Compassionate conservatism’s comeback?

January 10, 2012, 3:23 pm | Posted by

In the wake of Rick Santorum’s virtual tie with Mitt Romney for first place in the Iowa caucus, a once-common term — “compassionate conservatism”– has re-entered the political lexicon. Political blogs across the spectrum, religious publications and prominent newspaper columnists are debating whether Santorum is the new standard-bearer of this label. The discussion actually says more about the state of conservatism than it does about the former senator from Pennsylvania.

The argument for Santorum’s compassionate conservatism is that he talks about poverty as a moral issue on the campaign trail and his record as a lawmaker, at least on a few issues, jibes more with social justice Christianity than with Tea Party radicalism. Santorum stood up for lifesaving international aid at a GOP debate while others scored cheap political points by demonizing it. As a senator he strongly supported the PEPFAR program to combat AIDS in Africa and stood up for solutions that help the poor, such as debt relief and community health centers. These stances are commendable.

But when deciding whether a politician deserves to be called a compassionate conservative, we should examine how consistently he defends the most vulnerable and those at the margins.

Santorum’s compassion is very selective. He advocates breaking up immigrant families and opposes the DREAM Act. He calls climate change a liberal hoax. He supports torturing detainees in US custody. He endorsed Representative Paul Ryan’s immoral federal budget plan and says poor Americans should suffer more. And few politicians exhibit greater hostility toward gay and lesbian Americans.

Santorum also uses moral arguments to defend economic policies that harm struggling Americans. His unwavering defense of deregulating big business and huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy is standard fare for the GOP, but when it comes to helping poor Americans, he argues that protections for the unemployed and the working poor create dependency rather than help people get back on their feet. When job seekers outnumber jobs 4-to-1 and 49 million Americans are trapped in poverty, this sort of rhetoric is dangerous, misleading and insulting.

It’s a sad commentary on our nation’s politics when a record as uneven and troubling as Santorum’s enables him to seize the mantle of compassionate conservatism. A real compassionate conservative movement would be a welcome change from today’s radicalized GOP and a valuable contribution to addressing poverty and inequality. But this ain’t it.

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A Response to Thomas Peters’s Defense of Rick Santorum

January 6, 2012, 11:57 am | Posted by

Rick SantorumThat John’s piece this week outlining the Catholic case against Rick Santorum garnered a response from conservative Catholic blogger Thomas Peters is unsurprising. That Peters’s argument is so thin, however, is a little disappointing.

The biggest problem with Peters’s rebuttal is that he missed the ultimate point of John’s piece. While Peters reads it as a “theological assassination” of Santorum in defense of President Obama, John wasn’t trying to make the case for any other presidential candidates. He doesn’t even claim that Catholics can’t or shouldn’t vote for Rick Santorum.

As John makes clear in his conclusion, he simply wants to caution against anointing Santorum as some kind of ideal Catholic candidate. And to make his case, he lays out a series of issues on which Rick Santorum is publicly and clearly at odds with the position of the Catholic bishops and the Church at large. These are factual and historical points that exist regardless of either John’s or Peters’s opinions about any of these issues.

A review of Peters objections:

Immigration
Peters dismissively acknowledges that Santorum has “room to grow” on this issue, but then goes on to blame the President and Democrats at large for not reforming the system in the last three years. As I explained before, such comparisons are distractions from rather than rebuttals of John’s point, but I’ll humor Peters for a minute.

While Catholics have a very legitimate critique of this administration’s record on overzealous deportations, when it comes to the kind of comprehensive reform the Catholic bishops support it’s not any kind of secret which party has prevented it from passing over the last ten years.

I’d particularly encourage Peters to revisit the vote count for the DREAM Act last December, which was filibustered by 36 Republican and 5 Democratic Senators. The Catholic bishops, of course, emphatically supported the bill, and Rick Santorum has attacked his rivals over the issue.

