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My Take: Rep. Ryan's political theology is wrong-headed but commendable
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Catholic Republican from Wisconsin.
July 12th, 2011
01:09 PM ET

My Take: Rep. Ryan's political theology is wrong-headed but commendable

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Over the last few weeks, liberal Catholics have lined up to challenge leading Republicans such as House Speaker John Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (both Catholics) to choose between Jesus and the controversial libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand.

On the basis of Rand’s “Objectivism,” Republicans can justify cuts to programs for the poor even as they stand firm against raising taxes for millionaires. But can they do so on the basis of the New Testament Gospels and the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church?

To his credit, Paul Ryan has stepped up to this challenge, first in an open exchange in April and May with Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York and, now, with a document called “Social teaching and the federal budget: a Catholic perspective,” published yesterday on his website.

Over the last few years, I have repeatedly criticized politicians on both the left and the right for using appeals to God, Jesus and the Bible as a sort of “sacred canopy” over their public policy positions. American politicians who want the imprimatur of divinity on their campaigns or legislative initiatives rarely do more than invoke the Bible or their religious traditions.

But Ryan is no ordinary politician. And here, too, he is distinguishing himself from most of his colleagues on both the left and the right—by actually engaging the serious question of Catholic social teachings and the GOP budget.

Ryan begins his recent opinion piece by distinguishing between the work of theologians and the work of politicians, stressing that theologians traffic in “timeless principles” while policymakers work amidst the flux and flow of changing economies and societies to pass “prudential” legislation.

Along the way, he strikes a conciliatory note, writing that “social teaching is not the monopoly of one political party” and admitting that “usually, there isn’t just one morally valid policy.”

In recent years, the Religious Left has argued repeatedly that abortion and gay marriage are not America’s only moral issues—that budgets are moral documents, too. Ryan concedes this point. He then argues, however, that his GOP budget better serves Catholic values.

“Preferences for the poor, solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good and human dignity are disregarded when governments default and bankrupt economies stop producing,” he writes. “Economic well-being is a foundation stone of an enduring ‘civilization of love.’”

Ryan claims that “these principles guided my thinking as my colleagues and I drafted the federal budget for 2012.” I don’t believe that, at least not if the word “guided” means anything like the dictionary definition of “to direct, supervise.”

I don’t believe that Catholicism’s “preferential option for the poor” directed his thinking while he was crafting his budget. I think he was, and is, guided by political ideology more than Catholic theology, and more specifically by his conviction that government should be smaller and taxes lower, come what may.

If Ryan were really concerned primarily with the plight of the poor, he would be fixated on the million of Americans who are unemployed rather than on fighting off tax increases for millionaires.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus befriends the poor and sneers at the rich. The GOP budget flips that script. So put me in the camp of those who believe that Ryan’s real religion is Objectivism, not Catholicism, and his real saint Ayn Rand, not Jesus.

Count me as well among those who sees Ryan as a political version of the "cafeteria Catholic," someone who picks and chooses his quotes from Catholic social teaching in keeping with how they massage his pre-existing politics.

That said, I have to commend Ryan for having the courage to join the moral questions swirling around his budget, and for moving beyond vague religious references to an actual engagement with Catholic social teachings.

Regardless of what you think about the separation of church and state, the fact of the matter is that America now has two parties that routinely invoke God, Jesus and the Bible in service of their public policy positions. Under these circumstances, we are all better off when leaders of those parties publicly engage the moral and religious dimensions of their political actions, and do so with civility.

Rand’s recent missive is a model of that approach.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Church and state • Economy • Politics • United States

soundoff (65 Responses)
  1. AvdBerg

    There is no such things as a "Social Teaching on the Federal Budget" according to the Word of God. Christ came into this world sothat those that believed in Him would be able to overcome the spirit of this world (1 John 5:4). Confused? For a better understanding what it means to overcome sin and the spirit of this world we invite you to read the article "Victory over Sin" listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    July 13, 2011 at 6:18 am |
    • Reality

      Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

      Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospels being mostly fiction.

      Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

      July 13, 2011 at 7:44 am |
  2. John

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGSvqMBj-ig
    ..

    July 13, 2011 at 2:39 am |
  3. ndbltwy

    Look at us fighting over crumbs! the rich have never been richer thanks to 30+ years of Trickle Down Economics. Warren Buffet issued a challenge to any and all American CEO's if they paid a higher tax rate than their secrataries he would pay them $1,000,000 so far no takers. what does that say for the rich paying their fare share of taxes. we fight for the crumbs while they choke on the cake and icing.

    July 12, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
    • Michael

      Ridiculous. The poorest person in the US makes more per year than the average person in the world. 6 of the 7 billion of us live on less than $12,000 a year and the median income is about $2,000 a year. So cry me a river.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:14 am |
  4. Reality

    Time for some ideas on how to pay OUR bills and balance OUR federal budget:

    from :
    CNN- 2007

    " The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and anti- terrorist efforts abroad could cost the country $2.4 trillion over the next ten years, according to a report Wednesday.

    The money, over 70 percent of which would go to support operations in Iraq, includes the estimated $600 billion spent since 2001, Congressional Budget Office Director Pe-ter O-r-szag said in tes-timony before the House Budget Co-mmittee. That estimate includes projected interest, since the government is borrowing most of the funds required.
    The $2.4 trillion would pay to keep 75,000 troops dep-loyed overseas from 2013 to 2017. About 210,000 troops are currently deployed. It does not include the Pentagon's normal spending, which in 2007 is estimated to be about $450 billion."

    Obviously, we can no longer afford to fight Muslim terrorism abroad. So bring the troops home making it clear to countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that W-MD already in our ar-senal and paid for will be delivered upon their capitals and mosques if our country is ever attacked again by Muslims from anywhere.

    And the pro-mul-gation of the flaws and f-al-acies of Islam should be made the number one priority of Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security. With no Islam, there will no longer be any koranic/mosque-driven acts of terror.

    And do we still need troops in Germany? Ditto for Ja-pan? WWII was over 66 years ago.

    And then there are these other suggestions:

    Some incentives to live a healthy life style and also ways to pay for universal health care.

    1. An added two dollar health insurance tax (or higher) on a pack of cigarettes. Ditto taxes on alcoholic beverages, the higher the alcohol content, the higher the tax. Ditto for any product shown to be unhealthy (e.g. guns, high caloric/fatty foods??)

    2. Physicals akin to those required for life insurance- the overly ob-ese will pay signficantly more Medicare and universal health insurance (unless the obe-sity is caused by a medical condition).

    3. No universal health care coverage for drivers driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or using cell phones while driving.

    4. No universal health coverage for drug addicts or for those having self-inflicted S-TDs.

    5. No universal health coverage for abortions unless the life of the mother is at significant risk and judged to be so by at least two doctors.

    6. No universal health coverage for eut-hanasia.

    7. No foreign aid given to countries who abort females simply because they are female.

    And then let us have a flat tax, no exceptions for individuals or corporations basically eliminating the need for most if not all of the IRS, corporation tax departments and corporation loop holes.

    And obviously the US government is now a charity case far worse than any group on the globe. The Buffets and Gates of the world should chip in via donating some of their 100's of billions to said government. Btw, there is a federal office already in place to receive said funds.

    And last but not least, those now getting Social Security payments who do not need said funds to live a good life style should not be be given said monthly payments. Instead, they should be able to deduct this amount from their current taxable income assuming there is no flat tax.

    July 12, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  5. fuguewriter

    Jesus "sneered"? Wow. This is some understanding of religion.

    Rand had a very simple point: you can't be charitable or do well yourself without a healthy economy. You can't get a healthy economy with top-heavy government spending. Look at what's happening to the U.S., Italy, Greece, Ireland ... How well do you think the poor would do under a bankrupt Federal government?

    We need to cut spending radically in all areas before it is too late. Debt crises are not compassionate.

