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The Tea Party and a Pro-Life Polity

John C. Médaille

POSTED: Saturday November 6, 2010

( A new congress has been elected, and for many people this represents a new hope. This hope arises, I believe, not because the election is a victory for the Republicans, but because it is a victory for the Tea Party. Catholics in particular regard the Tea Party as anti-abortion and pro-marriage, as well as anti-government and anti-taxes . It will be interesting to see how this works out. However, just as the liberals who had high hopes for Obama were disappointed, I suspect the same thing will happen to the Tea Party. Running is easy, but ruling is hard, and the agenda of the campaign is difficult to translate into an actual program.

For example, the Tea Party wants to cut the budget, but they have no idea where it should be cut. Indeed, they have exempted the lion's share of the budget from scrutiny. 32% of the budget goes to Social Security and Medicare, but these are programs generally popular with the Tea Party, since a disproportionate share of its members are older, and this portion of the budget can only grow as the baby boomers continue their march to retirement and government dependency. The next biggest item is the defense budget at 23%, but the current wars are generally popular with the movement. Then comes net interest on the national debt and veterans and military retirement programs, which together come to another 12% of the budget. That brings us to two-thirds of the budget that is more or less exempt from any real cuts.

In dealing with the rest, they are likely to discover that the budget is a vast conspiracy of special interests; each line of the budget has behind it some constituency ready to fight for their share of the pie. We have all become clients of the state rather than citizens of the Republic. For example, cutting the farm subsidies ($25B) will endanger their support in the midwest. Cutting Medicaid payments to the states will raise howls from the governors of both parties. Even when they attempt to repeal ObamaCare, they will find that this is a lucrative set of subsidies not to the poor, but to some very powerful interests. The insurance companies will get 30 million new customers who are required by law to purchase their products; they are not going to give that up without a fight. To be sure there will be some cosmetic changes, allowing the Tea Party to declare a “victory,” but the trick will be to prevent the subsidies from being increased rather than decreased.

All in all, they will not find enough budget cuts to finance any tax cuts. Nevertheless, they will likely push ahead with extending the Bush tax cuts, thereby inflating the deficit even further. The reasoning will be that the cuts will ignite a recovery. However, this wasn't true even under Bush. If you subtract the growth in government, health care, and the housing bubble (which was a product of Fed policy, not tax policy) nearly every other sector of the economy shrank during those years, as did the median wage for workers and families; the theory simply did not pan out in practice. The basic problem was tacitly acknowledged in the Republican Party's “Pledge to America”: it was mostly about pretty pictures (over half of the booklet) with vague promises to shrink government while avoiding any specific cuts; talking in specifics loses elections.

The Tea Party is likely to have some successes in the area of the so-called “social” issues, abortion and marriage. They will likely block a judge here or end a program there. This may not seem impressive, but it would be unfair to hold the Tea Partiers to too high a standard, especially when their own party is not enthusiastic about the fight. The truth is, the Republican Party has never been a pro-life party; rather it has been a big tent party with an anti-abortion wing, which means, in effect, that we have one-and-a-half pro-abortion parties. But at least the Republicans were willing to admit the anti-abortion candidates, something the Democrats have rarely done. The divided politics of the Republican Party means that the totality of  Catholic social teaching has been subordinated to the needs of the Republican Party, and that party has given very little in return for the Catholic vote, even though Catholic loyalty to the party has been the margin of victory year after year.

All of this has left the Catholic voter in a rather peculiar position. The Church's social teaching covers a lot more than abortion or marriage, and these other “social justice” issues are poorly represented by the Republican Party. But as the life issues are foundational to all the other issues, many Catholics feel they have no choice but to vote the foundational issues alone. This is not an unreasonable decision, but it puts us in an unfortunate position. Glenn Beck urges his followers to run from any church that preaches “social justice.” But Catholics cannot run, because the term is part of the magisterial teachings of the Church. The term entered the magisterial vocabulary in 1931 with Pius XI, who used it eight times in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. Since then, it has generally been part of nearly every social encyclical and has been incorporated in the Catechism and the Compendium of Social Teaching. Unless we decide to be cafeteria Catholics, or follow in the footsteps of Tom Woods and deny Church teaching, we cannot follow Mr. Beck's advice.

Still, one must have some sympathy with Mr. Beck, since the term “social justice” has been emptied of its real content, that is, its Catholic content, to become an empty vessel, one filled up by either side with their ideological concerns. On the right, the term is often reduced to abortion and marriage, while being married to the Austrian version of libertarianism, which is not only economically unsound, but is anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, and anti-family, as Christopher Ferrara has amply demonstrated. That is to say, on the right, the foundational issues don't actually found anything; they just stand apart as single issues, and do little to contribute to a true Catholic polity worthy of the name. On the left, they have usually cut themselves off from the foundational issues entirely and so the  social justice issues are rooted in the air, and usually become a constant and tiresome call for more government intrusion into every level of social, political, and economic life.

But one should not always be scolding; one should be able to point to what should be done. And I suggest the model for this is given in Benedict XVI's latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. In this document, the Holy Father joined two works of his predecessor, Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, with its concern for life, and Populorum Progressio, with its concern for the common good and the material development of nations. Paul was roundly criticized by the left for the first and by the right for the second, but Benedict has given us a document that has the potential to transcend the false choices of left and right to produce a true Catholic polity to which both sides can repair as the economic and social situation deteriorates. So what would a “Catholic Party” look like? What would be its platform? First and foremost, I believe, it would be pro-life.

