An Interview with Bruce Babbitt

A Governor Looks at Religion and Politics

Bruce Babbitt, at 46, is the Democratic governor of Arizona, a state that votes overwhelmingly Republican. A former attorney general, Babbitt became governor in 1978 upon the death of Governor Wesley Bolin. Popularly elected to the governorship in 1982 by a wide margin, Babbitt is expected by many observers to seek Barry Goldwater's Senate seat in 1986.

As the governor of a rapidly growing Western state and as a Democrat who has been politically successful in normally GOP territory, Babbitt has been given increasing attention on the national scene—one of the "next generation of Democratic superstars," a "new breed Democrat," and a "neoliberal," to cite the media-conferred labels he shares with Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, Richard Gephardt, Pat Schroeder, and James Hunt, among others. Babbitt has been the subject of features in Business Week, New York, and USA Today. He has himself written articles and opinion pieces for The New Republic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Miami Herald. David Broder, columnist for the Washington Post, referred to Babbitt recently as an "exceptionally interesting and iconoclastic politician" of the type the Arizona climate somehow produces. Babbitt, who was recently a leader of an unsuccessful attempt by some Democratic governors to unite behind a "governors' candidate" for the post of Democratic national chairman, has publicly stated his aspirations to the presidency.

Babbitt is a Catholic, an alumnus of Notre Dame and Harvard Law School, as well as a husband and father. We met to discuss religion and politics last December 21 in the Governor's office in Phoenix.


Karen Sue Smith: How do you assess the public discussion of church and state issues in the last presidential campaign?

Bruce Babbitt: Superficial. It seemed to me to be focused, in the most narrow, political, and divisive way possible, on abortion as the one subject discussed. The real question is much broader: How do you have a society in which moral issues are widely and vigorously debated? Government inevitably presupposes a certain set of common assumptions about moral values which, in this society, is predominantly derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition—not exclusively, but predominantly.

When I was at Notre Dame studying under Joe Evans, Frank O'Malley, and others, there was a very lively debate about the distinction between natural law and revealed truth. Most of the philosophers of church and state expected that what was going to be advocated as the law of the land would be related to natural law. If you attempted to draw lines about certain general moral truths that were derivative of logic and reason, they would prove to be widely shared, and therefore suitable to be enacted into law on both the civic and religious sides.

There will be a continuing and never entirely resolved struggle about where those lines are. I think there has been an unfortunate tendency for a lot of different groups to forget that distinction between natural law and revealed truth and to say: Our complete agenda is to be enacted into laws governing the entire society. Many different religious groups claim that authority, not only Catholics. A lot of different Protestant groups as well are stepping forward to say: Here is our agenda, it is a moral agenda, ergo it must be enacted into law. I think that the distinction between natural law and more ultimate kinds of doctrine is being lost.

KSS: What do you consider to be the proper role for religious leaders to play in American politics?

BB: I believe religious leaders have the same right, indeed the same responsibility, as any other citizens to speak their personal views on all subjects that relate to the condition of society. And they certainly have the right and responsibility to speak very particularly to their respective congregations. I think it is important that religious leaders of all kinds consciously attempt to distinguish between issues of natural law on which there is consensus among Catholic, Protestant, and Jew and those issues on which there must be a greater degree of tolerance of other peoples' opinions and of the diversity that is characteristic of American society.

KSS: When you speak of natural law, what exactly do you mean?

BB: Natural law is essentially those moral precepts which can be deduced by the use of reason quite apart from external religious construction. Broadly speaking, it is my conclusion that a pretty good guide to most issues of natural law is to look at those areas where you find a consensus in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I think that is roughly, not unerringly, the outline of what I would call natural law.

What that means to me is that in those moral areas where the major Judeo-Christian religions tend to be in agreement, there is a presumption in favor of the need for legislative reflection of those values. There must be some moral values underlying any civilization; that's my guide.

On areas like abortion where there is major disagreement among the mainstream religious groups in the Judeo-Christian tradition, I believe that requires a lot more caution. The Jewish position on abortion is very different from the Roman Catholic position. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, many, many Protestant groups operating within the main ethical tradition of Western civilization also have different views. That is reason to be cautious about enacting laws rather than saying to the religious group: instruct your followers on these matters as matters of personal religious belief.

