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Paul Ryan and Christian Discernment

August 14, 2012

Now that Paul Ryan has been selected as the GOP Vice Presidential candidate, I’ve noticed an awful lot of talk about the Wisconsin Congressman from liberal Protestants, most of it not positive.  I’ve already stated that I think Ryan’s budget was a good start in thinking about balancing the federal budget, but I tend to disagree with others on the center-right that Ryan’s budget is the end all and be all.  But I also disagree with the center-left that is making Ryan out to be the devil himself.

I wish we could have a reasoned debate about the role of government and how Christians can best respond to issues like poverty.  As Christians, we have differing opinions on how to deal with poverty.  We can be faithful Christians and have different ideas on how to carry out God’s justice.  We can disagree without resorting to painting the other side as evil.

I’m reposting a blog post I wrote about Paul Ryan earlier this year.  I would love it if we could talk about public policy without being mean about it, but that’s not gonna happen.

There’s been a lot of talk lately, criticism really, about the budget released by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. I wrote on my political blog about a year ago that I thought it wasn’t a perfect budget and even had some problems with it, but that it was a good start by the GOP. Then as now, there has been a cascade of criticism from folks about how the Ryan plan “radical” and some even questioning Ryan’s faith. What has bothered a lot of folks is that Ryan said that his Catholic faith helped shaped his budget. Here’s what he said earlier this month:

…Ryan made a moral case for his budget, saying that the government shouldn’t be responsible for lifting its citizens out of poverty — rather, that it’s the obligation of the citizens themselves to be society’s caretakers.

“Through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good, by not having Big Government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities,” Ryan said.

“Those principles are very, very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty, out into a life of independence.” …

Presbyterian blogger Michael Kruse is half joking when he responds to the article:

So is it possible that people from different political vantage points who genuinely care about poverty might come to dramatically different conclusions about the moral thing to do? Nah. I’m going with one side or the other has to be Satan incarnate while the other is Mother Teresa. ;-)

Obviously the answer to Kruse’s question is, no, people of faith can only have one viewpoint on how to deal with poverty. Columnist Dana Milbank takes Ryan to task and lauds the Catholic bishops and theologians who have spoken out against Ryan:

There is something un-Christian about the Gospel According to Paul Ryan. So, at least, says Ryan’s Catholic Church.

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody this month, Ryan, the author of the House Republican budget endorsed by Mitt Romney, said his program was crafted “using my Catholic faith” as inspiration. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was not about to bless that claim.

A week after Ryan’s boast, the bishops sent letters to Congress saying that the Ryan budget, passed by the House, “fails to meet” the moral criteria of the Church, namely its view that any budget should help “the least of these” as the Christian Bible requires: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the jobless. “A just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons,” the bishops wrote.

In fact, Ryan would cut spending on the least of these by about $5 trillion over 10 years — from Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and the like — and then turn around and award some $4 trillion in tax cuts to the most of these. To their credit, Catholic leaders were not about to let Ryan claim to be serving God when in fact he was serving mammon.

“Your budget,” a group of Jesuit scholars and other Georgetown University faculty members wrote to Ryan last week, “appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.”

What bothers folk is that Ryan uses his Catholic faith as reason for his budget. Frankly, I don’t see anything heretical about that arguement. Just as say, someone like Congressman John Lewis is grounded in his Baptist faith. It is possible to be people of faith and yet come to different conclusions on issues. That doesn’t mean that I love his budget wholesale. But I do think its important to give people the benefit of the doubt and trust that two people from the same faith can come from different conclusions on the same issue. It’s one thing to think his budget has issues and needs refinement, it’s another to basically slam him for coming to different way of seeing things from how you see them.

What bothers me about the criticism against Ryan is the assumption that to governmental support to care for the poor is supported in the Bible. The thing is, the Bible talks a lot about caring for the poor, but it never says how to do that. For some, caring for the poor means giving to local and international charities. For others, it means creating government programs. I’m not arguing that we should never use government to help the poor, but I am saying that the call to aid the least of these with government help is not supported in Scripture. God doesn’t tell us how to care for the poor, but demands that we get it done.

