Sister Simone Campbell’s challenge to fellow Catholic Paul Ryan goes to the moral roots of our political divide.
By Tim Connor
One of the silver-linings of having a chronic case of writer’s block of late is that I have a small flotilla of half-baked ideas swimming around my desktop. Among the unfinished pieces is a rousing defense of pessimism. That one’s been a tricky dive for sure.
Far from the throes of these blues, Sister Simone Campell and the so called “Nuns on the Bus” have provided me and others with a piercing ray of hope. In case you missed it, Sister Simone and her fellow contingent of Catholic nuns made a nine-stop tour earlier this summer, ultimately arriving in Washington, D.C. on July 2nd. Organized by the Catholic social justice lobby group Network, the nuns hit the road to deliver a moral critique of the federal budget proposal drafted by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan, of course, has since accepted Mitt Romney’s invitation to run as his vice-president.
The Ryan budget is not like one of the regular blasts of political rhetoric that get fed into the daily news cycle. In April of last year, it passed the House of Representatives on a straight party-line vote. It remains, for all intents and purposes, the blueprint that a Republican President and Congress would use to govern the country, assuming they acquire the mandate to do so. It would extend even greater tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans while slashing federal funds for social programs—most notably health care assistance for the poor and elderly.
Ryan’s ascension as the policy architect for the 21st century GOP is chronicled in Ryan Lizza’s in a first-rate New Yorker profile published just days before Mitt Romney announced Ryan would be his running mate. Lizza’s article explains why Ryan and his ideas had already attracted the full attention of Nuns on the Bus and Sister Simone. Ryan is a Catholic and it clearly galls Sister Simone and her fellow nuns that he would invoke his Catholicism in defense of his budget priorities, as he did last spring.
“It’s really hard for me to know what his purposes are,” Sister Simone told an interviewer in April when asked whether she thought Ryan was being honest in defending his budget as consistent with the tenets of Catholicism. “I mean, the man may be sincere. It’s hard to believe in the light of the political rhetoric. What I do believe is abundantly clear is that in our nation, we value greatly that we all investing our society, that we meet Jesus’s command that we take care of the least and that we also believe strongly in fairness, that those who have benefitted the most from our society should contribute the most in reinvesting back into our society.”
Ryan’s view is that the money the government spends on the poor is largely counter-productive, and that the way to lift people out of poverty is to end their supposed reliance on government assistance. In Ryan’s America, the poor liberate themselves from childcare and healthcare assistance by becoming entrepreneurs or finding fuller employment with entrepreneurs whose businesses have been greased by tax cuts and deregulation.
The result, as the New York Times explained in a recent editorial, is that the Ryan budget would profoundly alter the face of government toward the poor:
“Mr. Ryan drew a blueprint for a government that would be absent when people needed it the most. Medicaid, food stamps, and other vital programs would be offloaded to the states, but the states would not be given the resources to run them. The federal government simply would not be there to help the unemployed who need job training, or struggling students who seek college educations. Washington would be unable to respond when a city cannot properly treat its sewage, or when the poor and uninsured overload emergency rooms as clinics close. More than three-fifths of the cuts proposed by Mr. Ryan come from programs for low-income Americans.”
For his undiluted budget slashing and tax-cutting, Paul Ryan has attained rock star status among Republicans and been elevated by much of the media as a messiah of the new conservatism.
Part of what got lost in this coronation was the math. For all the primal screaming from Tea Party Republicans that we need to cut spending to balance the federal budget, Ryan’s tough-love budget cutting is offset by his tax cuts for the rich and corporations. The supposed deficit reduction is really a mirage. It comes from what economist/columnist Paul Krugman dismisses as “magic asterisks”—purely speculative assumptions of future revenue growth.
And, still, Paul Ryan is marked as a hero for his boldness and his “courage.”
Sister Simone and the Nuns on the Bus are reminding all of us that the values reflected in our politics are deeply connected to our personal and communal values.
Sister Simone and the nuns promptly ignored the memo asking everyone to bring silver buckets of flowers to Ryan’s consecration. My delight in their summer bus tour and their ‘wait a minute pal’ message to Ryan is impossible to suppress. Suffice to say, I was raised Catholic and if there are redeeming aspects to my purpose in life they were instilled by humble nuns and like-minded priests. These were devoted women and men deeply committed not just to social justice but to the broader morality of Jesus’s teachings in which the New Testament is steeped. When Sister Simone speaks, I hear that choir.