But Peters “doesn’t see where…Santorum is saying something different” than the bishops on immigration reform. I find this statement puzzling, as John quoted Santorum openly acknowledging his disagreement with the bishops on this issue word-for-word in his original post:

“If we develop the program like the Catholic bishops suggested we would be creating a huge magnet for people to come in and break the law some more, we’d be inviting people to cross this border, come into this country and with the expectation that they will be able to stay here permanently.”

Poverty, Inequality and Financial Reform
Peters doesn’t even really try to engage with the substance of John’s points here — instead he just makes vague taunts about “lefty Catholics” at large and FPL’s “agenda”. As our “agenda” on these issues is pretty much the same as the Bishops, Peters should probably take his complaints up with them. I’ll just reiterate the facts:

The Bishops expressed serious reservations about Paul Ryan’s budget because of its refusal to raise adequate revenues, the disproportionate cuts to programs that protect the poor and vulnerable, and the unfair way it put the burden of Medicare cost-cutting on seniors. Santorum full-throatedly endorsed Ryan’s plan and proposed one of his own that would do the same things.

The Church is concerned with reforming the kind of unregulated capitalism and financial misconduct that led to the global recession. As a Senator, Santorum voted for deregulation that helped precipitate the crisis, and he continues to get his facts wrong on the cause of the meltdown.

Rick Santorum has adopted Randian “makers/takers” language and derided calls for more progressive taxation levels as “redistribution of wealth.” The Pope doesn’t even know this is supposed to be a dirty word.

Workers Rights
Here Peters just asserts that the issue is complex, but his view lines up with Santorum’s so there’s apparently nothing to see here.

Climate Change and the Environment
Peters’s bizarre lecture on the actual motivations of the environmental movement aside, the facts again here are simple. The Pope is concerned about the dangerous consequences of not addressing climate change; Rick Santorum thinks it’s a liberal conspiracy. The Catholic bishops celebrated the EPA’s recent mercury ruling; Santorum condemned it.

Torture and War
This one is a mess. Once again, rather than rebut the substance of John’s argument, Peters has to change the subject and introduce specious arguments. Accuse “the left” broadly of refusing to criticize President Obama? Check. Compare torture to drone assassinations without any explanation of the point? Check. Reduce Iranian foreign policy to a choice between bombings and nuclear apocalypse? Check. Excuse Santorum’s Catholically indefensible policies because they at worst prove “Santorum cares most for the safety of American citizens and interests”? Check.

Again, simple point: Santorum supports torture; Church doesn’t. Pope cautioned against Iraq war; Santorum championed it.

Peters ends with a long complaint that John didn’t bring up abortion and marriage. Unfortunately, that’s because they’re not related to the ultimate point of John’s post. Peters is, of course, right — there’s no debate about whether Santorum is in line with the Church’s opinions on these issues. He’s pretty vocal about his stances, and religious and political commentators don’t seem to have any trouble recognizing and noting them.

John’s goal was to help bring to light some of the issues that get less attention as “moral issues” in the media — and help political commentators avoid making the mistake of suggesting that examining a candidates’ positions on abortion and marriage is sufficient to determine whether they’re representative of Catholic political thought.

Now, I recognize that Peters and many other conservatives might argue that these two issues are so important that they essentially overwhelm a candidate’s divergent views on any other topics. Making tough calls between imperfect candidates is the nature of our two-party democracy, particularly for Catholics, and I wouldn’t have any problem if Peters’s contention just boiled down to that personal judgement.

To go further, I don’t really care if Peters wants to argue this is the only acceptable voting standard for Catholics at large, or that the only appropriate candidate for Catholics to vote for Rick Santorum because his Catholic “pluses” outweigh his Catholic “minuses.” The U.S. Bishops voting guide, Faithful Citizenship, asks all Catholics to weigh that exact kind of judgment, and such an opinion is certainly a reasonable one worth debating.

