Romney’s VP Pick of Ryan Will Bring Religion to the Fore

I’m writing this from across the Atlantic Ocean, but I awoke to the news that Mitt Romney will announce today that he will pick Republican budget-slashing guru Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate.

The conventional wisdom is that he’s trying to win over Tea Partiers and fiscal conservatives—but it’s clearly a religious play, too.

The pick will (among other things) ignite a religious war of words, if not by the campaigns themselves, by their surrogates. Ryan and House Speaker John Boehner, after all, famously sought the approval of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and one-time Archbishop of Milwaukee, for Ryan’s budget plan that a liberal budget expert said “would produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history, while increasing poverty and inequality more than any measure in recent times and possibly in the nation’s history.” This was after Catholic academics called Republican budget-cutting policies “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.” 

Dolan has called the contraceptive benefit requirement under the Affordable Care Act “literally unconscionable” and “un-American,” but spared Ryan’s budget such harsh judgment. Instead, he gave Ryan the benefit of the doubt, and merely cautioned: “Care must be taken that those currently in need not be left to suffer. I appreciate your assurance that your budget would be attentive to such considerations and would protect those at risk in the processes and programs of such a transition.” 

For many Catholics, Dolan’s cool, understated warning to Ryan—especially when compared to his hyperbolic rhetoric on contraception and “religious liberty”—is an outrage. As Daniel McGuire has written in these pages:

“Catholic social teaching” is a too often overlooked treasure of social justice theory and it’s been growing even more impressive over the past two centuries. This teaching is not fringe; it is papal to the core. It is “a pity beyond all telling” that Catholic bishops, obsessed with condoms and such, could not raise their passions and attention above the pelvic zone and shout from the rooftops a message that is crucially and brilliantly relevant to a global political economy on the brink of total collapse.

As Nathan Schneider observed, “What’s brought Occupy Catholics together as a group around the country, both online and in person, is the shared sense that the Occupy movement’s message speaks to the heart of our faith.”

But back to electoral politics. Democratic “faith” strategists have jumped on Ryan over his affection for Ayn Rand, criticizing him because she was an atheist—a wrongheaded move that demonized atheism rather than the cruelty of Randian economics. (A year later, Ryan decided he didn’t like Rand’s atheism after all.)

Although House Republicans of course were not eager to advertise this, the USCCB did write letters to Congressional committees, citing concerns that Ryan’s budget failed to meet “moral criteria” because it was based on “disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.” The result: politicians’ arguments not over the budget, but over what type of budget is supported by Catholic teaching. But these are arguments for Catholics, for academics, for theologians. Seeking clerical approval (or disapproval) of legislative and policy proposals is at odds with our secular democracy. (Believe me, I understand the impulse to discredit Ryan’s claim that Catholic teaching supports his budget, but there are serious problems with officeholders and office seekers using and abusing the imprimateur of religious authorities.) Romney’s pick of Ryan, though, virtually ensures that arguments over the meaning of Catholic teaching will become an integral part of the presidential campaign. And remember, now both vice-presidential candidates are Catholics—of different stripes.

Of course Romney has already attempted, through pronouncements echoing the Baptist Mike Huckabee, to pander to the conservative Catholic (and evangelical vote) by declaring, “we are now all Catholics,” an odd statement of solidarity with those who oppose the contraception mandate. Are we now all Catholics who beileve that subsidiarity means we need to slash the social safety net and leave the poor and vulnerable to fend for themselves? Because that, essentially, is what Mitt Romney is saying with his veep pick.