Romney’s Speech, and Boehner’s Catholicism

Before you read my post, especially if you didn’t watch the Republican National Convention last night, go read Joanna’s. She explains the role of Mormon speakers humanizing Mitt Romney last night, and how the image of a kind, generous, selfless lay bishop fails to square with cruel economic policy. 

Of course this was a political convention, and as Joanna points out, hagiography. But like Joanna, I felt like those speeches from non-politicians (Clint Eastwood aside) put a human face on Mormonism, relieving us of stereotypes and caricatures. Yet I don’t know that it helped Romney that much. As President of the United States, unlike stake president, he won’t have time to visit ailing people in the hospital, or prepare meals for them. He’ll have to help craft legislation and policy, and shepherd it through a recalcitrant Republican congressional caucus, that forestalls economic catastrophe for some, or helps others through one. But he’s picked a running mate whose poiltical career was built on pushing legislation that does the opposite of that.

Following Romney, House Speaker John Boehner introduced Timothy Cardinal Dolan, who gave the closing benediction. Boehner, who, like Paul Ryan, is Catholic, has been criticized by Catholic academics who deemed his voting record “at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress.” In introducing Dolan, Boehner pronounced that the Cardinal understood that “the preferential option for the poor doesn’t always translate into a preferential option for big government.”

Catholic theologians and rank-and-file Catholics will undoubtedly discuss that line in some detail. But Catholic teaching aside, Boehner’s statement reflects exactly what lies at the heart of a conservative theology of government: that government should do very little (in fact, they argue, God has granted government only very limited authority), while people and churches pick up the slack. It’s an idea with roots in Christian anti-communism of the Cold War era, and an idea that still informs the Tea Party. Conservatives claim it’s in the Bible.

That’s why the speeches supporting Romney would work for conservatives: if everyone were more like Romney, that argument goes, we wouldn’t need a government-provided social safety net. That claim lies at the heart of the most crucial economic argument of the election, the role of government in the economy, and it’s not going to be resolved through a theological discussion. It’s going to be resolved with facts and figures: that in spite of the kindness and generosity of millions of Americans, who, like Romney, have helped someone in need, millions of Americans are left behind by the vaunted free market. A thousand speeches from Romney’s friends isn’t going to change that.