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Gopnik: Paul Ryan, Theocrat?

Over at The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik is worried about Paul Ryan's apparent rejection of the separation between Church and State:

[S]omething genuinely disturbing and scary got said last night by Paul Ryan that is, I think, easily missed and still worth brooding over. It came in response to a solemn and, it seemed to some of us, inappropriately phrased question about the influence of the Catholic Church on both mens positions on abortion. Inappropriately phrased because legislation is made for everyone, not specially for those of faith. (And one would have thought that, at this moment in its history, the Catholic Church would not have much standing when it comes to defining the relationship between sexual behavior and doctrinal morality. However few in number the sinners might be, the failure to deal with them openly casts doubt on the integrity of the institution.)Paul Ryan did not say, as John Kennedy had said before him, that faith was faith and public service, public service, each to be honored and kept separate from the other. No, he said instead I dont see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. Thats a shocking answera mullahs answer, what those scary Iranian Ayatollahs he kept referring to when talking about Iran would say as well. Ryan was rejecting secularism itself, casually insisting, as the Roman Catholic Andrew Sullivan put it, that the usual necessary distinction between politics and religion, between state and church, cannot and should not exist. And he went on to make it quietly plain that his principles are uncompromising on this, even if his bosss policy may not seem so:"All Im saying is, if you believe that life begins at conception, that, therefore, doesnt change the definition of life. Thats a principle. The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother."Our system, unlike the Iranians, is not meant to be so total: it depends on making many distinctions between private life, where we follow our conscience into our chapel, and our public life, where we seek to merge many different kinds of conscience in a common space. Our faith should not inform us in everything we do, or there would be no end to the religious warfare that our tolerant founders feared.

Something to think about...

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious StudiesĀ at the University of Washington Tacoma.



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What Ryan said was "our faith informs us in everything we do." Informs is the verb. He didn't say "controls" or "determines everything we do." This thread will include famous comments from St. Thomas Aquinas to Pope Benedict XVI on the accommodations the person of faith has to make to the rest of society in prudence or in charity or in plain avoidance of smashing his head against a brick wall. An example would be Ryan's going along with Bishop Mitt's wigglewaggling over abortion, an issue Ryan conscience says is settled. Adam Gopnik's worry was sitting there waiting for him to invoke it, but Ryan's comments don't add up to confirming it.

Eric - don't have a dog in this hunt but would suggest that Ryan wasn't talking about church-state. He was talking personally about how his faith journey influences his decisions as a politician and that is a far cry from a theocracy or your words about mullahs.May not agree with his decisions and may not agree with his catholic faith interpretations but do want to hear how he expresses his faith and how it is connected to his prudential political decisions. If his faith is rigid and extremist, then would suggest that his politics will be touched by the same. If his faith is *big church*, his tone and expressions are ones of mercy, compassion, etc. then his political life will be impacted by this.

Adam Gopnik is almost as ignorant as Paul Ryan.

It seemed that every year he was governor of New York, Mario Cuomo would find on his desk a bill passed by the Legislature restoring the death penalty, something which, the polls showed, a majority of New York residents wanted to happen. Each year Gov. Cuomo vetoed the bill and gave a little homily explaining why he was doing so, in which it was not hard to see a reflection of his Catholic faith. On that point, though not on others, his faith was informing his public act.

I certainly don't think we should let our Catholic sense of social justice influence whom we vote for. That would be wholly inappropriate, and a violation of the, almost sacred, separation of Chuch and State in the public square.

If Representative Ryan had said that the writings of Ayn Rand informs everything he does, would Adam Gopnik be comparing him to the Ayatollahs?

