Thursday, September 27, 2012

Phyllis Zagano on the Electorate and "Common Responsibility for One Another in Society": Keeping Catholic Social Teaching Honest

Phyllis Zagano writes,

The electorate seems agreed to a common responsibility one for another in society. The discussion is not whether but how to provide for the needy, while retaining individual freedoms (and earnings).

I have news for Phyllis.  The electorate is quite decidedly not agreed about its "common responsibility for one another in society."  The ongoing discussion in sizable chunks of the electorate outside Phyllis's apparently rather insulated New York world is quite certainly focused on whether, not how, to provide for the needy.


Part of the devil's bargain that the U.S. Catholic bishops whom Phyllis persistently defends made when they jumped into bed with Southern evangelical voters--people I know very well, since they're my people, and people who are among the staunchest of GOP constituencies in the land--was precisely to begin defining down, muting, pretending away longstanding Catholic social teaching about the responsibility we all bear to assist the least among us.  Because that tradition is foreign and even antithetical to the beliefs of many of the evangelical Christians in the bible belt and heartland with whom the bishops chose to make common cause in the latter decades of the 20th century.

This notion of our moral obligation to lend a helping hand to the least among us is not a strong strand of thought among many evangelicals in the American South.  The evangelicalism of large numbers of American Southerners* is individualistic; it's me-and-Jesus focused.  It also roots itself in a debased Calvinist theology which sees wealth as a reward for good behavior and poverty as a reward punishment for immoral behavior.

And it is actively hostile to the thought of abetting immorality by giving the poor a helping hand.  (It also has a very strong tendency to imagine the immoral poor as having black faces, and Phyllis's rhetoric about "entitlements" in the article to which I've just linked would gladden the heart of many Southern Christians precisely because many of us imagine that the immoral poor who deserve their poverty since they're immoral are black.  Immoral, lazy black folks trying to take hard-earned money from fine, moral, upstanding white folks through "entitlement" programs including Welfare, Social Security, and Medicare.)

As I say, Phyllis Zagano needs to get out and about more and learn more about "the electorate" in large swatches of the U.S. outside her elite urban New York culture bubble.  I'm well aware, of course, that centrist Catholic media commentators like Zagano are infatuated with heartland voters because they imagine that these voters will save the Democratic party (and the nation) from things like free contraception, abortion, and gay marriage.  Centrist Catholics like Zagano keep helping the bishops carry water on these issues, and keep trying to marginalize progressive Catholics who push against the bishops' attempt to impose "Catholic" values on the nation at large, because they're terrified about what might happen if the nation didn't have a conservative religious-right firewall controlling the behavior of a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic White House.

But if the price we Catholics have to pay in order to have that firewall in place is to pretend that our  deep and powerful longstanding Catholic tradition of social teaching, with its preferential option for the poor, is simply not there, or doesn't mean what it says, then we'll have paid a price too high, it seems to me, for our firewall against the progressives.  Trickle-down economics, with its ludicrous suggestion that permitting the rich further to enrich themselves because they'll share the wealth with the rest of us, hasn't worked in the past and it's not about to work under Romney-Ryan--no matter what Phyllis Zagano thinks.

And her invidious comparison of Romney the praying man with Obama the technocratic secularist: deeply disturbing.  And downright false.

Our most important venues for political and religious discussion in American Catholicism owe us better than this, as does VOTF, which has lost considerable support from me due to its decision to give Phyllis Zagano one of its Catherine of Siena awards this year.

*(Added later in the day): "The evangelicalism of large numbers of American Southerners as opposed to the evangelicalism that predominates in some other parts of the country . . . ."

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