WaPo Columnist Blasts Ryan as Too Catholic on Abortion, Not Catholic Enough on Poverty

Vice President Joe Biden has rightfully come under fire for saying he believes “life begins at conception” yet refusing to act upon that belief and protect innocent human beings from abortion. But Washington Post columnist Rahiel Tesfamariam argues that Paul Ryan’s answer is the one Americans should fear.

Ryan, on the other hand, said he can’t “see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or their faith.”

This statement speaks not only to who he is as a policy maker but reflects on a large majority of the Republican Party as a whole. Time and time again, Republican politicians have displayed an inability to separate their personal religious convictions from policies affecting millions of Americans.

Yes, that’s why we see so many proposals to criminalize extramarital sex, imprison gays, ban non-abortive contraception, mandate tithing, forbid people to work on Sundays, and—oh, wait. Republicans aren’t proposing any of those things. The only “religious conviction” they want to impose on other Americans is that innocent babies shouldn’t be killed. Gee, I wonder why that might be…

This is the part where a more serious analyst would ask herself what variable distinguishes abortion from all the religious views the alleged theocrats have no interest forcing on anyone. And unless Ms. Tesfamariam has been living under a rock for the past couple decades, she already knows the answer: because human life is scientific fact, not theological speculation. (Yes, I feel like a broken record repeating the same point, with the same link, in every other post. But the fact that I have to repeat it so often is a testament to how stubbornly pro-choicers insist on ignoring the basic facts of the issue.)

Ryan reminds me of the young men that I went to seminary with who had a very hard time acknowledging their own privilege when engaged in religious debates. They boldly argued that the Bible calls for a woman’s silence in the church and “upheld” that portion of Scripture without factoring in their inherent privilege as men. They gave little thought to what was at stake for us as female ministers.

Yet, most of these men also admitted to having premarital sex regularly. They overlooked the fact that they were only upholding the aspects of the Bible that didn’t conflict with their personal needs and desires.

You know someone’s argument is thin when she has to pad it with the alleged fundamentalism and hypocrisy of anonymous people at an unnamed seminary who have no relation whatsoever to the politician she’s critiquing. She knew domineering, hypocritical Catholics; therefore, the views of Catholic politicians are automatically suspect? If a more substantive point to be found here, I’m all ears.

Ryan rightly stated that politicians can’t compartmentalize their identities as easily as we would want them to. But he and Mitt Romney seem to have a much easier time doing it when it comes to matters of social responsibility. Biden shed light on this when he emphasized Catholic social doctrines that command believers to care for the poor and disadvantaged. How often have you heard Republican politicians (whether Catholic or Protestant) highlight this Christian imperative in their statements of faith?

Tesfamariam fundamentally misunderstands Catholicism’s teachings on both abortion and charity. The former is an intrinsic evil, an act of direct harm to innocents that cannot be tolerated, and as such it falls squarely within just government’s basic mandate to defend individual rights from infringement by others. But while the latter calls us to help the needy, it doesn’t prescribe a specific mechanism of doing so collectively, and people are perfectly free to consider whether a feel-good proposal actually works as advertised. As economist Antony Davies and theologian Kristina Antolin explain:      

Government is not community. Government is one of community’s tools, a coercive one we use when it is necessary to force people to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave voluntarily.

But that word—voluntarily—is key, and it’s where Mr. Ryan’s religious detractors go awry: Charity can only be charity when it is voluntary. Coerced acts, no matter how beneficial or well-intentioned, cannot be moral. If we force people to give to the poor, we have stripped away the moral component, reducing charity to mere income redistribution. And if one really is as good as the other, the Soviets demonstrated long ago that it can be done far more efficiently without the trappings of church and religion

All people have the moral obligation to care for those who are less fortunate. But replacing morality with legality is the first step in replacing church, religion and conscience with government, politics and majority vote. Coercing people to feed the poor simply substitutes moral poverty for material poverty.

Besides, if imposing religion is a bad thing when it comes to abortion, then how can it be okay to impose religion on other issues? People should be free to come to their own conclusions on killing a baby, but not on the best use of their money? Either a politician’srefusal to impose his individual theology on others shows that he recognizes the importance of seeing beyond himself when shaping policies that will define the future of our country” matters in all cases or it doesn’t.

Tesfamariam (and Biden) can’t complain about politiciansliv[ing] out their faith in an à la carte manner” in one breath and practice the exact same selectiveness in the next. Indeed, by promoting the need to “acknowled[e] that we are all riddled with moral contradictions and hypocrisy,” the author calls to mind one of my favorite Edmund Burke quotes:

He that accuses all mankind of corruption ought to remember that he is sure to convict only one.

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