Part of the problem here is that Gopnik (quoting Sullivan) treats the "distinction between politics and religion" as identical to that between "church and state". They are not the same. Part of the reason that the founders insisted on a separation of church and state was so that individuals would be free to allow their religion/faith to influence their politics. "Secularism" was not the goal. The Christian religion, like most others, is not confined to "the chapel" and to private consciences. At least since the Enlightenment, many have wanted to reduce religion to a private, interior matter. This is essentially a Gnostic move. (Note the modern fascination with and attempted rehabilitation of the Gnostic gospels.)Now, prudence would dictate that if one wants to advance religiously inspired policy positions in a pluralistic democracy, one would need to find non-sectarian arguments that also support those same policies. And this is precisely what Ryan did. He immediately challenged the implicit premise of the question that opposition to abortion is fundamentally a religious issue by making clear that his position was based as much on science and personal experience as it was on religious doctrine.What I find most silly about Gopnik's alarmist accusation that Ryan can't distinguish between deeply held religious convictions and public policy positions is that Ryan did precisely that in his answer: he distinguished between his personal conviction that abortion is not justified by rape or incest and the policy of a Romney administration that would allow exceptions in those cases.

This year the Florida ballot will contain a proposed constitutional amendment lifting the state's long ban on state aid to church schools. I was shocked that the priest officiating at the Saturday evening Mass told everyone to vote for it. What, and allow my tax dollars to be spent for the benefit of evangelical churches who teach their members to hate Catholicism (except, of course, when the Church is opposing abortion and marriage equality)?

Upon rereading, that last paragraph was a bit more derisive than I intended. Please substitute "puzzling" for "silly" and scratch "alarmist". Ah, the perils of internet posting. Mea culpa.

We think some things are so for ordinary, non-religious reasons. We think some things are so because of religious reasons. The problem here is that we think some things are so *both* because of ordinary experience and because of religious beliefs. For instance, both non-religious and religious people think that not honoring a commitment for trivial reasons is morally wrong. Same with murder and cheating in business. Morality and religious both motivate us, and sometimes at the same time.So it's silly to say that faith and reason or church and state have to be kept absolutely apart. Sometimes their values overlap and properly so. (Looks to me like Gopnik is spoiling for a fight. Note his scare quotes around "faith" at the beginning of the article.)It's also unreasonable of Ryan to say that his religion informs his whole life. Surely it doesn't tell him which tie to wear on Monday morning, or which team to root for on Sunday afternoon.

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels 10/13/2012 - 8:36 pm CONTRIBUTORAdam Gopnik is almost as ignorant as Paul Ryan.

Only much more so :O)Of course you can't separate religion from the rest of life. Kennedy was saying what he thought he needed to say to succeed in politics; Ryan was simply stating an obvious fact. Gopnik and the New Yorker are moral idiots. No, idiots, period. If it weren't the New Yorker nobody with a mind would take it seriously. Overschooled fools.

Now, prudence would dictate that if one wants to advance religiously inspired policy positions in a pluralistic democracy, one would need to find non-sectarian arguments that also support those same policies."I think David Tenney has it exactly right. Biden's answer to the abortion question completely avoided the non-sectarian arguments against abortion. As Kenneth Woodward, the former religion writer for Newsweek said in the pages of Commonweal in 2004 in reference to the Cuomo doctrine that Biden relied on during the VP debate,"Never once did he [Cuomo] say--as the bishops had, and he himself could have--that opposition to abortion as a matter of public morality is a defense of the human rights of the unborn. Never once did he say the abortion dispute is a disagreement over the scope of social justice. He did not say these things, and never has, I believe, because doing so would make his position difficult if not impossible to defend." (subscribers only?)Yet Cuomo had no problem with vetoing death penalty laws sent to him by the NY legislature, even though being anti-death penalty was a minority political position. I commend Cuomo for his stand on the death penalty, but as Woodward said in his Commonweal article about Cuomo and abortion, [h]e did not say these things, and never has, because, as I think his record makes clear, he does not believe them to be true.

"He immediately challenged the implicit premise of the question that opposition to abortion is fundamentally a religious issue by making clear that his position was based as much on science and personal experience as it was on religious doctrine.'David, there is no science in this. Obviously the dna in a human fetus is human. But that does not make it immortal.

