Well, that was quick. Forty-eight hours after the release of “On All of Our Shoulders” — a critique of Paul Ryan’s libertarian tendencies signed by about one hundred fifty Catholic scholars and ministers — Robert P. George took to the First Things website to denounce it as a partisan “attack” on the congressman from Wisconsin, whose running mate, you may recall, George has endorsed and is advising. So he knows from partisanship. George also knows from courageously defending one’s political opponents when they’re unfairly criticized. Just ask him:
When my fellow conservatives and Republicans were beating up on President Obama for his “you didn’t build that” remark, representing him as having claimed that business owners didn’t build their own businesses, the government did it, I spoke out in defense of the President…. It is both wrong in itself and damaging to the spirit of democracy to misrepresent one’s political opponents or interpret their words tendentiously to depict them in the most unfavorable possible light.
Do read his defense of Obama. Keep reading. Did you get to the third paragraph yet? You’re looking for the sentence that follows the one with “Obama has a dangerously inflated view of the proper role of government.” Find it yet? If you hit “this comment of mine is not intended as a defense of what Obama said, much less of his economic and regulatory policies generally,” you’ve gone too far. Here’s what it looks like: “I don’t think it is correct to interpret the ‘that’ in ‘you didn’t build that’ as referring to businesses.” Thank goodness George managed to emerge from the avalanche of criticism he doubtless received for that stirring defense, so we could be reminded that the spirit of democracy is besmirched when we misrepresent our political opponent’s views or interpret them tendentiously in order to cast them in the worst light. We would all do well to heed that advice. Too bad George doesn’t.
Let’s count the ways:
George all but calls the signatories of “On All of Our Shoulders” liars for claiming that they “do not write to oppose Ryan’s candidacy or to argue there are not legitimate reasons for Catholics to vote for him.”
In fact, the statement is a highly tendentious assault on Ryan, presenting him and his positions in the most unfavorable possible light, and insinuating that he is someone who seeks to “legitimate forms of social indifference.” It is, in short, the discursive version of the infamous Democratic Party television advertisement showing a Ryan-like figure dumping an elderly lady out of her wheelchair over a cliff.
Speaking of tendentious. George is quite fond of referring to critiques of his positions as “assaults” and “attacks.” But the statement in question is actually pretty mellow. Indeed, as George notes, the signatories are clear that they are not arguing that Catholics cannot have legitimate reasons for supporting the Romney-Ryan ticket. He just isn’t buying it.
You can tell, because when Fordham theologian Charles Camosy, one of the signatories, responded to George in the comment thread, George called the intervention “an effort…to defend [the statement] as truly non-partisan and fair to Ryan, but res ipsa loquitur.” That’s Latin for “I don’t believe you.” Why mince words? If George thinks Camosy is lying, he should say so. Surely George didn’t exhaust his store of courage defending Obama against those tendentious — perhaps even partisan — charges that he denied business-owners had built their own companies. Yet George couldn’t be bothered to reply to Camosy in the comment thread on his own First Things piece. No, he hopped over to another outlet, Mirror of Justice, to post his retort — where he disabled comments. So Camosy can’t even respond to George’s parting swipe there:
Reading his comment, I could not help but imagine how different the statement would have looked had it exemplified even a modicum of the interpretative charity that Professor Camosy practices in his efforts to depict Peter Singer’s thought as sharing vast tracts of common ground with Christian moral teaching.
But then, such a statement wouldn’t have been of much use to the Obama campaign.
The hermeneutic of charity is something to behold, isn’t it? There’s a word for the kind of courage it takes for someone who’s advising a presidential campaign to accuse another of being a tool of his opponent’s. It’s not Latin, maybe you’ll recognize it: chutzpah. (Read Camosy’s reply at the Catholic Moral Theology blog.)
George admonishes the authors of “On All of Our Shoulders” for failing to acknowledge that it’s highly unlikely that Randian policies will be enacted by a Romney administration. He commends Rick Garnett’s “devastating critique,” which includes:
The statement, like much of the “Ryan is a Randian!!” business, overstates significantly the extent to which the policies that are being proposed—and certainly the policies that have even a remote chance of being enacted, should Gov. Romney be elected—are, in fact, “libertarian” (let alone Randian).