    July 12, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
    • John Richardson

      That much Rand gets right. Both private charity and social programs are luxuries only recently affordable at a level that makes any real difference and only in those countries that have generated sufficient wealth. The left likes to harangue everyone on issues of sustainability, but often seem blind to the fact that socialism has sustainability issues and explosive growth in social programs can lead to the sort of implosions seen in any other sort of run away growth. Sensible growth in charitable giving and social programs requires a vibrant economy.

      July 13, 2011 at 6:57 am |
  6. fernace

    Religion & Ayn Rands Objectivism are Not at all compatible. It's like making mates of a rat & a boa. Politicians who claim both are either not religious or not really invested in Rands theorem! Or a dangerous hybrid utilizing religious tenets coupled with the very selfish, egocentric Objectivist protocol! It all sounds bad to me!!

    July 12, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  7. Jon

    The problem with the Republicans is not so much their values (rich vs. poor), but rather their beliefs. They believe "cutting taxes and spending" always grows the economy. But this is simply false. If you look at any economic criteria you can think of (GDP per capita, unemployment rates), you will see that they have no corollation whatsoever to how low "the taxes and spending" are (look it up). Solving economic problems are more complicated than that. Perhaps some taxes need to be raised, and some lowered, some spending cut, and in other areas the government may need to invest more. But instead the Republicans simply repeat "cut taxes and spending" like a broken record, revealing only the emptiness of their brains. They could all be replaced by parrots.

    July 12, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Rev. Rick

      Finally, someone with a reasonable outlook.

      July 13, 2011 at 7:26 am |
  8. Reality

    Time for some ways to pay OUR bills and balance OUR federal budget:

    from :
    CNN- 2007

    " The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and anti- terrorist efforts abroad could cost the country $2.4 trillion over the next ten years, according to a report Wednesday.

    The money, over 70 percent of which would go to support operations in Iraq, includes the estimated $600 billion spent since 2001, Congressional Budget Office Director Pe-ter O-r-szag said in tes-timony before the House Budget Co-mmittee. That estimate includes projected interest, since the government is borrowing most of the funds required.
    The $2.4 trillion would pay to keep 75,000 troops dep-loyed overseas from 2013 to 2017. About 210,000 troops are currently deployed. It does not include the Pentagon's normal spending, which in 2007 is estimated to be about $450 billion."

    Obviously, we can no longer afford to fight Muslim terrorism abroad. So bring the troops home making it clear to countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that W-MD already in our ar-senal and paid for will be delivered upon their capitals and mosques if our country is ever attacked again by Muslims from anywhere.

    And the pro-mul-gation of the flaws and f-al-acies of Islam should be made the number one priority of Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security. With no Islam, there will no longer be any koranic/mosque-driven acts of terror.

    And do we still need troops in Germany? Ditto for Ja-pan? WWII was over 66 years ago.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • Reality

      And then there are these other suggestions:

      Some incentives to live a healthy life style and also ways to pay for universal health care.

      1. An added two dollar health insurance tax (or higher) on a pack of cigarettes. Ditto taxes on alcoholic beverages, the higher the alcohol content, the higher the tax. Ditto for any product shown to be unhealthy (e.g. guns, high caloric/fatty foods??)

      2. Physicals akin to those required for life insurance- the overly ob-ese will pay signficantly more Medicare and universal health insurance (unless the obe-sity is caused by a medical condition).

      3. No universal health care coverage for drivers driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or using cell phones while driving.

      4. No universal health coverage for drug addicts or for those having self-inflicted S-TDs.

      5. No universal health coverage for abortions unless the life of the mother is at significant risk and judged to be so by at least two doctors.

      6. No universal health coverage for eut-hanasia.

      7. No foreign aid given to countries who abort females simply because they are female.

      And then let us have a flat tax, no exceptions for individuals or corporations basically eliminating the need for most if not all of the IRS, corporation tax departments and corporation loop holes.

      And obviously the US government is now a charity case far worse than any group on the globe. The Buffets and Gates of the world should chip in via donating some of their 100's of billions to said government. Btw, there is a federal office already in place to receive said funds.