No, Bill, but it leaves it human. That's science enough.

David, When you and the other one issue Christians start showing more reverence for miscarriages, (which are thrown into garbage bins and toilets) which equal the amount of pregnancies, then I will consider your efforts.

This is a good reminder of why I almost never read past Adam Gopnik's byline. He can be very good when he's writing about something he really understands. But he has a terrible instinct for which subjects he gets and which he really doesn't understand at all.Bill, you seem to think you have a winning argument with this line about miscarriages. You've said it several times, and each time it has struck me as incredibly insensitive to anyone who has actually experienced a pregnancy loss. Please stop trying to score points with other people's pain.

Matthew J. Franck over at First Things denounces not only the Gopnik piece but The New Yorker itself, saying, "When did the New Yorker become a magazine written by and for people who are deeply ignorant but imagine they are terribly bright? . . . . This is the New Yorker today: smugly stupid, vulgarly anti-scientific, passing off crude partisanship as philosophy."As I said over there, I think the Ryan remark is basically a pious platitude that tells us very little about Ryan's approach to being an elected official. The problem with the abortion question and Catholic office holders, it seems to me, is that the Catholic Church doesn't merely teach that abortion is immoral. It teaches (or so a lot of people argue) what the law ought to be regarding abortion. It must be outlawed. The Catholic Church also teaches, to a certain extent, not just that homosexuality is immoral, but that the law ought not to guarantee gay rights or permit same-sex unions or same-sex marriage. That, it seems to me, is going to far in a pluralistic, democratic society in which we have separation of Church and state. I have to say that the "orthodox" Catholic attitude toward church and state bewilders me. It does seem to me that Catholicism, unlike any religion I can think of, arrogates to itself the task of determining "objective" morality that should be binding on all people, not just Catholics. Ryan (and Santorum during the primaries) have both made it clear that they have supported public funding for contraception through Title X. The question is, Why? Ryan is now willing to accept exceptions for abortions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Why? It seems that on some issues on which the Church is crystal clear, say, contraception, it is acceptable to be "personally opposed but not willing to impose one's religious views on others," and in other areas (for example, abortion) to be "personally opposed but . . . ." is to be an apostate.

It seems to me that Gopnik makes a good point, especially in the last paragraph that I quoted, when he reminds Ryan that our political system is based on making distinctions between the prescriptions of individual consciences, universal moral norms, and coercive law. It may be the case that Ryan *felt* that he was seeing, in the "bean" on the ultrasound, a life, and he may be right about that. However, that does not immediately entail that he is seeing a morally significant life, the protection of which he can raise to the level of a universal moral norm. Even once he does that, though, he cannot move directly from morally significant life to legal personhood, as having legislatively or juridically defined rights. Lastly, even if he does establish the legal personhood of the "bean," he has yet to show that this person has rights to life that trump the variety of rights that we *know* to be held by an independent, fully rational, adult citizen. So, whatever the "faith" (the quotes indicating the vagueness of the term) upon which he is basing his pro-life stance, we need more (much more) to make it politically relevant (politics being the realm of legislatively and juridically enforceable law). This is why I think that Gopnik is right to point out at the beginning of the piece that "faith" has little to do with public service, especially so far as the *public* is concerned. Ryan might have all kinds of ways to get from his personal faith to his personal choice to run for office and the positions he plans to defend, but that is all just intellectual biography. It might be good stuff for his memoir, but in a *public* forum, like a debate, he needs to make *public* arguments. I'm afraid that "the bean argument" simply doesn't stand up, and no appeal to "faith" is going to make up the gap between experiential intuition and democratic law. In the end, I think it does a disservice to the pro-life argument to continue to allow appeals to the vagaries of "faith" in public forums. Making the rights of the unborn a "faith issue" only serves to marginalize it as a special interest; when, in fact, I take it that defenders of such rights assume they are making an appeal to natural reason. So, the "cause," as it were, would be better served if Ryan would not talk about his "faith" at all and have a go at some actual arguments.