Even further, Peters is welcome to join Rick Santorum and argue that the Church is wrong on these issues — that any of these particular policies are matters of prudential judgement in which he and Santorum have reached different conclusions than the Church hierarchy. I would probably disagree with many of their conclusions, but I don’t think it would make either of them “bad Catholics.” Discrediting and demeaning my fellow Catholics’ faiths when I disagree with them just isn’t really something I’m interested in.

But, of course, Peters didn’t engage in a substantive debate about John’s factual arguments. Nor did he have the courage to admit he and Santorum just have a different position than the Church. In his eagerness to claim the mantle of Catholicism for his favored candidate, Peters seems not only willing to overlook Santorum’s discrepancies on a wide range of Catholic issues, but also to actively deny that they even exist. Combined with his propensity for putting words in people’s mouths and dishonestly ascribing ulterior motives, this dangerous obfuscation of fact in service of partisan politics damages Peters’s credibility and emblemizes the concerns many of us in the faith and politics have about the Catholic right more broadly.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

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Breaking down Santorum’s Iowa Caucus Performance

January 5, 2012, 1:22 pm | Posted by

Rick Santorum’s virtual tie for first place in the Iowa caucuses has generated a great deal of commentary about the importance of his support from social conservatives. Let’s take a quick look at the entrance polling for a fuller picture of what happened.

Evangelical/born-again Christians comprised 57% of caucus-goers, and Santorum received a large plurality of support from them – garnering 38% 32% of the vote, as much as Ron Paul (18%) and Mitt Romney (14%) combined. By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, more than almost 1-in-5 participants in the caucus were evangelical Santorum supporters.

Issue-wise, Santorum won a whopping 58% of voters who listed abortion as the most important issue. Perry came in second among this group, earning the support of just 11%. Among caucus-goers who listed the economy as the top issue, Santorum got 19% of the vote, compared to Romney’s 33% and Ron Paul’s 20%. Santorum came in third among voters who said the budget deficit was most important, earning 19% of votes, compared to Ron Paul’s 28% and Romney’s 21%.

Ideologically, Santorum did best among the most conservative voters. He won a plurality of Tea Party supporters by a 10-point margin, a plurality of self-identified “very conservative” voters by a 20-point margin, and edged out Romney among registered Republicans. He did poorly among moderates (8%, compared to Romney’s 40%), opponents of the Tea Party (13%, compared to Romney’s 43% and Ron Paul’s 21%), and independents (13%, compared to Ron Paul’s 43% and Romney’s 19%).

Age-wise, his strongest support was among 30-44-year-olds and 45-64-year-olds, both of which he won. He came in second among 17-29-year-olds (23%), but because of their low overall turnout and Ron Paul’s dominance among these young voters (48%), just 3.45% of all caucus participants were under-30 Santorum supporters.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find crosstabs that would paint a clearer picture. But the story told by the data we do have is clear – Santorum was not only social conservatives’ favorite, he also won the overall race to the right. And he did very poorly among everyone else.

Photo credit: djwhelan/Flickr

UPDATE: Corrected Santorum’s percentage of the evangelical vote.

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The Catholic Case Against Rick Santorum

January 4, 2012, 12:42 pm | Posted by

Rick SantorumGOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a proud Catholic who often speaks about his faith on the campaign trail, is attracting some formidable buzz from pundits who view his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses as a sign that the former Pennsylvania senator might have enough mojo to rally a coalition of religious and blue-collar voters.

New York Times columnist David Brooks waxed poetic Monday about Santorum’s Catholic conservative sensibilities and touted the candidate as an authentic antidote to “the corporate or financial wing of the party.”

Evangelicals are also taking notice. Writing on CNN’s Belief blog, Chris LaTondresse, the founder and CEO of Recovering Evangelical, calls Santorum a post-religious right candidate “whose concern for poor and vulnerable people” is “firmly rooted in his Catholic faith.”

