Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Making political judgments: where truth confronts ideology

Without a doubt the U.S. is currently experiencing a time of great political tension caused by the clashing, not of political philosophies (we abandoned those along ago), but of competing ideologies. It is all too easy for Christians to get sucked in on one side or the other. Nothing is more indicative of an ideology, which at the practical and personal level means approaching things in a preconceived manner, than sloganeering or repeating memes that have the effect of reinforcing preconceptions borne of a given ideology.

Today on Facebook I saw this meme posted by a quite a few people. Because I was bothered by this, I let it serve as a provocation:

Remember when teachers, public employees, Planned Parenthood, NPR and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half of our 401Ks, took trillions in TARP money, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses, and paid no taxes? Yeah, me neither
The point, assuming I understand it correctly, is that by seeking to de-fund Planned Parenthood, NPR, and PBS, while continuing to allow oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and rewarding bad behavior on the part of major financial institutions, members of a certain party in Congress are perceived as intentionally refusing to do the morally correct thing across-the-board. What could be more outrageous than that?!

Such a dense compilation of issues doesn’t bear up under examination. The best way to describe it is as an incoherent rant, which, if we’re honest, most of us go off on from time-to-time. On my view, what makes it worthy of an extended commentary is that I believe that many who posted it think that it makes some over-arching point and provides us with moral guidance on how to resolve our current political stand-off.

The first indication that this is ideology at work is that it lumps things together that need to be considered separately. It also seeks to establish moral equivalence between matters that have no moral equivalency whatsoever. This is also a sign of ideology, the kind that is engaged under the guise of righteous indignation. I mean, are defunding public broadcasting and PP morally equivalent?

I look at everything mentioned in the meme and think: I oppose the attempt in Wisconsin to deprive state employees of their ability to collectively bargain, which, as a Catholic, I take to be a right, which is not to say I think unions always act in the best interests of their members, or the common good. I am against de-funding public broadcasting. I favor de-funding PP. Despite its success, I remain opposed to TARP, precisely because it rewarded bad behavior and also provided cover for many people who are guilty of serious crimes that impacted the lives of millions, not only insuring they will never be brought to justice for their misdeeds, but that they will walk away with more money than ever! I have registered my discontent about this on a regular basis in posts going back more than two years. Nonetheless, I must begrudgingly admit that the TARP money has been repaid and that taxpayers actually made some money off these funds. There still remain deep, systemic problems with our financial system, such as it is.

Another prevalent argument against de-funding public broadcasting and PP is that they amount to a small drop in an inkwell full of red ink. Indeed, they do. There are two reasonable answers to this argument. The first and perhaps the most obvious is that every bit of cost-cutting adds up. Still, the argument that those proposing to eliminate government funding for these organizations are thereby making a claim to balance the budget misses their point, namely that these entities have no value, are of negative value, or, pertaining especially to public broadcasting, they go beyond the scope of what government should do. It bears noting (skipping back to the issue of moral equivalence) that the issue of whether or not to de-fund public broadcasting is very much an issue of prudential judgment, as is whether one supports or laments TARP.

To demonstrate that ideological moves are not the sole property of one viewpoint, I’ll use Sen. Kyle, a Republican from Arizona, as an example. Over the past few days the senator has rightly been taken to task for saying on the Senate floor, while arguing for the de-funding of Planned Parenthood, that 90% of what they do is perform abortions. Not only was Kyle’s statement incorrect, it turned out to be a woeful exaggeration. Apparently performing abortions amounts to only about 3% of the services provided by this nationwide non-profit group that receives hundreds of millions of dollars a year from our federal government via grants and contracts. In a similar vein, Rep. Michelle Bachmann called Planned Parenthood "the LensCrafters of Big Abortion."

