Adjusting One’s Personal Theology

Okay, to review, the economist Paul Krugman has called the Ryan budget ludicrous and cruel – “voodoo economics, with an extra dose of fantasy, and a large helping of mean-spiritedness” – and Krugman is not alone. Even those without a Nobel Prize in Economics were demanding that Ryan explain what he was thinking, especially now that Mitt Romeny has called the Ryan budget “marvelous” (Obama had great fun with that) – even if it does seem to shove money at the rich and take most everything from the poor and elderly, ending the government that the people elected doing what people since the thirties have elected it to do, assuring the minimal survival of those who don’t have the big bucks at the moment. That’s not only humane. And that also assures the stability and health of the nation. And that used to be thought of as a legitimate function of government.

So how does Ryan explain this? Yes, he is an Ayn Rand guy – she may have been an atheist but he likes that winner-take-all and never-help-anyone-with-anything philosophy of hers, because that’s wonderful total freedom, and personal responsibly, with unicorns. But he’s also a Catholic, who says he cares for the wretched of the earth and charity and kindness and all that stuff. And the Church is pretty clear on such matters. So how does he justify his marvelous budget?

The answer was subsidiarity – see this for the details of that arcane argument, where Ryan said that Catholic Church has always held that it is actually governments that keep people poor, even when they set up effective programs to help everyone survive. There should be minimum government. That’s how he sees subsidiarity – the doctrine every Pope since Leo XIII has said was the Church’s position. And Ryan said he was with the Popes. And then a group of fifty-nine Catholic theologians and leaders of charitable organizations told him no, he completely misunderstood the concept. Nope, that’s not what the Popes said, and that’s never been the Church’s position. And all Ryan could say was, well, these fifty-nine didn’t speak for all the Church, and he was sure the US Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed with him.

And there it remained, an odd dispute, until then the Conference of Bishops, the group Republican leaders had considered an ally, as a few weeks earlier they were all for excoriating Obama for a healthcare plan that provided coverage for contraception – calling it Obama’s War on Religion, much to the delight of the Republicans – surprised everyone by hammering Ryan’s budget:

In a letter sent to the House Agriculture Committee on Monday, the bishops say the budget fails to meet certain “moral criteria” by disproportionately cutting programs that “serve poor and vulnerable people.”

A second letter sent Tuesday to the Ways and Means Committee criticizes a provision that makes it more difficult for illegal immigrants to claim child tax credits. The bishops called the credit “one of the most effective antipoverty programs in our nation.”

And there’s Stephen Blaire, the bishop of Stockton – “Major reductions at this time of economic turmoil and rising poverty will hurt hungry, poor and vulnerable people in our nation and around the world.” And Richard E. Pates, the bishop of Des Moines, wrote this for the conference – “A just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to the poor and vulnerable persons.”

This was unexpected – see this for details of the spat. John Boehner came to Ryan’s defense, arguing that these Bishops may have said that the Ryan Budget was not in line with Catholic moral teaching, and thus gravely immoral, but they just didn’t get it. They just didn’t understand what was really immoral – and that would be the government running a large deficit. You see, future servicing that debt – assuming no utterly surprising economic growth, and adding in the cost of providing even more massive tax breaks for the very wealthy – who are the ones who, if they are comfortable, will create jobs – will soon eat up all available tax revenues. And then there’ll be no money for anything. So you have to neglect the poor now, and cut back what services they receive now, and in fact raise their taxes not the taxes on the wealthy, for their own good. Sometimes you do have to burn down the village to save it. Sometimes the moral thing to do isn’t what you think it is. Boehner, also a devout Catholic like Ryan, basically said the Church didn’t understand real morality. It seemed to make him sad.

But no one cares about John Boehner. He may be Speaker of the House but he can’t even control his own caucus – the Tea Party crowd in the caucus thinks he’s a fool and has time and time again forced him to renege on deals he’s made with the other side just to get things done, just to keep the government running. And it’s not his budget anyway, it’s Ryan’s. Boehner is the odd man out. He can say whatever he wants and whatever he says really doesn’t matter.