For these reasons I come to the same conclusion as Governor Cuomo –exactly the same. Now I didn't read the Notre Dame speech closely, and I don't know whether his reasoning follows mine or not, but that's where I come out. And I'm a product of a Notre Dame education; those professors taught me a lot about how you separate the city of God from the state. I'm also a reverent follower of the tradition of Thomas Jefferson. My years of public life have simply confirmed the intensity of my belief that what I have learned from Joe Evans and Thomas Jefferson was correct.

On these questions each elected official must decide for himself or herself not what the church's teaching is.... I have no question that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that abortion in virtually all circumstances is wrong. When Archbishop O'Connor says that is the church's teaching, I say correct. I have no doubt about that at all. I think the church's position at all times in modern history has been that it is unequivocally opposed to abortion.

But that's not the question for a Catholic who is a public official. I happen to subscribe to the church's position as a person. Still the question, as Governor Cuomo suggested, is: what is your obligation as a civic leader? I agree entirely with John F. Kennedy. I answer only to my conscience in my public life and that's that.

KSS: What role does Catholicism play in your own political life?  

BB: It is the source of my moral values. I was nurtured in the church; I went to a Catholic school; I was an altar boy; I went to a Catholic university; I was steeped in the moral tradition of the Catholic Church. My Catholicism plays a very strong role. But I thought President Kennedy answered rather well when he said that ultimately my conduct as a public official does not come ex cathedra from Rome; it comes from my conscience.

I've given speeches in which I quote Martin Luther—that wonderful phrase—I think of it a lot when I'm deciding public issues. He said: "Here I stand: I can do no other." It is basically an affirmation of my ultimate responsibility to obey my conscience in my acts as a public official.

KSS: In a recent draft pastoral letter, the American Catholic bishops resist the idea that unimpeded markets automatically produce justice and instead they call for a national consensus on economic rights. How do you respond to the notion that society has a moral obligation to protect citizens against hunger, homelessness, and unemployment, and that justice is measured by a society's treatment of the poor?

BB: I have read the draft. I am quite confident that the bishops, on those issues, are not speaking ex cathedra or with derivative authority of that kind. They are speaking as leaders and representatives of the social conscience of the Catholic Church.

I believe that document in its current draft has great power in its reaffirmation of the Christian obligation to our fellowman. I thought the biblical exegesis at the start of the letter—its use of the Bible as a way of illuminating the Christian obligation to the commonweal—was wonderfully powerful.

In some areas I think the bishops' letter spills over into means rather than ends, and it loses power and persuasiveness as it gets specific. Saying that, I reaffirm the importance of the bishops' taking on this topic. But I think that a line is being crossed from the high moral ground to the mundane arena of legislative politics, and that the bishops are right on that line and occasionally over it.

KSS: But how do you feel about the idea of society's moral obligation? Picking up from what you just said, do you consider that a means or a goal?

BB: I have no question about that at all. The moral obligation is a general statement that has been the position of the Catholic Church for two thousand years. I believe that is a universally valid moral precept.

KSS: As a legislator, how would you evaluate the Reagan administration's proposed budget cuts for 1985?

BB: I don't think you can apply the bishops' letter to the Reagan budget cuts and reach in each case a sort of litmus test judgment of whether they are morally just or unjust. It's much more complex. I have a lot of personal opinions, but I'm not prepared to say that I think the Reagan budget proposals related to revenue sharing are morally unjust.

I have been very outspoken in my opposition to cuts in what I would call the means-tested entitlement programs: Medicaid, food stamps, and all of that. I feel very, very strongly that those cuts as proposed are unjust, but I am not prepared to label Ronald Reagan a "sinner."

It seems to me that when you invoke the adjective "moral" you must be careful to distinguish what it is you mean by that.

KSS: Let's take the focus off the word moral and put it on the word obligation. Is there anything about those proposed cuts that strikes you as particularly favorable or unfavorable?

BB: I think the tax reform proposals are a superb beginning. The Reagan administration's tax proposal seen as a whole is a step forward.