Which gets me back to Michael Kruse’s “joke.” The bile that has risen against the Ryan budget makes me think that debate even among Christians on public policy is becoming increasingly impossible. If we can’t debate the merits and demerits of this budget without delving into demonization, then what can we discuss?

(I need to add that conservatives are not better when it comes to debate and discernment either.)

What I long for is finding ways that people of faith can come and debate an issue and be open to where the Spirit of God leads instead of immediately pointing fingers, hiding behind the Bible and condemning others that don’t agree with them. I wish we’d stop seeing ourselves as Mother Teresas and the other side as Satan incarnate. I long for the time when the people of God are more willing to discern than to demonize.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Weber permalink
    August 15, 2012 2:59 pm

    I agree with many of the concepts you discuss. Where I disagree is how they are applied within the concept of our government and our recent economy. Actions versus words, within context, are critical to the analysis.

    That being said, I strongly disagree with the position of Rep. Ryan (and others) that our government is separate from us and our communities, while charities and churches are not.

    We live in a democracy, not a monarchy or a dictatorship. “We the People of the United States” are our government. Regardless, efforts to combat poverty in the community need not be limited to charities and churches. Our government is also our community. Efforts to separate our government from our community are disingenuous, at best.

    Furthermore, determining priorities and goals for our social programs is a separate issue. As a concept, most people would agree that social programs–whether through the government or private organizations–should seek to encourage people to help themselves. Moreover, most people would support reviewing the programs to minimize fraud and abuse.

    But, if these are the goals, the solution is not to drastically cut the programs (as opposed to seeking to improve them). Opponents argue these programs are imperfect (which is not a difficult argument to make; all human efforts are imperfect). I become skeptical when the solution offered by these persons is to cut the programs, instead of improve them. Furthermore, my skepticism peaks when those same opponents do not apply an equal amount of criticism to “corporate welfare” programs and the like, instead supporting the continuation or expansion of programs and policies for large corporations and the wealthy.

    These are actions that put mere words in context.

    Which brings me now to the religious component of what is going on. Some of the words being used to justicy such policies are based on Christianity. While equally religious persons can come to different conclusions and interpretations, there are times when people are willing to take religious doctrine completely out of context–perhaps intentionally, perhaps not–to support their own agenda.

    When this happens (even if it is not necessarily conscious or intentional), I do find it quite offensive.

    I am not ashamed to say that I want not only my churches and charities to reflect my values, but also my government and my elected politicians. Many of my values do have roots in my spiritual and religious beliefs. I understand that not everyone shares those beliefs and values. I even accept that some people believe in extreme individualism, money, and materialism. But when someone uses religion–Christianity or otherwise–in a manner that reflects what I consider to be a gross misunderstanding or a manipulation of its tenets, I am offended.

    And Rep. Ryan, in my opinion, is one person that pushes the extreme. Evil? I don’t really apply that label to many people. Manipulative? Sure.

    Consider the changes to our tax policy over the past 20 to 30 years. Currently, the highest individual income tax bracket is 35%. Most people have forgotten that for a significant portion of the past century–well over 50 years–the highest tax bracket was at least 50%, sometimes even above 90%. (This has been true for 62 of the past 100 years – 1917-23 and 1932-86. See http://taxfoundation.org/sites/taxfoundation.org/files/docs/fed_individual_rate_history_nominal%26adjusted-20110909.pdf. Keep in mind, that this has been a progressive tax system, where only the income above a certain threshold is taxed at these rates.)

    Even so, any current effort to raise taxes or increase the upper tax brackets, even a few percentage points, is quickly labeled a “socialist” agenda. Was our country socialist at any time during the past 100 years when the tax rates were 50% or more? How about while Eisenhower and Nixon were President?

    While very few support higher tax rates now, they were quite acceptable at one time. Could higher tax revenues, as opposed to just budget cuts, have an impact on our current economic crisis and deficit? Perhaps.

    Based on current economic policies, however, which seems to be largely supported by both of our major parties, the only acceptable solutions to balance the budget seem to be to cut social programs, while continuing to try to cut taxes, especially for upper tier individuals and for corporations.

    As we have entered a time of relative prosperity, where have our priorities been? In 1965, Hubert Humprey said: “This is the first generation in all of recorded history that can do something about the scourge of poverty. We have the means to do it. We can banish hunger from the face of the earth.” I think he was right. But what have our actions shown as our priorities?