And that left the matter in Paul Ryan’s hands. Only he could defend his budget, and after also two weeks of silence, he finally did:

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) defended his budget on Thursday from criticisms that it is inconsistent with Catholic social principles. Speaking at Georgetown University, he rejected claims by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and some Georgetown faculty that his budget misinterpreted the religion’s teachings.

“I suppose that there are some Catholics who for a long time thought they had a monopoly of sorts … on the social teaching of our church,” Ryan said during a speech that attracted a full audience and a number of protesters. “Of course there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this. The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.”

And he basically said he agreed with John Boehner and not the Bishops:

Ryan contended that a government-centered approach was failing the poor and that his plan would create the necessary economic growth to lift people out of poverty as well as manage the debt. “The Holy Father himself, Pope Benedict, has charged governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations, and living in untruth.'”

“Our budget offers a better path consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith,” Ryan said. “We put faith in people, not in government.”

That may not have worked:

Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University who helped to organize a letter from Georgetown faculty that challenged Ryan’s understanding of Catholic doctrine, said the lecture left him unconvinced.

“Everybody looks at the Gospel – everybody looks at Catholic social teaching and then makes up their own mind about how it applies in the real world. We all do that,” Reese told The Huffington Post. “But, I think that we, the faculty at Georgetown University, who have studied Catholic social teaching, look at his budget and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you’re balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.”’

Reese viewed Ryan’s lecture as a positive chance for dialogue but didn’t feel it was grounded in Catholic teaching, he said. “Everybody’s worried about the debt, but you can’t quote the pope to say that the debt should be solved by cutting government programs that help poor people and not raising taxes.”

Jonathan Easley at Politico didn’t see it that way:

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) diffused what could have been a tense policy speech at Georgetown University on Thursday, engaging members of the Catholic Church who have criticized him for using his faith to justify the budget he authored.

Easley liked the intellectual tone of it all, and all the big words, but also had to report this:

Midway through his speech, protesters on a balcony in the lecture hall unfolded a banner that read, “Stop the war on the poor, no social justice in Ryan’s budget.” The interruption caused a minor stir, but Ryan continued with his speech without acknowledging the protesters, who stood silently throughout.

More than 80 Georgetown University faculty members and administrators on Tuesday signed a letter to Ryan, criticizing him for saying his Catholic faith helped shape the GOP budget plan and challenging his assertion that the budget is consistent with Catholic teaching.

And this:

Outside the hall, a group of about a dozen protesters, organized by the liberal-leaning group Catholics United, held a sign that said, “Were you there when they crucified the poor?,” and one man dressed as “GOP Jesus” facetiously lectured about a doctrine that benefits the wealthiest.

But still Easley was impressed:

Ryan painted a bleak future for the United States if the country is unable to get its debt under control. … Ryan used that kind of heavy, existential language throughout, which may explain the ease with which he is able to dismiss criticism: If the looming economic crisis is what he says it is, it would seem to provide a moral defense for his budget.

Yes, heavy existential language always wins the day. And Ed Kilgore comments:

It’s interesting that Ryan took this tack instead of claiming, as he did during a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, that his budget was precisely the sort of bracing moral tonic poor people needed, afflicted as they were by dependence on public assistance and a distressingly light tax burden. Perhaps no social encyclicals came to hand in defense of that proposition.

And as for Ryan’s comment that there can be differences among faithful Catholics on these matters, Kilgore offers this:

You have your opinion and I have mine, so let’s not get all judgmental about it Ryan seemed to be saying. It’s a remarkably similar get-the-camel’s-nose-under-the-tent approach to the one he’s taken to deal with criticism from progressives generally, with the occasional assist from the White House and deficit-hawk Democrats: since we all agree there’s this terrible fiscal crisis, then come let us reason together on how to control entitlement spending and undertake tax reform, shall we?

