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John Gehring
John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Catholic Program Director, joined FPL after three years at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He blogs about Catholics in public life.

Will Catholic Bishops Stand up to Paul Ryan?

April 11, 2011, 4:17 pm | By John Gehring

johnaryan.jpgRep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the intellectual darling of the Republican Party, has proposed a 2012 budget plan that would end Medicare and Medicaid as we know it. Ryan frames his dismantling of bedrock social safety nets as a “moral imperative” to save us from spiraling debt. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, pushing the plan this weekend, callously argues that “we have a safety net in place in this country for people who frankly don’t need one.”

Simply put, seniors and vulnerable families are being used as pawns in an ideological agenda whose end game is nothing less than wiping away the New Deal. Given that Ryan, a Catholic, has claimed the moral high ground, I’m challenging Catholic bishops to revive the legacy of another Ryan and speak out against this draconian proposal.

In 1919, the U.S. Catholic bishops recruited Monsignor John Ryan, a Catholic priest whose thinking on labor and social inequality were widely read in the decades following World War I, to write their Program for Social Reconstruction – a bold plan for what at the time were visionary social reforms: minimum wages, public housing for workers, labor participation in management decisions, and insurance for the elderly, disabled and unemployed. The bishops’ proposal and Ryan’s rising star in Washington laid the groundwork for New Deal legislation proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the following decades. Time magazine described the “Right Rev. New Dealer” as “U.S. Catholicism’s most potent social reformer.” Where is this Catholic voice today?

Bishops were influential (and controversial) actors during recent legislative battles over health care reform. They clearly have the stomach for tough political fights. Will they now take on Paul Ryan and a Republican Party pursuing a radical agenda that is antithetical to a Catholic vision of the common good?

Photo credit to the John A. Ryan Institute at the University of St. Thomas

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War on the Working Poor

April 4, 2011, 2:31 pm | By John Gehring

Conservatives are often quick to accuse progressives of engaging in “class warfare” for supposedly promoting policies that “redistribute wealth.” The charge, of course, is rich with hypocrisy. Economic inequality has reached the worst level since the Great Depression. The 400 richest Americans now have more wealth than half of all Americans combined. The number of people relying on food stamps is at a record high. If there’s class warfare, it’s the working poor and the middle class who are the casualties of an increasingly radical conservative economic agenda.

In Nevada, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce is pushing to repeal the state’s minimum wage. Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, has proposed a bill that would effectively cut the minimum wage in states where it was higher than the federal threshold by allowing employers to count health benefits toward wages. A flurry of state legislatures are weighing cuts to the Earned Income Tax Credit, which primarily benefits the working poor. Some Republicans in Congress even want to deny food stamps to families of striking workers. Meanwhile, the New York Times had this sobering headline on Friday: “Many Low-Wage Jobs Seen as Failing to Meet Basic Needs.”

Steve Benen over at the Washington Monthly nails it today:

The agenda appears to have been pulled from a Dickens novel. Congressional Republicans, filled with self-righteous certainty about public attitudes, envisions an ambitious agenda, including the privatization of Medicare, gutting Medicaid, taking away health coverage for millions of struggling Americans, and lavishing tax breaks on millionaires and billionaires.

The GOP’s immodest goals, in other words, are to turn back the clock — not to the Bush or Reagan eras, but to a time before the Great Society and the New Deal. Republicans are working under the assumption that working families and the middle class have had it too good for too long.

When hardworking Americans who play by the rules can’t provide basic security for their families, that’s a moral issue. Religious leaders and faith communities must continue speaking out against cruel and misguided plans to gut workers’ rights and budget cuts that hurt working families and the most vulnerable. A HuffPo commentary today from Alexander Mikulich of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans shows why political leaders will be hearing from people of faith:

Tough times call for shared sacrifice and prudent use of resources. But the working poor and public servants who teach our children and keep our communities safe did not create the budget crisis, and hurting them with drastic cuts won’t solve our fiscal problems. Wall Street recklessness, irresponsible tax cuts for the rich and a culture that celebrates excessive materialism all contribute to a crisis that will require more than political grandstanding to solve. In response to this urgent challenge, religious and civil rights leaders are once again standing up for workers, just as Martin Luther King did. Interfaith Worker Justice and the NAACP will host rallies, vigils and teach-ins this week in Ohio, Alabama, New Jersey, Florida, Washington, D.C. and other cities to mark the anniversary of King’s assassination and renew his tireless call for economic justice. It’s no surprise that religious leaders are again at the forefront of the struggle for economic fairness. For centuries, diverse faith traditions have emphasized the vital role of unions and the dignity of work.

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Health Care Reform: Grandma is Doing Just Fine

March 22, 2011, 11:38 am | By John Gehring

A year ago this week, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, landmark legislation that makes quality health care affordable for millions of Americans and curbs our system’s most cruel and abusive flaws. The long debate over this law was marred by a seemingly endless series of false claims, and FPL and faith leaders played a key role in countering the misinformation. The most contemptible political lie of them all was that the ACA would “pull the plug on grandma.” Thanks to Sarah Palin, “death panels” became a chilling and common conservative talking point. (See an exhaustive history of the smear from Media Matters here; in case it doesn’t go without saying, this fearmongering claim had no basis in fact.

