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. Richard S Kaiser

    In My not knowing very much about Basic Centrist Political Meanderings, I do know but with reservation that the Current Voluminous Budget Deficit is shaking the USA's Stamina for its' Future of all Mankind and Womanhood. Why is it that in a matter of a few short Years, say 10 or 12, the US Debt went from a Surplus to a mindblowing Deficit upon the shoulders of the most poor? Why should MultiMillionares not pay their Fruitioned Fair share or more of taxation?

    If Obama and the political left and right and Centrists cannot contend to do what is Relevant and Needed before August 2nd, 2011, my much needed Social Security Benefits will come to an End and I will be left with mounting bills to be unpayable! All I can do is Pray to GOD, the Gods and Goddesses and those Fathers and Mothers who died and are Now in the heavens of Heaven to put there feet down and demand Justice and Righteousness for the Taxated Burdens of American People to be Ended!

    July 18, 2011 at 4:38 am |
  2. SnowVeil

    Current America looks like a bad, immoral kid who slanders and mistreats his good, moral parents yet insists to have their land and their fortune so that he can waste it all. Typical.

    July 14, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
  3. SnowVeil

    Mr. Prothero, please talk about John Locke next time. You can't beat the British in philosophy.

    July 14, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  4. James Black


    July 14, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
    • ....

      TROLL ALERT – don't bother viewing this garbage, click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll.

      July 21, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  5. Jared

    I think what this opinion is missing is the requirement of forced sacrifice. Yes the Bible preaches that individuals who follow Christ should give, but willingly. For the same reason this country doesn't force us to be Christians, it should not force us to care for the needy. Now as a Christian I have made a personal choice to give to the poor a portion of what I obtain, but it is a choice I make out of conviction of faith and personal will. The Bible forces nothing on anybody, but it does present consequences for the lives we choose to live. No government should have the authority to force people to feed the poor, but every Christian should do so of there free will. And giving individuals and churches the power to provide services to their local needs is a far more productive means of advocating the general welfare. this is Why Ryan is correct in stating from a biblical stand point allowing people to give from themselves willingly is far more effective than forced charity.

    July 14, 2011 at 1:49 am |
  6. joan gilb

    I think the author meant to say Ryan, not Rand. in the last paragraph. Where's the editing?

    July 13, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  7. James A. Robinson IV

    The very best work in philosophy is being done by Objectivists and the very best work in economics is being done by pro- laissez-faire capitalism economists.

    July 13, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  8. Ron Smith

    Jesus never condoned theft, but rather upheld the law of God (Matthew 5:17). He also had some rich friends who supported his mission (Luke 8:3). He exhorted his followers to help the poor out of their own charity, but never approved of government sponsored welfare programs.

    Is it morally acceptable for me to use force and threats of violence to rob my rich neighbor in order to help my poor neighbors? What if I draft legislation that says I can and all my poor neighbors vote it into law? Is it suddenly morally acceptable?

    There is no sound moral ground for a welfare state. It's bad to steal, plain and simple. The government can't give you anything unless they take it from someone else first. Turn to the church for help. After all, it is pure religion, not government, to care for widows and orphans in their distress. (James 1:27) And often times, there are spiritual problems that accompany poverty, which problems the government can never address.

    July 13, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Chris Hollier

      Ron you seem to be paying a lot of attention to what Jesus taught and how America is being run. Why are you focusing on such a non-issue, though? I think its apparent that Jesus pushed people to preach his word and save souls more so than fair ways to run a society.

      Care less about whether or not we are right in taxing certain groups more than others and more about saving people's souls. I think Jesus would agree that Souls > running an economy right. And before you come back with a "but I do try and save souls", try and add up how much time and money you spend a week actually trying to save souls. Outside of being a preacher, I can promise you you're not doing everything you can. Jesus and his disciples worked full time, and devoted all their money to saving souls. You wouldn't catch them watching a sporting event, going on vacations, spending thousands of dollars on nice electronics, tens of thousands of dollars on automobiles, and hundreds of thousands of dollars on houses. Imagine what most Christians could do for foreign mission works if they donated more?

      July 13, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • gerald


      How the poor are fed is quite tied to saving souls..

      15] If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food,
      [16] and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?
      [17] So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

      I agree with Ron's point in this regard.