The bishops use a phrase that has gone out of style that I think is very powerful. It's called distributive justice. I think the Reagan tax reform proposals are a step toward distributive justice. They redistribute the tax burden more equitably and more progressively among individuals and call upon business to carry a somewhat larger proportion of the total tax load. Both of these are steps toward equity and distributive justice.

Taxes are the flip side of expenditures. The same issues apply on both sides. There are questions of fairness and justice as much in the way you take money away as in the way you disburse it. On the expenditure side, I believe there is room for restraint in domestic spending. The unfairness of the Reagan proposals is in their propensity to take disproportionately from those who need it most. Any further capping or cuts in the means-tested programs would be tragic.

KSS: And they are all mentioned in those proposed cuts so far.

BB: That's right. What I've talked about is the concept of a means test because that says: if we're to scale back benefits, we should scale them back by eliminating benefits for those who don't need them, and by trying to relate benefits more closely to need.

One area where we will see a major debate on that issue is Medicare. Social security is not going to be discussed much this time around. It is pretty much a given. Medicare is a $70 billion dollar program. It has no means test at all. The president is seeking to cap Medicaid, which benefits only the poor, and has said nothing about Medicare, which is a program which benefits everybody.

My position is: rather than once again taking from the poor by capping Medicaid, we should be using a means test to affect savings in Medicare through the use of expanded co-pays, deductibles, the tax system . . . by scaling down the benefits for those who don't really need them.

KSS: The creation of new jobs is the most urgent domestic priority according to the bishops' letter. Calling the current seven percent unemployment rate "morally unacceptable," they urge a three- or four-percent rate for ''full employment." What is being done in Arizona to improve employment and wages, particularly for those on the margins of society: black youth, minorities, women, and men over forty-five?

BB: If the bishops are saying that it is divine revelation that seven percent is morally unacceptable and that that is a teaching which must as a matter of faith be accepted by all Catholics, I respectfully dissent.

KSS: They're not. It's in the "policy application" section of their draft. The term moral really bothers you doesn't it?

BB: The whole debate over abortion has really caused me to ask when we use the phrase "moral," are we talking about ex cathedra? Are we talking about bishops in their national conference? Are we just talking about another politician giving a talk?

KSS: But bishops don't speak ex cathedra in any case. Only the pope does.

BB: I know, but bishops often say: this is an ex cathedra, or an authoritative, teaching of the church.

To return to your earlier question, I agree that one of the high priorities in American society is to wrestle with this issue of unemployment and to try to find ways to move toward a society in which anybody who wants a job has one available. I really believe that Pope Leo XIII was a far-sighted teacher when he issued Rerum Novarum and talked about the dignity of work—the way in which work gives meaning to our lives and to our effort and role in society. It is essential that we be a little more creative in inventing ways to expand work opportunities. We haven't been very good at it. The CETA programs, CCC, and the WPA are not the only ways you can do that, and there is a lot of opposition in effect to creating public jobs. If you don't want public jobs as the filler. . .

KSS: What do you do?

BB: For one thing, we need to deal with this issue of job training. We ought to have a national voucher system for job training which says that anybody who seriously is interested in work ought to have access, without any impediment, to job training free of charge that is appropriate to their situation. That's number one. It may be that we need to be more creative about various kinds of work-sharing in times of relatively high unemployment. This is something that has been worked with in European countries and I suspect that there may be some possibilities we could explore along those lines.

KSS: What would you say is the most urgent priority for national domestic policy?

BB: In my judgment there are three issues which all relate to each other: racism, education, and unemployment. They are all in some ways three faces of the same set of attitudes. One of the reasons there is unemployment is because we still have a substantial amount of racial discrimination in our society. One reason there is unemployment is because our education system is still very inequitable. We let people drop out and we forget them. We do not put enough emphasis on early childhood years. We neglect children in this society; as a society we're guilty of child neglect. If we could eliminate the vestiges of racism, if we could develop a more powerful agenda for child care, child development, and a more powerful education system, we could prevent a lot of the incapacities which in turn tend to generate structural unemployment.

[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]

Karen Sue Smith, formerly editor of Church magazine and an associate editor at Commonweal, is now editorial director of America.

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