I can recall a time when I disliked being referred to as “a Republican.” Although I have consistently voted Republican throughout my adult life, I preferred to stress to friends and relatives that I was a Catholic and a philosopher, but that I had no special loyalty to any political party. Evidently this attitude is common among young people today. I also find it to be quite common among faithful Catholics I know, many of whom resent the Republican Party for one reason or another.
Once I began writing about politics, I had to overcome that particular aversion. Of course, the faith will always be enormously more important to me than any political allegiance. Still, as I slid more and more frequently into the persona of the pundit, I had to resign myself to a level of partisanship that would once have seemed distasteful to me. I understand perfectly, therefore, why friends and colleagues also sometimes prefer to hold politics at arm’s length.
There’s a reason, however, why pundits need to be partisan. It’s not because we’re undiscerning converts to the groupthink of The Party. It’s because our society is locked in a culture war, and to win wars, we need an army. To build an army, we need allies. A political party is simply a network of allies that work together to attain specified temporal ends. Understanding that, I can see now that spurning party association was in some respects just as form of daintiness. Remaining apolitical is a nicely painless way to avoid the taint of association. At the end of the day, though, it adds up to a refusal to help in the struggle.
Not everyone is called to invest himself intimately in politics, and for some it would be dangerous to do so. Great discernment is needed to work in non-ideal circumstances, finding politically effective messages without sacrificing personal integrity. Those of us who involve ourselves in political struggles ought to pray fervently that God preserve us, lest we betray the faith. I would be humbly grateful if readers would also make it a point, when reading a helpful or enlightening column from any (living) Catholic writer, to say a quick prayer for us that we might have that discernment. Politics is a dirty business.
Nevertheless, I am no longer abashed to announce publicly that I think it right for Catholics, in this time and place, to support the Republican Party.
I appreciate, of course, that the GOP can be criticized on multiple grounds. In fact, I am a much more trenchant critic of the Republican Party now than I was two years ago. Nevertheless, as Catholics we do have some obligation to tend to the well-being of our neighbors and compatriots. In this particular time and place, it will be difficult for Catholics to do this without some form of cooperation with the Republicans. Although I would never wish to see the Church institutionally linked to the GOP in the way that it has historically been connected to the Democrats, I nevertheless think it is a good thing for the laity especially to support conservative politics with enthusiasm and good grace.
This of course does not imply an uncritical willingness to toe every party line. We should by all means work energetically to shape conservative politics for the better. Very little can be done, however, from the stance of a “nose-holding Republican” whose vote is offered only begrudgingly and with perpetual promises that this might be the last time. I understand that religious conservatives often feel used, recognizing that many Republicans would be only too thrilled to operate without them. Such is the nature of alliances; they often put us in company with people we don’t unconditionally love.
Realistically, however, we need to recognize that our power to influence the party is severely diminished when we are perpetually threatening to defect. Of course our loyalty to the GOP should never be absolute, but for the sake of political efficacy, we do need to assure our political allies that we will part ways with them only for grave and well-considered reasons. Without that mutual good will, we have no realistic chance of advancing any political goals.
Two questions naturally arise at this point. First, is it even permissible to offer this level of allegiance to the Republican Party? Second, is there anything to gain by doing so? I will answer the first question in the remainder of this column, and take up the second in my next essay.
Do Republicans Deserve Our Allegiance?
Political parties are large and diverse. Demanding that the party be purged of any person whose views we find morally objectionable is obviously unrealistic. However, it does seem reasonable to suggest that we should not vote for a party that is to all appearances intractably committed to a morally abhorrent view or practice, such that dissent is considered impermissible. There was a time when I was encouraged by the existence of people who seemed genuinely committed to remaining “pro-life Democrats.” That time has passed. The Democrats are utterly intransigent in their commitment to abortion on demand, and as long as this remains true, Catholics should not support them.
I would submit that there is no equivalent tension between the Republican Party and the Church. On every important moral question, it is at least permissible within the Republican Party for Catholics to be advocates for the truth. Of course it might be possible for a particular Republican politician to be unsupportable in virtue of his more particular views, but in a more general sense, Catholics should feel at liberty to support the GOP.
Clearly, I cannot here take up every political question on which Catholics might have grounds for concern. War, immigration and capital punishment are three enormously complex issues that sometimes put Catholics at odds with other American conservatives, but I cannot here discuss them all. All three involve delicate prudential calculations, which makes it very difficult (particularly for non-specialists) to endorse any particular view as obviously correct. War and immigration are two issues on which the GOP is deeply divided within itself, so it seems fair to suggest that Catholics are at liberty to engage these subjects within the arena of conservative politics.
It’s worth saying a bit more on the topic of poverty and Catholic social teaching. This is often a point of conflict for Catholics, who may feel that the Democratic Party, despite its disturbing disregard for life, is more attentive to the needs of the poor. Certain elements of Democratic rhetoric seem more harmonious with, for example, the concerns of Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum.
It is healthy for Catholics to reflect seriously on these questions. All things considered, however, I think it is far from clear that the Democratic Party is more sympathetic even specifically to the needs of the poor.
Catholic social teaching offers fundamental principles in order to help us to appreciate the full dignity of every human being. This endeavor is as complex as it is consequential; no society can be expected to realize the goals of Catholic social teaching to the greatest possible extent. And, many political issues are of relevance to the broader endeavor to appreciate human dignity.
Of course, we should work to alleviate the suffering of the poor, and to improve unhealthy labor conditions. But we should also abhor the crippling effects that the welfare state has had on those who are now mired in dependency. The right is often accused of trivializing individual suffering in its enthusiasm to grow the economy. But the left’s persistent undermining on family, community and Church are an assault on the core institutions that are most capable of protecting human dignity.
Even if our entitlement programs were somehow sustainable over the long term, Catholics should be the first to insist that anonymous checks cannot replace meaningful human support structures of the sort that Democratic policies tend to erode. So while a Catholic might contend, for example, the Republicans were wrong to engineer cuts to the food stamp budget, it’s hard to see how this could possibly represent a more egregious violation of Catholic social teaching than what we see in the Obama Administration’s assault on the Church.
By all means, we should continue to explain and promote Catholic social teachings in the context of American politics. It would be quite wrong, however, to suppose that Catholics are obliged to withhold support from the Republican Party in light of its fiscal and social policies. Insofar as conservatives need help overcoming their tendency to advocate for an atomizing individualism, we should see that as a project for conservative Catholics.
My considered conclusion is that it is permissible for a Catholic to support the Republican Party. But is there any point in doing so? Has our society in general, and the GOP in particular, deteriorated to the point where further struggle is useless? These are the questions I will take up in my next essay.