In my last post, I wrote about tensions, existing or potential, between the libertarian and social conservative elements in the tea party movement. Whereas before I was speaking of Christians in a broad and general sense, I will now turn to what I think the Catholic response to the tea party ought to be.
As I looked into this topic, I was dismayed by the utter predictability of responses from across the Catholic spectrum. The rad-trad response was irrational as always; the leftist response as arrogant and contemptuous as ever; and the mainstream response was unimaginative. Granted this is a very small sampling, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was accurately representative of these currents.
28% of the tea party movement, according to the one poll we have so far, is Catholic. This means Catholics are slightly over-represented in the movement. As I also reported last time, 68% of tea partiers attend religious services regularly; for Catholics, that ought to mean they go to Mass every Sunday. Now one thing I think I can say that isn’t very controversial is that when it comes to fidelity to the Church’s teaching on non-negotiable issues, such as abortion, marriage, and parental education rights, Catholics that regularly attend Mass are doing a heck of a lot better than Catholics who don’t. So these Catholics that are faithful to Church teaching on important issues are also supporting the tea party; that to me is an indicator that there is little in the tea party that fundamentally contradicts Church teaching.
I can hear the leftists now: these Catholics often reject the economic teaching of the Church, and the teaching authority of the US bishops. Well, aside from the fact that the bishops in this country have almost entirely blown their political capital (though their persistence in supporting the Stupak Amendment was admirable, I must admit), it isn’t clear to me at all that rejecting specific proposals or even broader ideological agendas is at all tantamount to rejecting the broad aims of the Church’s social teaching. If they do, it is obviously a problem. That’s all I want to say on this for now.
A commenter on my previous article posed a dilemma, however, that is worth exploring here: what if the fiscally-oriented, libertarian-ish tea party gets behind a pro-choice fiscal conservative? Catholics would then be forced once again to struggle with their consciences at the voting booth. The first thing that should be said is that, at least in its beginning, the tea party rallied around Ron Paul, who has always been pro-life. I don’t think this is because the movement is inherently pro-life, but because, as I argued previously, one of its original principles was fidelity to the US Constitution. Paul and other strict constitutionalists have always viewed Roe as a dubious decision, invoking a “right to privacy” that has to be read into the Constitution because it isn’t explicitly stated anywhere. They believe the matter of abortion is best left to the states to decide, a position I once rejected but now have to admit is the most wise and really the only one that is possible.
This commenter also pointed out that the tea party denounced Mike Huckabee as a “Christian Socialist.” Now, as someone who almost made a career out of socialism, I can say that what the average American thinks “socialism” is usually has more error than truth, at least academically. That said, I think it is usually a healthy instinct, even if the historical and theoretical details are off. In one particular respect, I think the characterization of Huckabee as a “Christian Socialist” is accurate, though perhaps not in a way that was meant by those who first used the phrase.
What I mean is this: we live in a political climate in which to be “pro-choice” (and I’ll get to the pro-life angle in a moment) is to ultimately be in favor of the federal government guaranteeing unrestricted access to abortion. Some go even further, as we have seen in the healthcare debate, and insist that this unrestricted access, in practice, means government (and therefore tax-payer) funded abortions. Either way, as someone who is familiar with the historical legacy of socialism, from its most extreme variants such as Bolshevism to its milder cousins such as Social Democracy, I can say that the idea that one of the responsibilities of the state is to guarantee unrestricted access to abortion is a fundamentally socialist idea. It is true in Europe, and it is true in America; abortion on demand is, according to most American socialist groups (if not all), a “fundamental democratic right” – how they link democracy to abortion is something I still haven’t quite figured out, and don’t really care to.
[Let me preempt one objection here: yes I know there is a smattering of pro-life socialists. There’s never been enough of them to form a party, or even a faction within a party, or if there has, its been an organization so small that it hasn’t shown up on the radar screen. The Socialist Party did nominate a “pro-life” Walt Brown one time, and Britain’s George Galloway is also described as “pro-life”; in neither case did they affect the party platform.]
On the other side of the coin, there are pro-lifers, such as Huckabee – who compares abortion to slavery in a way I don’t find helpful at all – that believe that the power of the federal government should be used towards the opposite end; to restrict access to abortion, even if it means riding roughshod over state laws in the same way that Roe does. While this isn’t exactly what comes to mind when I think of the phrase “Christian Socialist”, there is an acorn of truth in the accusation. When you insist that the national or federal government come in and take over management of an issue or a problem that could otherwise be dealt with at a smaller level of government, you’ve crossed the line from subsidiarity to flirtation with socialism, or possibly fascism.
Rad-trad and leftist alike will screech about the duties of government as set forth by the social teaching of the Church. But nothing in Church teaching says that a federal republic is an immoral form of government, or that an authoritarian abrogation of its principles becomes a duty when faced with the problems of cultural polarization. Catholics have a moral obligation to support politicians who will, in their official capacity (quite apart from their “personal beliefs”), legislate in accordance with Church teaching on the fundamental, non-negotiable issues. In a political contest in which all of the candidates fall short of the Church’s criteria, we are to choose the one that will do the least damage on these issues.
This brings me back to the tea party. Assuming that this movement, at least in the majority, remains faithful to a strict interpretation of the constitution, it will support candidates such as Ron Paul or Chuck Baldwin. It certainly won’t support a candidate who takes the socialist position that abortion is a fundamental right that the federal government must provide or guarantee access to. We might see a candidate who is “personally pro-choice”; but if he is running for president, this personal view should mean nothing if he is an authentic constitutionalist. If he opposes Roe, that is sufficient for Catholics to vote for him (all other things being kosher, of course). It isn’t necessary, no matter what some of the trads or the leftists maintain, for a candidate to promise that which our constitution does not allow him to do – to unilaterally decide the legal status of abortion in the United States.
As proof of my consistency, let me say that I never opposed Obama strictly on the issue of FOCA. For as much as I am sure he would like to, and his supporters would have liked him to, he had neither the willingness nor the ability to act as a dictator and simply issue decrees on abortion. When he promised a crowd of abortionists at Planned Parenthood that signing FOCA would be “the first thing” he would do, both the people in that crowd who cheered, as well as the pro-lifers that were terrified and angry, had the wrong impression. FOCA is an Act; it has to pass through the legislative process. He can’t sign what doesn’t reach his desk, and not even a Democratic majority is enough for FOCA, especially if it turns out that it isn’t enough to pass his health care legislation.
So to a certain extent, even officials who are minimally faithful to the Constitution usually can’t go much further beyond Roe, at least not without being undone by the next pro-life replacement; a tea party candidate who manages to convince me that he’s a constitutionalist like Ron Paul will have my vote regardless of what ontological position on unborn human beings he takes. Things aren’t substantially different with regard to the people we send to Washington to represent us. If they’re reliable constitutionalists, they’ll reject pro-choice socialism and support pro-life constitutionalism.
In sum: The tea party movement is a political movement that Catholics ought to support. They ought to support it because smaller government is good for Catholicism, and good for the culture of life. They ought to support it because Catholic social teaching demands subsidiarity, because the Papacy has always looked kindly on the American idea of religious liberty, and because whatever flaws this movement may have can be balanced by the presence of principled and faithful Catholics. In the final analysis, it is not the government’s job, but our job, to create a culture of life. Just how we go about doing that is a topic I will have to address later.