It seems Robert George is being criticized for being too charitable and NOT calling those he disagrees with liars. But it seems to me the issue, as argued, is a matter of faith. There is no way to prove personhood begins at conception, and that is generally what the argument boils down to. I think the "life [personhood] begins at conception"/"abortion is murder" arguments are a dead end for the pro-life movement. It may be true that increasing numbers of people call themselves "pro-life," but how many of them actually believe it is murder to use embryos for stem-cell research or a risk of homicide to use contraceptive method that might interfere with implantation?

Good points David Nickol,I would add that there is much confusion and misunderstanding about the issue of abortion. There is direct abortion (immoral) and indirect abortion (morally permissible). However, the definition of "direct abortion" is a moral absolute according to the Church and it does not admit to "circumstances". Both Biden and Ryan claim that they are pro-life "with circumstances" and respect the Catholic Church's doctrine. However, the Church does not recognize "with circumstances (e.g., rape, incest and to save the life of the mother).With respect to indirect abortion, most Catholics don't abide by the Church's definition. For example, they don't believe that the procedure in the infamous Phoenix case is direct abortion (church's standpoint), but indirect abortion. Of importance is that most Catholics are against "abortion on demand"....e,g., terminating an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy for personal reasons. This represents the majority of abortions. While the abortion doctrine does not include exception in the cases of of rape, incest and to save the mother's life, many Bishops contradict the USCCB guidelines in the cases of rape. They allow Plan B to be administered to a rape victim based on a negative pregnancy test. The contradiction is that a pregnancy test will always be negative because it can only detect pregnancy after implantation which occurs about 3 weeks after fertilization. Thus, this is direct abortion if we apply the guidelines of the USCCB. Using the argument of justice and ethical context (e.g., circumstances and intentions) is appropriate in this case. However, the Church will not embrace this argument because to do so would mean accepting ethical context as a justification for exceptions in cases involving other sexual ethical teachings. Both Biden and Ryan do not reflect the current teaching of the Church on abortion. Biden goes further than Ryan in that he favors pro-choice for others of different faiths, but is pro-life with circumstances with respect to himself. Ryan seems to indicate that he would favor overturning Roe v. Wade.

Eric, I agree that "Making the rights of the unborn a faith issue only serves to marginalize it as a special interest" (well, I'd drop the "only"). But it hardly seems fair to criticize Ryan for talking about "faith" when the question he was asked (which was a lousy question, though not for the reason Gopnik thinks) was: "We have two Catholic candidates, first time on a stage such as this, and I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country. Please talk personally about this if you could."

Mollie,Why was it a lousy question?

David: because it's a vice-presidential debate, not an Oprah interview. Ask what policies vis-a-vis abortion they support or their administration would work for, but don't specifically narrow it to their personal feelings about the as-a-Catholic framework.

It seems that on some issues on which the Church is crystal clear, say, contraception, it is acceptable to be personally opposed but not willing to impose ones religious views on others, and in other areas (for example, abortion) to be personally opposed but . . . . is to be an apostate.

The Church is in a bad bind on contraception. It hardly makes sense to oppose it in the modern world, but the change came suddenly in the middle of the past century, and the Church is simply unable to pivot on a dime.