    • August 15, 2012 8:06 pm

      Michael, I wonder if you are acquainted with the Roman Catholic idea of subsidiarity? The idea is that the people and institutions closest to the problems are usually the ones best equipped to address the problems. The operative word is “usually.” There are some things that simply can’t be provided for at a localized level or sometimes local situations become so dysfunctional that they need intervention. In such case less localized or more centralized authorities and institutions may be needed to achieve a healthy situation. But the presumption is that people make choices about their own circumstances and forming communities to address each others needs is the preferred model because here people can genuinely know and care for each other in truly informed way.

      Large government structures are indispensable. They provide a backbone that allows other intermediate and micro-level institutions to function as they aid in human flourishing. But the federal government exists in a supplementary, or subsidiary, role to the rest of society. It is to bring health to the other institutions, not to subsume them and place them in the service of political agendas.

      Now where is the line between when the federal government is fulling its subsidiary role and when it has gone to meddling? That is a debate around which Christians can have legitimate heartfelt disagreement. I disagree with aspects of what libertarians say constitutes appropriate roles for government but I also adamantly reject the idea that our default problem solver is the federal government or the idea that government is the central player with other institutions playing a subsidiary role to the government.

      The theologian/economist Paul Heyne used an analogy of an air traffic control system versus an urban transportation network. No one takes off, lands or moves without explicit direction from a controller in the air traffic control environment. Flight plans must be filed and adhered to. Everything is scripted and tightly managed leaving little room for human discretion and preference.

      In an urban network, the government has built roads and bridges. Traffic signals have been placed and roads have been marked. Basic rules have been set in place and officers are appointed to enforce them. Informal rules also emerge about appropriate traffic behavior. And yet each citizen decides at any given moment to travel to the market without consulting any official or weighing the needs of neighbors who may also wish to take a trip at any given moment. They take note of time of day, construction issues, weather, and any other variables, weigh the benefits of the trip, and decide whether or not to go based on their priorities.

      Both air traffic control and an urban transportation networks require government. Transportation would be chaos without them. What I’m suggesting is that government’s function with regard to most human affairs is more analogous to an urban transportation network than air traffic control system (though a few things can only be done by something resembling the latter model). And yes, many solutions to emerging problems will require governmental elements, but the involvement is to promote the efficacy of the network … to make room for good things to run wild based on the innovation and preferences of participants …, not to convert it into an air traffic control model. There are matters that are certainly in between these metaphors, or not captured by them at all.

      As to Ryan and his expressed interest in Rand, what about Obama’s participation with and expressed appreciation for people Saul Alinksy or William Ayers? Are these models of Christian ethics? People are impacted by all sorts of influences over the life.

      Democrat Irskine Bowles spoke very highly of Ryan’s budget proposal. Ryan’s Medicare proposal was the culmination of a bipartisan effort. The question is what is the candidate actually proposing and how does that comport with our ethical concerns? I don’t see the heartless, utterly self-centered, ethic of Rand present in Ryan’s proposal. Unless we are willing to honestly address such issues, all else is political subterfuge, attempts at suasion through guilt by association.

  2. Michael Weber permalink
    August 20, 2012 11:05 pm

    Thank you. I am not Catholic. The description of subsidiarity is interesting.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the general ideas of Pr. Dennis. My main point: Even if I am not in a position to judge Rep. Ryan’s spirituality, I can understand the frustration of others, especially when Rep. Ryan is the one invoking religious doctrine as support for his budget.

    A balanced and civil discussion is not defined by the willingness to hear and participate innthe presentation of different ideas, without emotion. Similarly, balanced news reporting should not be defined as simplistically giving equal time to opposing ideas, without any critical analysis, especially if one or both side’s position is based on distortion, bad facts, or manipulation.

    With just a little research, i see there are many who question Rep. Ryan’s interpretation and application of subsidiarity in the context of his budget. I have less sophisticated questions–but questions nonetheless–as I look at other aspects of his positions.

    I don’t mind discussing tolerance of ideas, civil debate, or susidiarity, as concepts. But seriously? Rep. Ryan as the poster child for these issues?

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