It’s easy to see why Santorum might appeal to some culturally conservative Catholics and moderate evangelicals who are wary of Democrats but also turned off by the Republican Party’s cozy embrace of economic libertarianism and tireless defense of struggling millionaires. Santorum is more comfortable with communitarian language, has been a strong supporter of foreign aid to impoverished countries and connects with personal stories of his blue-collar upbringing.

But it’s a political delusion to think Rick Santorum is a standard-bearer of authentic Catholic values in politics. In fact, on several issues central to Catholic social teaching – torture, war, immigration, climate change, the widening gap between rich and poor and workers’ rights – Santorum is radically out of step with his faith’s teachings as articulated by Catholic bishops and several popes over the centuries.

Immigration
Catholic bishops, priests and women religious have been at the forefront of the fight for comprehensive immigration reform. Catholic leaders have called for an earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and consistently oppose draconian policies that break up families. Santorum has publicly challenged the Catholic bishops on this issue, telling the Des Moines Register: “If we develop the program like the Catholic bishops suggested we would be creating a huge magnet for people to come in and break the law some more, we’d be inviting people to cross this border, come into this country and with the expectation that they will be able to stay here permanently.”

While promising he doesn’t want to “break up families,” Santorum recently justified massive deportations that do, in fact, separate parents from children. He blithely said of those facing deportation to Mexico (a country currently ravaged by grinding poverty and gang violence) that “we’re not sending them to any kind of difficult country.” Tell that to the student brought here as a young child who doesn’t remember the country of her birth and doesn’t even speak the language.

Poverty, Inequality and Financial Regulation
Pope Benedict XVI has decried the “scandal of glaring inequalities” between rich and poor, and Catholic social teaching supports a more just distribution of wealth.  Santorum, in contrast, told the Des Moines Register: “I’m for income inequality. I think some people should make more than other people because some people work harder and have better ideas and take more risks, and they should be rewarded for it. I have no problem with income inequality.” As a Senator, Santorum voted for massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which greatly exacerbated the gap between the top 1% and the rest of us.

The Vatican also recently released a major document on the need for more robust financial regulation of global markets to protect workers and the common good. Santorum clings to the thoroughly debunked lie that regulation caused our nation’s financial collapse. He told MSNBC’s Ed Schultz that “it wasn’t deregulation…it was government regulation” that in part led to our current economic problems. In Congress, Santorum also voted for the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which deregulated risky financial schemes that led to the economic crisis of 2008.

While Catholic bishops defend vital government programs that protect the most vulnerable, Santorum recently voiced support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s immoral federal budget plan—a plan the bishops expressed deep concern about because it would cut life-saving programs while spending trillions on massive new tax breaks for the rich. Even worse, Santorum said that the poor who receive government aid could learn by suffering more. When questioned about how his economic views clash with the Catholic demand for a “preferential option for the poor” in public policy, Santorum was completely unfamiliar with this bedrock Church teaching.

Workers’ Rights
The Catholic Church has defended the vital role of unions since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII released Rerum Novarum, an encyclical that puts the dignity of work and labor rights at the center of Catholic social teaching. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church clearly states that workers have a right to “assemble and form associations” and that unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life.” Rick Santorum, on the other hand, has argued that all public sector unions should be abolished. In a presidential candidates’ debate, Santorum said he would “support a bill that says that we should not have public employee unions for the purposes of wages and benefits to be negotiated.”

Climate Change and the Environment
Pope Benedict XVI, who has been dubbed the “Green Pope” for his attention to environmental justice and climate change, recently urged world leaders meeting for climate talks in Durban, South Africa, to “reach agreement on a responsible, credible response” to the “disturbing” effects of climate change. Catholic dioceses across the country have encouraged Catholics to limit their carbon footprint, and national advocacy organizations like the Catholic Climate Covenant work to educate Catholics about their faith’s teachings on environmental stewardship. Santorum must not be listening. In an interview with Rush Limbaugh, he described the fact that climate change is caused by humans as “patently absurd” and a “beautifully concocted scheme.” Just this week, Santorum blasted a new Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting emissions of mercury and other air toxins from coal-fired power plants. Catholic bishops hailed the ruling as “an important step forward to protect the health of all people, especially unborn babies and young children, from harmful exposure to dangerous air pollutants.”