      July 14, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Harold

      Ron, are you serious? I guess you haven't noticed that billionaires don't pay taxes any more; why? because they paid off our congress to make it legal for them to just help themselves to our money as they see fit. Bank of America paid no taxes at all in 2009 so don't talk to me about robbing thy neighbor. As far as tending to the spiritual needs of the poor – I think Kurt Weil said it best, " First the bread, then the sermon." Ron it's your brand of stupidity that has made it possible for corporate power to strangle the middle class and destroy real democracy in our country. Nice work Ron.

      July 15, 2011 at 6:32 am |
  9. geraldh

    Government welfare programs are only naturally good at best and at worst are a counterfeit to true charity. They are stale in their feeding of the soul while they do feed the body. Whereas private charitable organizations tend to be more supernatural in character and grace flows from them for both the giver and the receiver. They produce thirty, sixty, or 1hundred fold. Welfare programs lack this quality.

    July 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  10. geraldh

    If one studies the compendium on social teaching it's emphasis is not on government welfare programs but on providing economies that generate jobs. Man should not be living off handouts from the government but he finds satisfaction in the work he provides. If one is working toward social programs without consideration toward jobs then one is not correctly applying Catholic social teaching. Yes, the poor who don't have jobs should have some safety net but the emphasis should be on jobs. Raising taxes has been shown to reduce jobs. Therefore it is arguable that the right's policies against taxes are in line with Catholic social teaching.

    July 13, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  11. Etcoom Speary TooToo Oh

    This BLOG is not about faith - it is about politics. Not every post is political but most of them are political - Republicans, gays and political activism are the main topics. It is not about God or Jesus Christ.

    July 13, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Doh Me Noose Vo Bis Koom

      It's not our fault if one cannot connect the dots.

      July 14, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  12. Haime52

    If the gulf between the uber-rich and the poor keeps gowing, I fear a violent backlash. Conservative talk about wealth redistruibution but, so far, all the redistribution has been into their pockets! Money that has been made at the expense of the rest of us. They want bigger profits, always bigger. You cannot always have bigger profits without, at some point, charging at a higher percentage and, at the same time, keep wages down, so you can achieve your bigger profits. Meanwhile, your employees and the rest of us slowly lose our standard of living while the rich bask in the sunlight of millions and say, "The economy is great." Or "If they're poor, it's their own fault, I made it, so can they."
    You can only grow so much and then there is no room to grow, so this is how you get more profit. Raise prices, gouge customers, repress wages.
    Take away funds for those in need and you can create slaves while making the rich the beneficaries of a pool of free or nearly free labor. People who can never get out of your pall, who are obligated and make more wealth for you, so you may live in uncaring decadence.

    July 13, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • David Johnson


      You are right. That is why it is so important to vote for the Dems.


      July 13, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • gerald

      How do welfare programs close the gap between the rich and the poor? THey enslave the poor to the government and cause increased poverty.

      July 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  13. Rainer Braendlein

    Today a terrible heresy spreads all over the land: Accept the statement "Jesus died for your sins" as true, and you are saved for ever, independent from your future sins. That is of course a bollocks. Of course, God wants to give us two presents at the same time: Forgiveness and, and, and a new life. Our faith is true, only if our faith is connected with discipleship. At Judgement Day our actual life will be assessed. Only if we have lived a Christian life, lead by faith in Christ, we will be allowed to enter heaven.

    It is hard to define, what is poor and what is rich. Probably there are no absolute standards.

    However, need (distress, hardship) can be defined. Someone, who has not enough to eat or nothing to wear, is in need.

    The biblical message is not mainly about the statuses poor and rich, but about my handling of people in need. That relativises all. A worker with some small income railing against his mean boss can be more guilty than his rich boss. Assumed, the worker has a relative, who is in need by a disease or unemployment and the worker doesn't help (as much as he can with his little fortune) he becomes guilty.

    In conclusion: When we know of any need, we should help immediately (we may have a small or a big fortune).

    There is so much need on this planet that I ask, how someone can remain rich.

    Use your means to help people in need. Begin right now!

    July 13, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • DiamondSky

      Hello, Rainer. God bless you. Con-ti-nue to shine the light of truth in your fatherland...

      July 13, 2011 at 10:44 am |
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