Mollie: I agree with you as to why the question was inappropriate, and looking at the question again, I agree that it is unfair to criticize Ryan for talking about faith in his response. Though, I think that the more pressing critique still stands, namely that Ryan thinks that one can move seamlessly from personal faith to public policy, and he said as much in the first sentence of his response. Now, he could have answered the question personally and then gone through some of the steps that I mentioned to build a case for his public position on abortion legislation, but he didn't even acknowledge any of the difficulties in doing so. In that sense, I think Gopnik's basic concern is still valid. Ryan doesn't seem to be very aware of the challenges involved in moving from a personal, "faith" position to a public, political one.

the founders insisted on a separation of church and stateI read this statement in a number of posts and it reflects a common misperception. The first amendment precludes only the government from making any law respecting an establishment of a religion and impeding the free exercise of religion. The converse is not true, any and all religions are free to petition the government to establish any laws. There is nothing in the constitution insisting on a separation of church and state, but rather only a state sanctioned church.The argument is entirely beside the point with respect to abortion. The Catholic Church's view on abortion is based on the fetus's humanity. Further, I find odd the libertarian argument that a woman has complete and unfettered authority over her body which is entirely inconsistent with the huge need we as a society all have for children, not to mention more mundane social laws outlawing, for example, drugs.And it was a dopey question because it seemed to limit concern about abortion to a specific religions claim. It shows a complete lack of understanding of abortion.

David Nickol:"But it seems to me the issue, as argued, is a matter of faith."Would mind to try and support that statement with some evidence? As far as I recall nowhere in scripture there is any revelation that life begins at conception. The foundation of such teaching on the part of the Church is just a banal observation about biology: that there is a continuous, uninterrrupted development of the same organism from conception to birth and beyond. So much so that I believe in pre-scientific time abortion was allowed until a certain point when the science of the time thought ensoulment would take place.Regardless of the case at hand, there is a huge difference between "something the Church holds with absolute certainty" and "matter of faith." Matters of faith have to do with revealed truths about the mystery of God. No such thing applies to abortion.The real problem of course, as displayed also by the comment by Eric Bugys, is that you see faith and reason as two essentially separate, and possibly opposed, realities. On the contrary the Catholic understanding is "credo ut intelligam, intelligo ut credam" which among other things implies that faith strengthens and liberates reason.Case in point: a rational person, based on our current biological knowledge, should be able to determine that conception is the most reasonable even hat marks the formation of a new human individual. The fact that people cannot recognize it does not sgnal that they lack faith. It only signal that they lack reason.

Carlo: Once again, you confuse my position on the relation between faith and reason with the way that "faith" is deployed in political arguments. In modern politics, "faith" has come to denote (something like) those things held on the basis of religiously-informed, personal conviction. Now, you might not like this definition of faith, but it is how the word is used; it is how is was clearly meant in the question posed; and it was how both candidates interpreted it. Of course, I do not think that those things held by faith are necessarily inimical to reason, which is precisely why I would like to see pro-life advocates make their arguments on the basis of natural reason.

Eric --Ryan said his opposition to abortion is faith based, but he also said it is based on science. He did say how. At any rate, to the extent that he has an ordinary-knowledge argument, he is not just pushing theocracy.

Oops -- he did NOT say how his position is based on science.

I think that the more pressing critique still stands, namely that Ryan thinks that one can move seamlessly from personal faith to public policyEric,I still think you are missing the fact that Ryan did distinguish between personal faith and public policy in his answer to this very question. First, he made clear that his position isn't just based on faith. Second, he very clearly explained the difference between the principle that life begins at conception and the policy that Romney has advocated that would allow abortion in the cases of rape, incest, and a threat to the life of the mother. You are right to say that he did not walk step by step through process of how he moves from his personal position to this particular public policy, but given that he had less than a minute to answer the question I think it is unreasonable to expect that he should do so, especially given the way that the question was phrased.

Eric:great, thank you for the clarification. I would only object to the notion (if that is what you mean) that Catholics in the publisc square should accept to use the word faith in the fideistic/nominalistic way that is typical our post-Protestant culture. In fact, the choice between technocratic rationalism (a.k.a. as "the new left") and fideism (a.k.a. as "the religious right") is the poltical marker of the inner conflict between faith an reason that is inherent to most branches of Protestantism. From the point of view of an historian of ideas contemporary north-American culture is a "wonderful" specimen is it not??

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