In a 2012 presidential campaign marked by vague promises regarding domestic and foreign policy, August 11th was a day that put ideas front and center. The selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate brought a man with a strong, clear ideology into the mix. Whereas Romney has distanced himself from the work he did as an elected official, Ryan stands proud of over a decade of policy proposals and a radical vision for reshaping American institutions.
One of the most interesting parts of Ryan is the disconnect between the teachings of his Catholic faith, and the political and economic ideology he has developed. Firstly, let’s go over Ryan’s positions, and then the considerable criticism from Catholic circles.
Ryan’s views on social issues is much in line with conservative Catholic teaching. He has voted against abortion rights every single time the issue has come up (literally, he has always had a 0% NARAL rating), and co-sponsored bills like the Sanctity of Life Act, stating that the “life of each human being begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent… at which time every human being shall have all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood.” (bill text) His belief is that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment is applicable to zygotes and fetuses, from the moment of conception.
His record on gay rights includes voting to ban gay adoption in the District of Columbia and a desire for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He wishes to use the Pledge in its current incarnation, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State gives him their lowest possible grade- 0%.
The conflict is not in his beliefs on social issues, it is with his economic worldview. I will not overplay Ryan’s association with author Ayn Rand and her philosophical school of Objectivism, though in 2009 he said “I think Ayn Rand did more than anybody to build a moral case for capitalism, the morality of individualism, and this to me is what matters most.” (source)
Individualism is the big word here. Ryan wants to create an economic system where collectivism is dismantled, and individualism is triumphed as the way forward. His budget (which will become the single most important collection of public policy in this campaign) looks to end taxation of the wealthy, as well as taxes on capital gains and many other sources of government revenue. This is coupled with a reshaping of Medicare and Medicaid that addresses the rapid increase in healthcare spending, but does nothing to address the rise in healthcare costs (the ACA did some work towards the latter, Ryan doesn’t seem bothered by it at all). What this will likely lead to is the elderly and poor being given a wholly inadequate amount of money to try to buy increasingly expensive private insurance. His reform of Social Security would put a large percentage of people’s payroll taxes into private accounts.
In a great irony, these private, market-based accounts would mean
“by 2050, every single stock or bond in the United States would be owned by a Social Security account. This would mean that the portfolio managers at the Social Security Administration would more or less control the entire means of production in the United States.” (source)
There is a great bit more to be said about Paul Ryan’s budget plan and entitlements reform (it’s vague, unrealistically hopeful about our future economy, and its premise of crushing debt isn’t solved by the plan). But let’s talk about what Catholic clergy think about his plans.
In reaction to his budget plan, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a news release stating “a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.” (source) When Ryan came to speak at the Jesuit Georgetown University, dozens of faculty and administration quote the bishops’ release, adding “We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.” (source) (PDF)
And most importantly, Catholic nuns, Catholic organizations, and many other faith groups (including the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations) published a detailed budget, dubbed the ‘faithful budget.’ (full text here) (PDF) It is not only a sharp contrast to the Ryan budget, it appeals to the ideas of human dignity, shared responsibility, and shifting priorities away from war and defense spending, in favor of increasing foreign aid and cooperation.
My issue with Ryan is that he uses his religious faith in a wholly inconsistent way. In his introduction, Mitt Romney said “A faithful Catholic, Paul believes in the worth and dignity of every human life.” (source)
I take exception to that statement.