Let’s approach the question from a different angle, without exaggeration or making analogies, which are always problematic, or, as in Bachmann’s case, intentionally incendiary: without a doubt PP is not only the largest abortion provider in the U.S., but throughout the world. Thanks to an executive order signed by Pres. Obama on 22 January 2009, just days after taking office and on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade no less, reversing the so-called Mexico City policy, implemented by Pres. Reagan and reinstated by the last Pres. Bush, Planned Parenthood and other NGOs now use your tax dollars to provide abortions overseas. According to its most recent annual report, in 2008-2009 Planned Parenthood received some $363 million in federal funding. During this period the organization performed 324,008 abortions in U.S. alone, setting a new record for the number of abortions it performed in a year. In fairness, they provided 9,433 adoption referrals, which is not quite 3% of the number babies it aborted. According to one commentator, there seems to be a correlation between the steady rise in federal funding for PP and the number of abortions they perform.

I think it always bears noting that if we put our faith in Christ into political action, which are encouraged to do if in no other way than when we vote, we look pretty incoherent to those whose views are shaped by secular forces. According to the prevailing political labels, when it comes to marriage, family, and life issues we are seen as very "conservative", with the exception of opposing the death penalty. When it comes to labor matters, immigration, and many issues of social welfare we come across as considerably more "liberal". In a very broad statement about the on-going budget debate, which presents the occasion for all these issues to come to the fore, thus tempting us to lump everything together, Bishop Hubbard of Albany, NY and Bishop Blair of Stockton, CA, who chair the International Justice and Peace and Domestic Justice and Human Development committees respectively, gave a threefold criteria for judging budgetary decisions in a way that challenges us to move beyond ideology:
1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity. 2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects 'the least of these' (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first. 3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times

Let's keep in mind that Jesus was no more a liberal democrat than He was a conservative Republican.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis


  1. So how do we vote?

    Mark Shea is going down the road of (apparently his usual) independent candidate:

    It seems a "no-brainer" for some Quixotic and plucky Catholics to put together (as you said, superficially a very incoherent grab-bag) a plateform of common-good positions influenced by basic rights, CST and prudential judgement and make a public stand - so why doesn't this happen?

    We have the same sort of politics, broadly, in the UK, which lumps together the "officially left/right -wing" policies and admits of little deviation for the sake of inconvenient facts - except without much pretence of any overarching moral or religious motivation, here it's all about "pragmatism" and "hard decisions without right answers".

    Question is the same though, why doesn't anyone make a simple and pointed public stand?


  2. Dear M:

    I understand your frustration all too well. However, it is not my job to tell you or anyone else how to vote, let alone who you should vote for. This is not even the job of the bishops collectively, or of individual bishops. Their job is to teach us and assist us in properly forming our consciences. I make no secret of the fact that guided as we are by our faith, we are in a difficult, but not impossible position.

    I think overcoming the kind of moral equivalence I address in this post gives us a good key. At the end of the day, some issues matter more than others, regardless as to how we might judge those other issues. Point of fact, we're going to have to cast votes for candidates with whom we do not agree on a number of issues, but with whom we agree on fundamental matters. I can honestly state that I can't remember the last time I cast a vote that I walked away feeling good about.

    Archbishop Niederauer speaks very well about the collapse of the political center as really made things difficult for Catholics as citizens in the U.S. Just look at where John McCain was forced to go in his last campaign in Arizona. This is typified by basically rejecting his previously constructive and moderate views on immigration. Also, look at Sen Bennett here in Utah, who was beaten by someone who is a genuine right-wing ideologue. I mean, he is a conservative, but isn't terribly ideological, meaning he was willing to look at issues and not always vote with his party, etc.

  3. Here is where the charism of which I am part, Communion and Liberation, is most useful, besides helping me to overcome ideology. As faithful Christians we can lament being victims of a system that sees us as incoherent. This, however, is not the way of Christ. Rather, using all the gifts at our disposal, using all the means at our disposal, we work as leaven to transform our political culture from within.

    Look at the success of the pro-life movement over the past 15-20 years. Sure, we're not there yet, but look at the tide change! We should never despair, but, as our Blessed JPII, who knew a little something about effecting change in the world, always said- Do not be afraid. Follow Christ. Following Him means trusting Him.