Being pro-life is more than just being opposed to abortion or for the sanctity of marriage.  One can be anti-abortion on narrow moral grounds, on political grounds, or just out of a certain fastidiousness, or be pro-marriage on any number of grounds. But families do a lot more than just give birth, and life is more than just its beginning. A true pro-life movement could be—and should have been—the foundation of a new Catholic politics. But given the dynamics of a two-party system, Catholics felt they had to be one party or the other, which means we had to choose which bits of the social teaching we would uphold and which we would ignore; politically we all became, in effect, “cafeteria Catholics.” But a pro-life party could have forged broad areas of agreement between the existing factions and become a true “centrist” movement.

What would a “pro-life” agenda look like? Mostly, it would be pro-family:

Pro-Family Wage. Wages have stagnated for 38 years; in fact, the median wage has declined in the face of vastly increased productivity, and the average male worker earns $800 less today then he did in 1973 (in constant dollars). This has put pressure on women to enter the work force, limiting their freedom to be full time mothers and home-makers. The just wage is intrinsic to Catholic social teaching and a pro-family policy, as well as to economic rationality. Without it, you cannot be pro-life, and certainly not pro-family.

Pro-Natalist. The bias of both law and policy should support families and particularly large families. American politics has been caught in the grip of a false Malthusian doctrine, one that is disproved in generation after generation, yet still holds sway in the culture. Further, the accepted neoclassical and Austrian economic doctrines privilege capital over labor. This is a direct result of a Malthusian outlook which makes people problematic and wealth an end in itself. Capital is thought to be the true source of growth, while labor is just a drag on profits. What the economy needs first of all is a supply of workers and consumers, and if we don't “produce” these ourselves, people will come across the border—legally and otherwise—to fill the spaces we have left vacant.

Pro-Employment. A pro-family policy would not subordinate the needs of the family to the desires of the globalists. Families need work, and providing that work is the first duty of the economy and economic policy. Trade is only “free” to the extent that it increases the use of economic factors in both countries, and to the extent it decreases employment in either country it increases the wealth of some but the poverty of many. We would make intelligent trade decisions that truly benefited both sides (the only kind of just agreement) and not ones that merely import poverty.

Pro-(Marian)Feminist. Secular feminism doesn't seem to differ much from anti-feminism, and leaves women in an ambiguous place in our society. But in such a masculine culture as ours, a real feminism, a Marian feminism based on the twin virtues of motherhood and chastity, would be a real gift; we affirm not merely the dignity of women, but even more we affirm that women do tend to have a different spiritual and psychological outlook. Thus women make a unique contribution, not only in birth but in every aspect of life, but they need freedom to make this contribution. And the first freedom that women need is the freedom to be mothers. Currently society makes this very difficult. The lack of a just wage has practically forced women into the labor marketplace. Usually, this means that they must be mothers in addition to all the burdens of being a wage-earner. Sarah Palin seems to be the modern model, where the needs of the family are subordinated to the needs of the career. Women in this model, we are told, must be like pit-bulls with lipstick; that is, they must be like men while making themselves attractive to men. Some women, I'm sure, find this model appealing. But others will not, and the current culture of death favors the pit-bull view.

Pro-Education. The education system has failed in this country, and even the college-educated are often functional illiterates. A pro-education policy would include both public and private schools, and even (or especially) home schooling, since the primary authority and responsibility for education remains with the parents. But for this to be the case, the first four points in this list must also be true.

Pro-Just War Doctrine. A Catholic party would not be pacifist, at least not when home and hearth were truly threatened. But it would be opposed to most of the wars we have actually fought. Nothing this side of divorce quite disrupts a family like sons and fathers (and increasingly today, mothers) marching off to war. This should only happen when the war can be unambiguously squared with the just war doctrine.

The Common Good. Modern economic theory treats the common good as no more than the summation of individual wants and desires that are arbitrated by the free market. But as a matter of practicality, they will acknowledge at least some goods which are common, such as the common defense. We are not all expected to own our own aircraft carriers; the common defense is a common good offered to all without regard to economic status. But there are other goods which also escape the logic of the marketplace, but are necessary for a decent society. Education, for example, or health care. While it is true that vast subsidies to insurance companies and pharmaceutical monopolies is not the way to provide such care, nevertheless the problem must be faced. After all, one cannot claim to be pro-natalist while denying prenatal care to all; surely, a pro-natalist policy would ensure that every mother had access to basic health care for her children, regardless of her economic status.

A pro-life polity is not so much a group of programs as it is a new (and counter-cultural) way of looking at things. It allows us to work with a variety of people at different levels, and so bridge merely partisan differences in American politics. For example, we can work with Fundamentalists who may merely be anti-abortion, and with Evangelicals who are pro-family, and with Democrats who want to improve the worker's situation, and with Republicans who want to restore virtue in public life, etc. More importantly, it allows us to showcase the richness of Catholic social teaching, and is therefore a tool of evangelization. It allows us to display the love of Christ and say with St. Paul, “Look at these Christians, how they love one another.”

The Tea Party is riding high just now, just as Obama was two years ago. But I fear they will end the same way, and that soon enough. Perhaps, in their anger and frustration, they will be willing to look at real alternatives, and really Christian alternatives. But this can only happen if we offer them another way. Being tied to one party or the other means being tied to one part of the social teaching or the other, and means that we will have nothing to offer when the moment comes, as it will shortly. We must study, we must work, we must pray. Mostly, we must be ready.

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