      And last but not least, those now getting Social Security payments who do not need said funds to live a good life style should not be be given said monthly payments. Instead, they should be able to deduct this amount from their current taxable income

      July 12, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Self inflicted STD's? Either they ALL are, or none of them are!

      So now you shall be the arbitrator of what is best for Americans? You do realize that dying young is a HUGE boon to our economy?

      So try and tax my lifestyle all you want, I will continue to smuggle cigarettes and liquor and all the other things you don't want me to have. And if you try and stop me, I will just smuggle guns and explosives.

      Your vision of Utopia sounds like hell on earth.

      You sir are a wacko. Here is a better idea

      Hows about we tax the churches?

      July 13, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  9. rosethornne

    Separation of church and state exists for a very good reason. The current droolsobbering over the dogma of no-taxes is a case in point: government is the art of compromise, and religious dogma permits no compromise, thus no possible way governing (unless you are a fan of Torquemada).

    About the troops having nothing to do if we bring them home, our infrastructure is crumbling. Since we are already paying the troops to engage in nationbuilding, why on earth don't we have them build OUR nation?

    July 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  10. bryan ayala

    Nice article, which I whole heartedly agree with the author. Actual debate on religion and its practice in politics. Just wish there was more of it.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  11. Name*slipery

    Bring the troops home and use them to help protect the borders

    July 12, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  12. 22 yr Veteran

    It took 6 years with the GOP in control of both houses of cogress and the white house that got us in this situation. The Bush era tax cuts were suppose to be a trickle down effect in job creation which failed, but with reduced revenue the GOP increased the debt ceiling as needed. Then spent more on things like a war in Iraq which was never justified since the reasoning always changed. I served a tour in both iraq and recently Afghanistan which is the real war that was not focused on properly until President Obama. The GOP continues to protect the rich and use the stance they will not raise taxes on anyone, but the American people want the raised on the wealthy since they would only pay taxes at the rate originally set before the tax cuts. The majority of Americans would not pay more. Wake up America and realize the GOP is just using scare tactics like 2008. The far right is the problem.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Rev. Rick

      You're right. Conservatives seem to conveniently forget that the whole financial bailout fiasco began under G W Bush. I'm not a huge fan of Obama's policies, but the conservatives added to the ma-nure pile for eight years, and now while Obama is trying to clean up the mess the Republicans are complaining about the smell.

      July 13, 2011 at 7:38 am |
  13. casey

    I think you mean Ryan's recent missive, not Rand's....editor alert!

    July 12, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  14. roderick ronald roberts

    This is just why the law made "seperation of chruch&state"was made in the first place! they couldn't wakeup&smell what it was that they shoveling & that has not changed at all! &if theydon't wake up &w/the quickness,the jhon&jane q.public is going to take them out behind the barn&......well

    July 12, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  15. ben gaida

    There's no real solution to the budget issue,the only approach is compromise,that's what jesus would have done,,,!

    July 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  16. Bucky Ball

    This is actually a very amusing, if not inevitable, "long-time-a-comin", situation, as the question of who speaks with "authority" for this group is again raised. Archbishop Dolan, and the USCCB ASSUME they do, and that Ryan should submit, even though they have never actually asked "The Church" what they think about these matters, or provided in any way a structure for that discussion to take place. Bet in a million years though they never thought the objection would come from the right ! At least Ryan was ELECTED, and can be replaced, when and if the spirit moves the people to do so.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Howard

      ASPECTS OF AMERICA THAT GOT WORSE UNDER OBAMA:

      Record mortgage foreclosures
      Record debt
      Record deficits
      Record borrowing
      Plunging home prices
      Surging commodity and food prices
      Surging gasoline prices
      Surging HealthCare premiums
      A broken SS and Medicare system kissing bankruptcy
      Surging tuition costs
      Record household bankruptcies
      An economy stuck in reverse
      Near 10% unemployment
      4 hot wars
      Wars against states–more than half
      Unsecured boarders
      Union thuggery and union goonery
      Stagnant incomes for those lucky to have jobs
      Record negative trade balances
      Excessive regulation
      Planned massive tax hikes
      Plunging global prestige

      SAVE AMERICA ... IMPEACH OBAMA !!!

