My Main Concern about Ryan is Not About Ryan
It’s about the sort of stuff many Catholics do to support Ryan. I have no reason to doubt Ryan is a pious Catholic. I take him at his word that he is prolife. I think he quite sincere about individualism and his love for country and so forth. I don’t think he is a bad man. I simply don’t believe his attempts to dishonestly deny instead of repent his zeal for Ayn Rand. Nor do I think it healthy at all that this denial is the meme that Catholic pro-Romney media and bloggers are now laboring to propagate. And that has everything to do with my point that what one’s vote mostly does is not change the outcome of an election, but the soul of the voter.
What I’m concerned about is that, as Catholics start going to bat for this team, the tendency is not to stick to reality. Reality is the perfectly respectable sentiment of many conservatives who, recall, fought the nomination of Romney tooth and nail and whose reason for voting for this ticket is, “Hey, we’re voting for these guys because Obama is a menace and Romney/Ryan don’t suck as much” or, in the inimitable words of A Conservative Blog for Peace: “Better a jerk who doesn’t care about you than one who hates you.” I can totally respect that. So can most people.
The problem comes in when we encounter the brute political fact that “We suck less” is not a very inspiring sentiment and political campaigns require fire in the belly. So when you are a conviction-free Plastic Android who inspires nobody, you pick a running mate who is young, sexy, and thrilling to the base, full of good solid ideological zeal, but not so much zeal that he will make you look bad. Just enough zeal and sex-appeal so that members of the base can say to those reluctant to buy the Presidential candidate’s manifestly phony imitations of interest in your concern, “What?! You *dare* question the New Young Hotness when that Monster is on the other ticket? I’m starting to think you’ve jumped the shark! Whose side are you *really* on? Brothers and sisters! Are you going to listen to fussy perfectionists who actually want some assurance that the President cares about the unborn, euthanasia, gay marriage and other things you care about? How can you, when he now has this person on the ticket who makes pleasing culture war noises?” It’s what McCain did with Palin and it’s what the current zero charisma dude is doing with the new Veep. Politically, it’s a very sound strategy when you have a main candidate who cannot connect with the base and who is, in fact, deeply distrusted by the base.
The trouble is that because the whole point of this strategy is to galvanize feeling and only secondarily to appeals to minds, we find that, in the rush to galvanize the base, there is a huge push from the Manufacturers of Received Wisdom to actually start repeating and believing the banana oil about the dynamic charismatic Veep. So, as we saw, in 2008, the conservative media did a massive job of selling Palin as qualified for an office when in fact she was a dreadful choice.
Now we are getting the same process and people are being asked to believe not merely “sucks less”, but are instead we are getting told what a deeply Catholic thinker Ryan is.
No. He’s not. He’s a Catholic, much like Biden, who is animated largely by human traditions that sometimes overlap with the Faith, and who uses his Faith as a tool for getting out the vote, not for evaluating or (God forbid!) criticizing the human tradition that largely occupies his thoughts.
Yes. Largely occupies his thoughts.
Here’s some reality: Ryan is on record–repeatedly–telling us what matters to him most and who it was he owes the greatest intellectual and political debt to:
“Ayn Rand, more than anybody else, did a fantastic job explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and that, to me, is what matters most.”
“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
Let’s be clear about what that means since Rand’s “fantastic” “explanation” of the morality of individualism that, for Ryan, is what matters most is not “Individual responsibility is good” (you can get that from the Catechism or a Horatio Alger story) but Selfishness is good and Christian charity is the gravest sin you can commit. I’m not claiming Ryan has internalized that message completely, but that only means that Ryan is not a good reader of Rand. That is most certainly the explanation she, in fact, offers of both the morality of capitalism and of individualism. She takes a hook that constitutes pure pride and the rejection of all love of God and Man (“I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.“–a veritable Credo of Antichrist) and wraps it up in a tasty bit of bacon that looks and tastes like conservative hostility to the Nanny State. And it is that message Ryan has dedicated years of his adult life to spreading with his evangelism for Atlas Shrugged. And because fiction enters the bloodstream more readily than lectures he has, indeed, partly internalized her worldview since he cheerily divides the human race into Makers and Takers (of which more in a moment).
For him to suddenly claim, in April, that his huge enthusiasm for Rand is an “urban legend” and then lay blame for any belief to the contrary at the feet of liberal enemies is exactly the same as Obama suddenly pretending that years of sitting at the feet of Jeremiah Wright indicates nothing at all about his intellectual formation and is a falsehood ginned up by conservatives. I have exactly the same amount of faith in both claims.