Where was Garnett and George’s concern for the art of the possible when they were darkly warning us about the Freedom of Choice Act? “The Democrats’ ‘programs’ and ‘approach’ with respect to abortion are probably better illustrated by the Freedom of Choice Act, which will certainly become law if Sen. Obama is elected.” That was Garnett, writing in August 2008. Four years later, the bill hasn’t even gotten out of committee.
George does not grapple with the statement’s overriding concern: that individualistic principles are being passed off as compatible with Catholic ones. He devotes one sentence to that issue:
Despite Ryan’s own very public statements of his points of agreement and significant disagreement with the thought of Ayn Rand, and despite the commendations he has received from the bishops who know him and his work best—Bishop Joseph Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York (formerly of Milwaukee)—Ryan is presented as an unreconstructed Randian radical individualist and, as such, a clear opponent of Catholic social teaching.
The signatories do note that for years Paul Ryan has been touting Ayn Rand’s social philosophy as a touchstone for his own policy priorities. As recently as 2009, Ryan released this video, where he holds up “the morality of individualism” as “what matters most.” After it was pointed out that individualism does not sit well with Catholic teaching on the nature of the human person, he declared that it was really Aquinas who shaped his philosophy. As “On All of Our Shoulders” notes, you’d think such a radical shift in social philosophy would entail a change in policy priorities, but Paul Ryan’s remain the same. The signatories don’t question Ryan’s sincerity, they just want to know what it means for his policies. As Matthew Boudway put it back in May: “The point [of Ryan's budget] is to shrink the government and lower taxes. If this helps the poor, so much the better; if it doesn’t, sauve qui peut [every man for himself].” If Ryan is done with the “morality of individualism,” how would we know? George doesn’t say.
Apparently he’d rather talk about “authentic social teaching,” which “begins from an affirmation of”:
(a) the inherent and equal dignity and fundamental right to life of every member of the human family, including the child in the womb; (b) the centrality and indispensable social significance of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and (c) religious freedom and the rights of conscience.
That abortion, gay marriage, and the contraception mandate are the top three issues on George’s candidate’s “Issues for Catholics” scorecard (.pdf) must be a coincidence. Because it would be strange for a Romney adviser to call this statement “scandalous” for its failure to repeat the candidate’s Catholic selling points, or for a Romney endorser to complain that the statement presents itself as non-partisan, especially when that adviser turns around and offers a tendentious reading of Obama’s record by calling it more Randian than anything Paul Ryan has proposed.
Ayn Rand was “pro-abortion,” George writes, just like Obama and Biden, who “undermined the right to life of the child in the womb in every way they possibly can.” Well, maybe not every way. The Obama administration missed a chance to promote abortion when it learned that New Mexico and Pennsylvania were poised to use federal Affordable Care Act money to fund elective abortions, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius blocked them. At the time, the chairman of the USCCB prolife committee praised the move.
And, George continues, given her views on sexual morality, Rand would be pleased as punch with the fact that Obama and Biden “have committed themselves to abolishing in law the conjugal understanding of marriage as the union of husband and wife and replacing it with a conception of marriage as an intimate relationship of two persons of the same or opposite sexes.” This might surprise gay-marriage advocates who deride Obama’s actual position — that states should decide the issue — as “marriage-equality federalism.” (Incidentally, that’s been Dick Cheney’s view since 2004.) Neither Obama nor Biden have called for “abolishing in law” the traditional understanding of marriage. Indeed, they have proposed no laws.
And finally, the contraception mandate: George doesn’t say how this would thrill Ayn Rand, but he does mention that the Obama administration wants to force Catholic employers “to provide health insurance coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives.” Nor does he differentiate between actual abortion drugs (RU-486) and emergency contraception, just as he fails to note that the science on the abortifacient properties of one such drug is unsettled at best. Not a peep about the Obama administration’s proposed accommodation, which would allow religious employers to contract for health coverage without contraception (that would be offered separately by insurance companies at no cost to employees). No, to acknowledge that might lend credence to the idea that Obama does not “oppose religious freedom for Catholic institutions,” as Romney’s “Issues for Catholics” scorecard has it.
To be sure, there’s nothing strange about a Catholic objecting to the president’s views on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception coverage — Commonweal has published critiques of all those policies. But if you want to position yourself as a fair-minded critic, even a fair-minded partisan, then you’ve got to work hard not to interpret your opponents’ “words tendentiously to depict them in the most unfavorable possible light.” Failing to do so might not “damage the spirit of democracy,” but it will damage the credibility of your claims.