It’s definitely part of the pattern whereby Ryan has managed simultaneously to become the maximum hero of hard-core conservatives who view him as their champion in the effort to roll back the New Deal and Great Society, and a respected intellectual in Beltway circles with whom Democrats can conduct good-faith negotiations. I’ve wondered how he keeps pulling this off; it seems his secret is the ability to find and defend the tiniest scrap of common ground with people who ought to view him like a firebug in a library.

No wonder he’s on Mitt Romney’s running-mate short list!

But there was that letter from the Georgetown Jesuit priests, and members of the Theology department, and other departments including History, Government, Philosophy, the School of Foreign Service and the School of Nursing and Health Studies. And it wasn’t nice:

“Our problem with Representative Ryan is that he claims his budget is based on Catholic social teaching,” said Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, one of the organizers of the letter. “This is nonsense. As scholars, we want to join the Catholic bishops in pointing out that his budget has a devastating impact on programs for the poor.” Reese is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

The letter quotes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which wrote several letters to Congress saying “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” The bishops noted that “the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.” Last week, Rep. Ryan dismissed the bishops’ critique, erroneously claiming the letters didn’t represent “all the bishops,” a point the USCCB media office denied.

“I am afraid that Chairman Ryan’s budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher Ayn Rand rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Father Reese. “Survival of the fittest may be okay for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love.”

Ah, you knew Ayn Rand had to come up sooner or later, and she is not the Pope:

The scholars corrected Mr. Ryan on his use of the Catholic concept of “subsidiarity” as “a rationale gutting government programs.” The scholars say that it is true that “It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help – ‘subsidium’ – when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger.”

The scholars also gave the Representative a reading assignment: “The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” which was commissioned by John Paul II and published by the Vatican.

That was cold. And that led to a quick interview with Robert Costa of the National Review:

“You know you’ve arrived in politics when you have an urban legend about you, and this one is mine,” chuckles Representative Paul Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman, as we discuss his purported obsession with author and philosopher Ayn Rand.

Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, recently called Ryan “an Ayn Rand devotee” who wants to “slash benefits for the poor.” New York magazine once alleged that Ryan “requires staffers to read Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s gospel of capitalism. President Obama has blasted the Ryan budget as Republican “social Darwinism.”

These Rand-related slams Ryan says are inaccurate and part of an effort on the left to paint him as a cold-hearted Objectivist….

And that’s just not true:

“I – like millions of young people in America – read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them,” Ryan says. “They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman,” a subject he eventually studied as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. “But it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist.”

“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.

Ryan enjoys bantering about dusty novels, but it’s not really his bailiwick.

And Ed Kilgore laughs at this:

Costa does not report that Ryan specifically denies the actual foundation for the “urban legend” associating him conspicuously with Rand: his remark in 2005, when he was hardly a callow teenager, that Rand inspired his entire career in public service, or his habit of giving copies of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s militant magnum opus, to his congressional interns in 2003.

But it’s more than that:

The thing about Ayn Rand, as anyone who has actually read her works can attest, is that she offered readers an all-or-nothing proposition. She didn’t entertain, she instructed. This was most evident in Atlas Shrugged, whose centerpiece was an endless didactic “radio broadcast” by her hero John Galt, identifying all human misery with the “mysticism of the mind” (supernatural religion) and the “mysticism of the muscle” (socialism, or more accurately, the rejection of strict laissez-faire capitalism), and with the ethics of altruism both reflected.

After penning Atlas Shrugged, Rand spent most of the rest of her life making sure everyone understood that her philosophy was a comprehensive system that rose or fell as a whole.

And Kilgore cites Whittaker Chambers’ famous review of that novel, in the very same National Review:

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal… Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber – go!”

He didn’t like the book, and Kilgore doesn’t like Paul Ryan:

One of Rand’s favorite epithets was aimed at people who picked and chose from philosophical systems like hers – “second-handers” – people with no originality or capacity for deep thinking, or, for that matter, ethics. I honestly don’t know how anyone could read her and tout her as a major influence or encourage impressionable young minds to consume her works without understanding how frequently and passionately she argued that her words were not for the religious believer or for anyone who professes to care about the poor, as Ryan claims piously to care.