It’s one thing to repent. It’s another to deny. If Ryan and his dutiful messengers in the righty media were saying, “I was young and dumb. Sorry” it would be one thing. But Ryan is pretending she was not his primary influence and blaming others for taking him at his word.
Some people are now scrambling to turn Ryan into another Aquinas by claiming that he just takes the good parts from Rand but ignores what is false as Aquinas mined Aristotle and Averroes but subordinated their ideas to the Tradition.
The problem is, I’m not seeing the evidence of that. Just because a Catholic says “I’m Catholic’ while drawing on human tradition does not automatically make him Aquinas. Often it just makes him a deeply confused syncretist. The crazy nuns also draw on human tradition when they host Barbara Marx Hubbard to spout her New Age babble. And they too make passing mention of other Catholic ideas. Shall I credit them as deeply Catholic thinkers too?
The real test is: “Does a Catholic thinker firmly, consistently, and faithfully subordinate the beloved human tradition to the Church’s teaching or does he try to pick and choose from the Church’s teaching and fit it to the beloved human tradition that is his or her primary interest?” Just this past October Ryan was eagerly dividing the human race into Rand’s Manichaean classes of Makers and Takers. One does not detect in that a careful reading of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, nor of the Beatitudes and Woes “Blessed are you poor. Woe to you who are rich” nor of the Church’s preferential option for the poor. But it is flawless Galtian dogma.
Put the shoe on a different foot for a moment. Pelosi claims to be seriously Catholic and looks to enemy of God Margaret Sanger as one of her principal guides. She then cites Augustine in order to argue for abortion and tells us she supports gay “marriage” because of her Catholic faith (something something conscience something). Ryan deploys the word “subsidiarity” to sound all Catholicky but then the real energy goes into Manichaean analyses of the population as neatly divided between Makers and Takers. Similarly, his zealous support for Bush’s pre-emptive war paid no attention whatever to the Church’s actual teaching that pre-emptive war is not in the Catechism, but it did owe a lot to Pelosi’s “something something conscience something something” method of exegeting the Tradition.
But he’s not an atheist like Rand! True. Neither is Pelosi or Biden. Nor are the nutty nuns. Nonetheless, I’m not sold that any of them are entirely clear on Aquinas’ conviction that the human tradition is always subordinate to Sacred Tradition.
Bottom line: Catholics on both the left and the right need to return to being formed by the Tradition, not continue the folly of supporting pols who use the Tradition as a fig leaf for what they really care about and devote their energies to. As this campaign proceeds, I urge you to pay attention to how often conservative Catholic opinion formers in the media depart from reality (Reality=”We are voting GOP because, dreadful as this ticket it, it doesn’t suck as bad as Obama”) and how often they try to get you to subordinate the teaching of the Church to the merely human traditions advocated by the candidates. (Lefties will do it too, of course, calling on Biden’s Catholic bleats as evidence that Obama is not making war on the Church.) You’ll be surprised at how often it happens. And it is right there that the mischief is done, because Catholics wind up, in their rah-rahing for the Home Team, placing the human tradition of the party first and the actual teaching of the Church winds up being strip-mined for what is useful (“Subsidiarity!” cries the Corporatist Right. “Conscience!” cries the Pelvic Left) while that which is not useful gets ignored and those who remind us of that get called “perfectionists”. It winds up being the exact opposite of Aquinas’ method. Beware those who subordinate the Faith to any human tradition. As Paul says, “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority” (Colossians 2:8-10)
And the irony? In the end, the Vice Presidency is not worth a bucket of warm spit. The real vote here is for Romney and Ryan’s sole function is to gin up emotional enthusiasm for that, since Romney inspires none. Races are won by inflaming the hearts of men, not by people tepidly saying, “I guess he’s not as bad as Obama.” So passions are currently running high for Ryan and against my critique of Ryan’s intellectual fealty to the enemy of God Ayn Rand, not because I’ve said anything false about Ryan’s dubious denials of Rand’s influence, but because I threaten unit cohesion at a critical moment of trying to solidify Catholics behind the real candidate, Romney: a man who supported abortion for years, who forced Catholics to prescribe abortifacients, who is utterly indifferent to gay “marriage” and who only altered his public persona when it was politically expedient to do so–all while having fundraisers but a matter of weeks ago at the home of the guy who markets the morning after pill.
Vote for Romney/Ryan if you feel you must as the lesser of two evils. But don’t, pray, start accusing me of supporting Obama or wanting babies to die because I will not drink Romney’s Kool-Aid or pretend that Ryan’s zeal for Rand is exactly the same thing as Aquinas quoting Aristotle. My concern is what it always has been: that the main thing your vote does is not change the outcome of the election, but change you.