      July 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • John Richardson

      I'm not sure all of these got worse under Obama, but none of them have gotten significantly better and some for sure are worse. But they were all also plenty bad under W. Both parties spend too much and get in the way of real progress more often than not.

      July 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • News Flash

      @Howard
      You are completely totally absolutely correct. We ALL know that he is totally completely responsible for every single one of those problems, (even though you admit they just GOT WORSE during his first term). Hooray for the Marginally Simple Party.

      July 12, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • JW

      Many things that have gotten worse under Obama was a result of policies put in place during the Bush administration.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Rev. Rick

      @ Howard – Conservatives seem to conveniently forget that the whole financial bailout fiasco began under G W Bush. I'm not a huge fan of Obama's policies, but the conservatives added to the ma-nure pile for eight years, and now while Obama is trying to clean up the mess the Republicans are complaining about the smell. Sorry, it just does't work to lay this all at Obama's feet.

      July 13, 2011 at 7:41 am |
  17. John Richardson

    Prothero is really not very intelligent. He seems to think that his ace in the hole is the plight of the unemployed and claims that if Ryan cared about them, he would support tax increases. But tax increases generally don't do anything to improve employment. You can raise money for this or that project and hire a few workers, but you aren't going to make a significant dent in a 9.2% unemployment rate this way. Employers need incentives to hire. I don't think Ryan has many answers, but it's clear that Prothero and the liberal Catholics whose side he's always on have no useful ideas, either.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • JW

      That is true, but balancing the budget and how to do that is another issue. I think we will need huge cuts in programs as well as more tax revenue. It seems like all of the talk over this is politically motivated

      July 12, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @JW Yes, the deficit is now the biggest drunken ape in the room and getting rid of it will take massive compromising of a sort that neither of the two main parties have much stomach for. Ryan's opus isn't helping matters, but the liberal Catholic position isn't very constructive, either. And Prothero adds exactly nothing of value to the discussion with this sappy, head-up-his-keester piece.

      July 12, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      It really isn't THAT difficult. The largest item in the budget is defense. We really DO need all those marines in Japan don't we, ya never know when Emperor Hirohito will rise from the dead.

      July 12, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • JW

      Its kind of frustrated that most people know these things, but we have to sit here while our politicians pretend that we are idiots.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @Bucky Ball Oh, and I suppose the name 'Godzilla' is news to you? 😀 Seriously, the bloated defense budget is a huge problem and has been for a looooong time. But chopping that down to size is only a start.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Bucky Ball: Part of the problem with just "bringing home the troops" is you've got nothing else for them to do. You either bring them home and pay them for sitting around here, or you discharge them and pay them unemployment when they can't find work along with the other 9.2% of the people still looking.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • JW

      SeanNJ paying the troops isnt the only part of the defense budget. The weapons and supplies while they are overseas cost billions.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      JR
      Enjoy !

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5jfCb6-2RA

      July 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @Bucky 😀

      July 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  18. William Demuth

    It is amazing how one can use an imaginary God to rationalize anything.

    It seems to me that even admitting belief seems to somehow insulate someone from accountability.

    Frankly, if someone were to want to be president that had to review the dogma of the imaginary Star Trek Universe before he made a decision, or someone who referenced Marvel comics as a basis of his belief system, most would dismiss them as irrelevant.

    Why do we allow men in power to reference 2000-year-old writings that were akin to the National Enquirer of its day, without pointing out its absurdity?

    July 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  19. The Bobinator

    I don't think you can be objective when you purposefully set that rationale aside for beliefs "you really like."

    July 12, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  20. AmazingSteve

    Come on guys, of course Objectivism and religion aren't compatible. Objectivism is actively opposed to religion, and Ayn Rand was a lifelong atheist. Why does this continue to be ignored?

    July 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
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