On the contrary, seniors are benefiting from the Affordable Care Act in myriad ways that honor our moral obligation to ensure the elderly are cared for with dignity.

Because of the law, if you were one of the 4 million seniors who fell into the prescription drug “donut hole” last year, you probably received a $250 rebate check to help lower your costs. The law completely eliminates the donut hole in a few years, ensuring that seniors will no long have to make the agonizing choice between paying their bills and covering the cost of their prescription drugs.

The Affordable Care Act also helps seniors get the care they deserve before they become sick. More than 44 million seniors who have Medicare can now get annual checkups and screenings for diabetes or cancer without a co-pay. Early detection and treatment saves money and, more importantly, saves lives. In addition, the law ends Medicare overpayments to insurance companies and provides states with new options for offering home and community-based services.

These achievements should be celebrated, but we still have work to do defending the law from partisan attacks. Reckless politicians who want to roll back reforms already helping seniors will have to answer for why they are putting politics and ideology before compassion and common sense.

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Immigration Reform: Who Would Jesus Shoot?

March 18, 2011, 3:41 pm | By John Gehring

virgil peck.jpgLast week, I took note of how Utah Republicans are acting like grown ups and working with faith leaders and the business community to chart a more prudent path toward immigration reform than their neighbors in Arizona. Not so much in Kansas, a state where evangelical Christians frequently set the tone and substance of political debates. The Lawrence Journal World reports:

A legislator said Monday it might be a good idea to control illegal immigration the way the feral hog population has been controlled: with gunmen shooting from helicopters. Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, said he was just joking, but that his comment did reflect frustration with the problem of illegal immigration. Peck made his comment during a discussion by the House Appropriations Committee on state spending for controlling feral swine. After one of the committee members talked about a program that uses hunters in helicopters to shoot wild swine, Peck suggested that may be a way to control illegal immigration.

Rep. Peck’s comments are vile, cruel and unworthy of someone entrusted with the responsibilities of public service. Dehumanizing immigrants is not a conservative or Christian value. It’s contemptible hate speech. Peck’s remarks also reflect a frightening tenor that characterize many our most contentious debates over abortion, immigration and other polarizing issues. Sharron Angle famously mused about “Second Amendment remedies.” Tea Party activists frequently show up armed at rallies. A Catholic bishop in Kansas used militant rhetoric at a pro-life rally not long before late-term abortion doctor George Tiller was gunned down in church. Right-wing extremists continually “otherize” President Obama by insisting he is a Muslim and not a citizen.

While it’s tempting to dismiss these examples as aberrations from the loony fringe, these days it seems the outliers drive even mainstream discourse. Politicians take to Twitter with rhetorical bombshells. “Citizen journalists” entrap ideological foes in gotcha moments. Our 24-hour news cycle – an insatiable beast in need of feeding – has no trouble finding talking heads ready to offer up red meat heavy on sizzle but light on substance. Democracy is messy. Spirited debate is healthy. But we’re inching closer to a cliff that none of us should want to fall off.

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Sanity on Immigration

March 11, 2011, 3:40 pm | By John Gehring

While a growing number of states introduce Arizona-style immigration bills and Republicans hold Capitol Hill hearings that seek to re-brand their deportation-only strategy as an economic recovery plan, conservative lawmakers in Utah are showing us the difference between pragmatic governing and fear-based pandering.

The Utah legislature, led by Republicans, has passed immigration bills in recent weeks that balance enforcement with a guest worker program. The approach is drawing national attention because it contrasts starkly with the Republican Party’s hard-line stance and ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric. The New York Times reports that this alternative path was paved by a diverse coalition of faith, business and immigrants rights leaders.

The guest worker bill came after intense lobbying by business and farm groups as well as by some immigrant advocates, and it enjoyed the quiet but all-important endorsement of the Mormon Church…In contrast to Arizona’s approach, Utah lawmakers framed their bill to set up a negotiation, rather than a confrontation, between the governor and the federal authorities. Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican who handily won election in November, is expected to sign the bill. “Utah is the anti-Arizona,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group in Washington that favors legislation by Congress to grant legal status to illegal immigrants. “Instead of indulging the fantasy that you can drive thousands of people out of your state, it combines enforcement with the idea that those who are settled should be brought into the system.”

Rather than demonizing immigrants and offering enforcement-only measures that are both impractical and inhumane, Utah leaders met to chart a moderate course that would avoid separating families through deportation. The Utah Compact – a set of principles signed by leaders of the Catholic Church, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and the Salt Lake Police Department, among others – emerged from the discussions.

Paul Mero, the executive director of Utah’s most prominent conservative think tank, explained to the Washington Post how the approach differs from Arizona’s: “They’ve had their 15 minutes in the media and now the adults are going to start talking about how to handle matters. We’ve been able to break through that political barrier put up by the wing nuts who see every brown person as a criminal.”

It’s good to see glimmers of sanity on immigration reform, an issue that has recently been pushed off the national agenda by debates over the federal budget and deficits. And while many GOP lawmakers seem more interested in appealing to Tea Party xenophobia and spreading myths that immigrants are a drag on the economy, Utah Republicans deserve credit for showing that we can fix a broken immigration system without compromising our nation’s core values. Let’s hope conservative leaders in Washington will get the memo.

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