumph of the therapeutic.” In his book by that name, Rieff described the emergence of what he called “psychological man.”

“Psychological man,” who was only possible because of Christianity’s declining cultural influence, is the product of a Freudian worldview. It isn’t interested in the good life, but “living well” — that is, with a minimum of emotional and psychological distress. Anything that causes this distress becomes the enemy, including a sense of responsibility and respect for authority.

But what happens when you do something bad, like having an affair with your friend’s wife? Or trying to kill a rival for your lover’s affections? Well, now, you don’t talk about sin because that has been dispensed with in our culture. So you look for an external cause of the behavior like alcohol or mental illness. You do not punish; you provide “treatment” that deals with these external causes.

Nonsense! What we need instead is to recover what therapy replaced: sin and individual responsibility, knowledge of right and wrong and the sense of shame that reinforces it. This might be decidedly politically incorrect, but it’s the only thing that will make “better persons” of us all.

For further reading and information:

John Rogers, “Get Mad, Go to Rehab: Cure-All or Attempt at Damage Control?Examiner, 7 February 2007.

Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, fortieth anniversary edition (ISI Books, 2006).

Dr. Enrico Peppe, “IC’s Top 25 Philosophical and Ideological Conservative Books,” Intellectual Conservative, 15 July 2005.

Learn more about Philip Rieff’s book The Triumph of the Therapeutic.

Mayor who had affair says he’ll enter alcohol counseling,” CNN, 5 February 2007.

William Macklin, “Accused Astronaut’s Troubles Force Review Of NASA Psych Program,” All Headline News, 8 February 2007.

Zoe Sandvig, “Murder on the Moon?The Point, 8 February 2007.

Gina Dalfonzo, “More Thoughts on Sexuality in the Media,” The Point, 25 January 2007.

John Fischer, “Forget about Self-Esteem,” BreakPoint Online, 10 February 2005.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 050929, “Salvation through Psychology: One Nation under Therapy.”

BreakPoint Commentary No. 010601, “What’s in It for Me?: The Selfist Philosophy.”

BreakPoint Commentary No. 000816, “The Triumph of the Therapeutic: The President at Willow Creek.”

BreakPoint Commentary No. 990322, “Transformation without Repentance: Psychoanalysis and Evil in Analyze This.”

BreakPoint Commentary No. 990513, “Good Grief: Faith versus Freud.”

Paul C. Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (Eerdmans, 1994).


Charles Colson. "Recovering Right and Wrong." BreakPoint Commentary February 9, 2007.

From BreakPoint ® (02/9/07), Copyright 2000, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries, P.O. Box 17500, Washington, D.C. 20041-0500. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint ®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries ®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship Ministries.


Charles Colson launched Prison Fellowship in 1976, following a seven-month prison sentence for Watergate-related crimes. Since then, Prison Fellowship has flourished into a U.S. ministry of 50,000 volunteers and has spread to more then 50 countries. Beyond his prison ministry, Colson is a Christian author, speaker, and commentator, who regularly confronts contemporary values from a biblically informed perspective. His "BreakPoint" radio commentaries now air daily across the U.S. and he has written 14 books, including Loving God, Answers to Your Kids' Questions, The Line Between Right & Wrong: Developing a Personal Code of Ethics, Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, and How Now Shall We Live: A Study Guide.

Copyright © 2007 Breakpoint

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