Ryan does have his defenders within the Catholic church’s ascendant conservative wing (if we can call it that). It is a movement that is less focused on social justice issues and more focused on issues of abortion, birth control, and opposition to gay rights. Without boring you with the bloodless details of an intra-Catholic squabble, I think it’s fair to say that Ryan and his conservative Catholic supporters don’t accept that government should be much involved with helping the poor; that this is a function best provided by others.
It is not an argument that Ryan and his supporters are winning in Catholic circles, even among an increasingly conservative church hierarchy. For example, last March the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a detailed letter to Congress reminding the nation’s law makers of “the moral measure” of the budget debate. The bishops further reported they were joining with other Christian pastors in calling for a “circle of protection” around the most vulnerable Americans. The letter from the bishops was a direct rebuke to the Ryan budget.
Adding fuel to this fire is Ryan’s well-documented admiration for Ayn Rand.
Rand is the Russian-born novelist, philosopher and committed atheist who has a cult-like following among libertarians and conservative Republicans. In a nutshell, Rand’s philosophy is that the pursuit of individual rights is sacred and that laissez faire capitalism is the ideal political/economic system. In 2005, Ryan told a conference of Rand devotees that “(T)he reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”
Ryan recently tried to renounce Rand’s atheism. He’s also tried, incredulously, to offer a tortuous argument that the best way to help the poor is to help the rich help the poor by getting rid of environmental rules and giving the rich tax breaks. But he’d already spilled the beans. Paul Ryan sees this just like his heroine Ayn Rand did—as a purely secular fight to protect the rights of individuals to pursue what’s important to themselves. And if they don’t want to be their brother’s keeper, they don’t have to be. Nowhere in Ayn Rand’s teachings will you find anything like the Jesus of Matthew 19:24:
“And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
(Here I imagine that some of the fine print the Congressional Budget Office may have overlooked in the Ryan budget are earmarks to genetically engineer smaller camels, or to build a needle the size of the Washington Monument.)
Paul Ryan sees this just like his heroine Ayn Rand did—as a purely secular fight to protect the rights of individuals to pursue what’s important to themselves. And if they don’t want to be their brother’s keeper, they don’t have to be.
But let me return to Sister Simone. It’s hard to describe how excruciating it has been to see President Obama not just bullied and confused by the ideological obstructionism of Ryan and the Congressional Republicans, but even adopting their language and premises in his naive and futile efforts to find a compromise. You can’t compromise with thugs. It really took Sister Simone and the nuns to show him how it’s done, how when confronted with something as brutal and pernicious as Ryan’s ideology and its consequences, you have to lock arms and speak in whole octaves. To use a basketball analogy that our jump-shooting President might relate to, you gotta take it to the rim, dude.
More importantly, Sister Simone and the nuns are reminding all of us that the values reflected in our politics are deeply connected to our personal and communal values. Given how polarizing our politics has become it’s been at least convenient to behave as though we can ignore politics and just resolve to talk only about other, less divisive subjects. There is some social merit in that, given how unpleasant it is at a party to hear a loud argument over Planned Parenthood or ethanol subsidies. Yet, the Ayn Randian ideas being advanced by Ryan and his admirers are about much deeper choices than whether we should have a space program or put federal dollars into new water projects.
No, these are primal decisions. The choice that Paul Ryan and today’s Republicans would have us make would alter the cultural DNA of our democracy and redefine what it means to be an American. You can’t just say ‘oh, that’s just politics.’ No, it wouldn’t be “just” politics. It would be us buying CostCo-sized portions of the snake oil that the wealthiest in our society have an inalienable right to gate themselves off, both physically and economically, and that the role of government is to make sure the gate is strong enough to keep out the riffraff.
Sometimes at our reunions we joke about the nuns who would maintain order in our catechism classes by smacking our knuckles with rulers when we got out of line. If that happened to me, I’ve suppressed the memory. The lessons I received from the nuns who schooled me came in less vivid ways, and always involved a loving but piercing challenge to my conscience and image of myself.
Sister Simone may have her gaze directed at Paul Ryan, but she’s looking us all in the eyes.