And Kilgore had previously said this:

Rand’s famous intolerance should not be dismissed as simply the psychological aberration of a flawed genius. She feared, for good reason, what lesser minds might do with the intellectual dynamite of her work when divorced from its philosophical context. The prophetess of “the virtue of selfishness” made rigorous demands of herself and all her followers to live self-consciously “heroic” lives under a virtual tyranny of reason and self-mastery, and to reject every imaginable natural and supernatural limitation on personal responsibility for every action and its consequences. Take all that away – take everything away that Rand actually cared about – and her fictional work represents little more than soft porn for middle-brow reactionaries who seek to rationalize their resentment of the great unwashed.

Now he says this:

It’s possible, I suppose, that Paul Ryan is a secret “Objectivist” who keeps gold dollar-sign pins in his underwear drawer. More likely, though, he doesn’t understand Ayn Rand any better than he seems to understand Catholic social teachings. In either event, his reputation as a deep thinker whose brilliance and good will demand respect from everyone across the political spectrum strikes me as entirely undeserved.

Maybe so, but at least he tries, and so did each of the Three Stooges. Or if Mackenzie Weinger is right, that would be the Seven Stooges:

1. No, Sen. Rand Paul wasn’t named after Ayn Rand, but the Kentucky Republican told supporters in 2009 that he “cut [his] teeth on Ayn Rand in high school” and has read all of her novels.

2. In a 1966 letter, Ronald Reagan wrote, “Am an admirer of Ayn Rand …”

3. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson calls “Atlas Shrugged” his “foundational book,” and the Republican said in a 2010 debate the novel is “a warning of what could happen to America.”

4. Like his son Rand, Rep. Ron Paul went through an Ayn Rand phase. In 2007, he told Dartmouth students that “she had a lot of influence on me,” but he has also criticized her take on religion and Christianity as seeming “so cold.”

5. Each year, Justice Clarence Thomas hosts a screening of the 1949 film version of Rand’s novel, “The Fountainhead,” for his four new law clerks.

6. Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and current Libertarian candidate for president, gave his fiancée a copy of “Atlas Shrugged” when they started dating, and told her, “If you want to understand me, read this.”

7. Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford penned an essay for Newsweek, “Atlas Hugged,” just months after his affair was exposed in 2009. He said he was “blown away” by Rand’s novels in the ’80s, but “since then, I’ve grown more critical of Rand’s outlook because it doesn’t include the human needs we have for grace, love, faith, or any form of social compact.”

The woman has done damage. And Paul Ryan also knows that now, as he explained to Costa, prompting this from Alex Pareene:

Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who used to love Ayn Rand so much that he hosted a birthday party for her in Washington, apparently doesn’t like her anymore, because of God. (And because her extremist philosophy is liable to turn off “swing voters” and “people who aren’t eighteen-year-old boys with delusional fantasies of superiority.”)

It looks like – after some obvious excitement among conservatives and Republicans that it was suddenly okay to openly admit to being enough of a stunted adolescent asshole that Ayn Rand seemed like visionary instead of a bad pulp author and even worse philosopher – Rand is back to being an embarrassment.

And that’s fine with him:

It’s not all that shocking that Ryan would want to back off from openly admiring a stringent atheist radical right-winger around the time that his party is trying to paint the president as anti-religion. What’s funny, though, is how incredibly suddenly Rand-worship went from something proudly stated to something described as a liberal slander. (“Rand-related slams,” in Robert Costa’s words.)

When will the cruel liberal media stop accusing conservatives of admiring the people they throw birthday parties for and repeatedly praise?

But if you’re going to insist the nation would be better off as a quasi-theocracy, bowing to the authority of the Mother Church in thorny matters, you do have to abandon those birthday parties. And you have to go to the oldest and most prominent Catholic university in the nation and tell all the priests and theologians that you understand their doctrine far better than they do. And it only gets more absurd.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan Budget, Religion and Politics, Social Dawinism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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