Review: 'Red, White, Blue and Catholic'

Stephen White is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank that is home to some of the Catholic writers with whom I have great and many disagreements. He has published a book, Red, White, Blue and Catholic, which is the kind of title that makes me squirm. Some of his writing, such as this article about the Catholic bishops and Obamacare, is naïve about the bishops and tendentious about Obama. But, the funny thing is, White's book is not half bad.

White's greatest concern in the book is entirely laudable: to remind readers that so much of what we are obligated to perform under the heading citizenship happens outside the voting booth. He writes:

Citizenship, in its most important sense, is about participation and membership in a community. It's about belonging to a community, acting for the good of that community, taking responsibility for that community, loving that community, and teaching others to care for and love it, too. Part of that task is accomplished by voting. But the far greater part, in fact almost everything we do, does not happen in the voting booth. It is in this richer understanding of citizenship and civic life that the Church's teachings about social justice make the most sense. Citizenship isn't a trophy or a prize. It's a work of love.

Arguably, for the "greatest generation," such sentiments were commonplace. In today's political culture, with its hyper-individualism and libertarian sensibilities, this commitment to the common life, and awareness that the relationship be bear to our community should be characterized by justice and love is welcome. For a Republican Party currently engaged in a mindless round of scapegoating immigrants, celebrating greed, and overall nastiness, White's foundational stance is a tonic we can hope they will soon drink.

White's diagnosis of the current ideological landscape is not entirely accurate. He writes, "One side wants more freedom for individuals and the market and less control by the state, while the other side wants more governmental control and less freedom for the market and individuals." The divide is less ideologically coherent than he suggests. First, those who seek government intervention sometimes do so to achieve a real, rather than a merely theoretical, freedom for individuals or the market. Formally, the rich and the poor alike are free to forage for their dinner in the dumpster, and I am not sure what White makes of anti-trust laws. And, of course, our Republican friends denounce Big Brother in the examining room if we are discussing paying for health care, but they want him there is we are discussing abortion regulations. Democrats are similarly ideologically inconsistent on the relationship of government to health care, only in reverse.

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Nonetheless, White's simplified version does not prevent him from reaching an important conclusion: "What both visions of government and politics largely miss, albeit in different ways, are those all-important spaces: families, churches, schools. Unions, businesses, charities, fraternal organizations, and the like, where most of our lives actually happen. These are spaces where we are neither alone as individuals nor engaged directly with government." Yes, it is true that most people, including most Catholics, send their children to public schools, and always have, so "schools" fit uneasily on his list. It is also true that many charities get a large portion of their funding from the government, a complication that White should at least have acknowledged. But, his core point, the importance of civil society, is vital and both liberal and conservatives should be able to see it. 

White also pushes back against the all-too-common idea on the political right, the idea that, to quote the sainted Ronald Reagan, "Government isn't the solution to our problem; Government is the problem." He doesn't attack Reagan, of course, which would be a GOP faux pas that might get him fired. But he writes:

One hears, from time to time, that government is a 'necessary evil.' Thomas Paine used this phrase in his pamphlet Common Sense in 1776. But like much of what Thomas Paine thought, it's not true. The Catholic Church certainly doesn't think so. Government exists for the sake of the common good.

None of this would be remarkable in a Catholic social teaching class. None of it would be odd coming from a Democratic think tank. But, hats off to White for not minimizing the church's teaching that government is a positive good, ordained to accomplish the common good.

Like many conservatives, his comments about the family focus almost exclusively on the nuclear family.

A man and a woman come together, form a marriage bond as husband and wife, and start a family. They share responsibility for each other and for their children. ... A family itself is a good thing, a true society that arises from natural affections, serves the good of its members and society and deserves the recognition, protection, and cooperation of others. ... The family is vital to the flourishing of individuals and of society as a whole and so deserves the protection of law for the sake of its members, for its own sake, and for the sake of the common good.

All true and all, as he notes, classic Catholic social thought going back to Leo XIII. But, in the post-war era, with all the social and economic dislocation wrought by capitalism and the car, the extended family became a rarity and the nuclear family now has a ton of pressure placed on it that it was never expected to handle on its own previously. It may not be bad morals or liberal divorce laws or Democrats in Congress or gays and lesbians, all of whom take a hit in these pages, who have caused the breakdown in family life that White rightly notes bears a relationship with poverty that is too obvious to ignore. Maybe it was moving away from grandma and grandpa.

There are other passages in the book that give me pause. White writes, "Or political system forces compromise and disadvantages extremism." I wrote in the margins: "Is this still true?" His passion for the unborn is admirable, but his assessment of the difficulties in changing our legal culture to better protect the unborn seems shallow and unrealistic. Still, what a treat to find this sentence in a book by a conservative: "The poor are least able to care for themselves materially and should be shown special preference as a matter of justice" (emphasis in original). Or this: "But to be forced by the demands of the labor market to trade one's labor for a pittance, for a wage inadequate to the maintenance of decent living is unjust, even if the work is menial and the wage has been mutually agreed upon." A few more Catholic Republicans willing to say and write sentiments like that and maybe there would be less gridlock in Washington!

White is not one of those political analysts who entirely subordinates his invocation of Catholic teaching to justify his partisan ideas. That is reason enough to celebrate. His political biases tend not to be mine, except for our shared awareness that libertarianism is the enemy. I think the Catholic tradition goes further in its suspicions of capitalism than White lets on. Still, I was prepared to dislike this book, and I didn't. White is the kind of fair-minded spokesperson for his beliefs with whom we on the other side of the partisan landscape can do business. And if more Republicans had read this book and shared the author's convictions, Donald Trump would not be the nominee of the Republican Party.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.] 


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