Torture and War
Many Catholic conservatives ignore the Church’s teaching about “a consistent ethic of life” and excuse a candidate’s position or record on the economy, immigration and the environment by downplaying their moral importance compared to the issue of abortion. Catholics can disagree in good faith on some issues, they assert, but not over “intrinsic evils.”  Unfortunately, even under this standard, Santorum fails. When it comes to torture, which the Church calls an “intrinsic evil,” Santorum is a proud proponent.

The Catholic bishops describe the barbaric practice as an assault on the dignity of human life. “The use of torture must be rejected as fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism,” they wrote in Faithful Citizenship, a political responsibility statement released before every presidential election.  But Santorum eagerly endorsed  “enhanced interrogation” techniques during the first Republican primary debate.

Santorum’s predilection toward pre-emptive war also clashes with mainstream Catholic theology. When the late Pope John Paul II warned against the invasion of Iraq, Santorum vocally championed the war. And while the Catholic bishops repeatedly called for a responsible withdrawal, Santorum remained a staunch defender of the occupation – blasting the “media” and “liberals” for undermining support for the war.

Catholic politicians across the spectrum will all find aspects of Church teaching that challenge their ideological agendas in discomforting ways. But for too long Catholics in public life have only been scrutinized when it comes to abortion and same-sex marriage. This does a disservice to voters, ignores the Catholic social justice tradition’s broad moral agenda and lets Catholic candidates like Rick Santorum off the hook even when they consistently disregard their faith’s teachings on key moral and political issues.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

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Putting the Christ back in the Caucuses: Religion in the 2012 Election Update

December 26, 2011, 3:04 pm | Posted by

In a little over a week, Republicans in Iowa will caucus in support of their favorite candidate for 2012. Given the number of candidates in the race and the length of this campaign, we thought it’d be helpful to take note of a few recent developments with the various  campaigns.

In what initially was billed a major coup, Rick Santorum received the endorsement of conservative evangelical leaders Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley. You might remember Vander Plaats from the controversial pledge his organization asked candidates to sign that was filled with extreme positions including the outrageous assertion that African-American children were better off under slavery. Vander Plaats is again at the center of controversy, as questions arise about whether he actually sold the endorsement to Santorum and urged other candidates to drop out of the race.

Texas Governor Rick Perry is also making a play for the Religious Right vote in Iowa, releasing an ad attacking President Obama’s faith and absurdly claiming the President is waging a war on religion.

Meanwhile, the rise of both Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul in the polls has led to increased media scrutiny for both men. Reuters broke the news that Paul sent out a direct mail solicitation asking for money to help prepare for a “coming race war” and expose the federal government’s “cover-up on AIDS.”

And Gingrich is receiving more media attention of his tumultuous personal and political past, stirring skepticism among conservative evangelicals about his commitment to their issues (though Ralph Reed, noted Religious Right politico has said that “these voters believe in forgiveness, they believe in redemption” as explanation for their potential support for Gingrich). The irony of this is that Gingrich is being lambasted for refusing to formally sign the – now revised – Vander Plaats pledge.

The takeaway (and something reporters have noted) is that evangelical voters have yet to coalesce behind a candidate, making what happens on January 3 still very unpredictable.  And as Marcia Pally noted in USA Today earlier this week,  “While evangelical opposition to abortion is firm, the evangelical vote is not fixed.”  In the 2008 presidential election, the movement of evangelicals (especially younger evangelicals) towards more moderate or progressive stances or candidates was noteworthy.

At a time when the GOP candidates are more out-of-step with Americans’ (and evangelicals’) views on economic inequality, immigration, and other issues than ever before, their jockeying in Iowa and extreme rhetoric may be moving the field even further away from evangelical voters at large.

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