Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Moral Conversation and Christian Political Engagement

Timothy Sherratt


May 27, 20111
by Timothy Sherratt

Moral conversation about Medicare reform is part of democratic conversation, which is why we must have it. America’s democratic conversation is currently being played out in financial contributions, negative advertising and votes. Predictably, this week’s chatter is now focused on NY-26, Jack Kemp’s old seat no less, which, notwithstanding local circumstances, played the role of testing the Medicare reform waters—and elected a Democrat.

Congressman Paul Ryan’s recent exchange of letters with Archbishop Timothy Dolan, President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, was the basis for Michael Gerson’s commentary last week. The exchange quickly brought out the usual skeptics. Some wonder if Ryan is looking for cover. Others worry that the Archbishop may have given it to him. Still others attribute to Archbishop Dolan a skillful “damning with faint praise,” applauding Ryan for seeking to take his bearings from the Church’s teachings, but implying that the Congressman has failed in the attempt. 

What strikes this writer as important is that Ryan, in defending hard choices now against harder ones in the future, thinks he should appeal to the Church’s teaching in mounting such a defense. The virtue of this approach is that it simultaneously seeks authoritative endorsement and lays itself open to correction. Ryan’s exchange with the Archbishop is thus a real conversation of the kind that belongs in democratic politics. It is a genuine moral conversation, unlike much of American democracy which deploys moral arguments only to rally supporters and attack opponents.

Ryan’s budget is open to many criticisms. Among the more trenchant are those that ask if reining in domestic spending can reach the budget’s fiscal goals if defense spending is treated as a sacred cow—as Ryan’s budget treats it; or if the intent to simplify the tax code has to do with all citizens paying their fair share, why does the G.O.P. persist in defending tax cuts for the wealthiest members of society? It is fair to ask if this budget is one of shared, or selective, sacrifices. 

But some of Ryan’s critics want the Church to take sides. Writing in The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn declared, “The president of an organization as dedicated to social justice as the Bishops claim to be should oppose the Republican budget, loudly and without hesitation.” But this is using the Church like another attack ad. No conversation is invited.

Congressman Ryan’s exchange with Archbishop Dolan models Christian political engagement in two important ways, valuable both to democratic politics and Christian sensibilities.  The exchange understands politics through the lens of a biblical view of human beings. Politics and policy involve great complexity, but Christians draw on deep resources for comprehending the human actors at the center of the political drama and the multiple responsibilities they bear.

Core Christian values are not a blueprint for policy design, of course, but this disavowal should not relegate Christian teaching to the background. The Church, and the churches, are far better equipped for this conversation than many of them realize.

But they must be ready to discover that theirs is not the last word—one can act in well-intentioned solidarity with the weakest members of society, yet chose a policy that is wrong. Doubtless Archbishop Dolan is used to such seeming paradoxes. Too many Christians seem not to be used to them and treat attacks on their positions as attacks on The Faith itself. This is a mistake. As Gerson stated, “Christians should recognize and appreciate the complexity of governing—and the honest struggles of those who govern.”

Democratic politics needs Christian perspective. Christian perspective needs robust criticism of the ways Christians apply their perspectives to policy, which democratic politics is quick to supply. Ryan’s detractors may try to call down a sort of divine imprimatur against the Medicare plan. Christians should resist such a caricature, not with caricatures of their own, but by drawing on all their resources to stay in the conversation.

—Timothy Sherratt is a Professor of Political Science at Gordon College.





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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”