Review: "Tea Party Catholic" - Part II

Yesterday, I began my review of Samuel Gregg’s book “Tea Party Catholic,” focusing on his penchant for tendentious binary choices and his inability to put history to its proper use, as an instructor in complexity. Today, we look at Gregg’s frequent use of strawmen to make his case. I cannot remember a book I have read, ever, in which so many of my dog-eared, marginal notes consisted of the word “strawman” as this book.

Strawman arguments introduce an opponent that does not exist to prove a point. So, while discussing the Founders frequent, and correct, claims that democracy requires a virtuous citizenry, Gregg writes, on page 52, “No one can doubt that most of them [the Founders] would have regarded modern hedonistic accounts of liberty as not only intellectually shallow but also deeply corrosive of a society’s capacity to remain free.” But, who precisely advances these “modern hedonistic accounts of liberty”? He does not say.

Two pages later Gregg is back at it. “The thesis, however, that the Founders’ vision of liberty is heavily rooted in Deism and scientific rationalism is much harder to sustain,” he writes. But, who holds this thesis? Certainly, some of the most prominent Founders were Deists. Certainly, some of them attributed a naïve confidence in the possibilities of science. Not all. As mentioned yesterday, the historiography of the American Founding is enormously rich and I can think of no historian writing today who would hold the thesis Gregg sets himself to defeat.

Gregg finds strawmen in other centuries too. On page 83, Gregg opines that “A society that values economic liberty, for instance, is likely to be especially attached to private property and invest it with legal value. Societies firmly rooted in social democratic values typically accord property rights a low priority.” Again, which societies does Gregg mean? Certainly, the democracies of Western Europe are “rooted in social democratic values” more deeply than we are in the U.S. But, is it true that they assign a “low priority” to property rights or is it more accurate to say that they balance property rights with workers’ rights? Is such a balance not precisely consonant with Catholic social doctrine?

Again, on page 96, Gregg provides the kind of binary choice that introduces a straw man. “The free enterprise system has lifted millions of people out of poverty in a way that command economies and socialism manifestly failed to do so.” Of course, the rise of free enterprise systems has coincided with other events in human life, such as the availability of modern medicine, improved farming techniques, increased scientific knowledge, all of which have contributed to decreases in poverty. And, seeing as Gregg thinks the Affordable Care Act is “socialized medicine,” and it is likely to also lift some people out of poverty, how does he account for that?

Some of Gregg’s strawmen deliver slurs. He writes, on page 152, “Catholic Americans also need to ask themselves some very hard questions about how government funding of any number of church-managed programs has not only made such institutions unduly susceptible to secularist ways of thinking, but also elicited a willingness on some Catholics’ part to unreasonably compromise their religious freedom.” Surely, Gregg is not speaking here of those Catholic bishops who seek some form of tuition tax credits to help ease the expense of Catholic schools. No, he means Catholic Charities and Catholic hospitals. I wish he would come with me to meet some people who work in our Catholic charities and hospitals. They do not seem “unduly susceptible to secularist ways of thinking,” but, instead, seem to be quite self-conscious that they are acting and thinking in obedience to the command of the Master in Matthew 25, “Whatever you do to these the least of my brethren.” They are also quite committed to religious liberty, and understandably resent the charge that their willingness to try and find workable solutions to complex issues in a pluralistic society represents any kind of moral or political backsliding. Indeed, the resent their work being turned into a Republican Party wedge issue and why shouldn’t they? I have seen this charge about the taint of government funding before. It was voiced on the floor of the bishops’ conference meeting last November. It is false and it is insulting.

Gregg continues the charge a few pages later, writing, “But at least part of the point of religious liberty in general and libertas ecclesiae more specifically is for Catholics and Catholic organizations to be able to live their faith with minimal interference from the state. If that means the Church must, as Ismael Hernandez memorably wrote, ‘tell Pharaoh to keep his money,’ then so be it.” I would be curious to know if this was Gregg’s reaction to the comment by Mr. Langone who was worried that Pope Francis’ comments on capitalism were scaring away donors to the renovation efforts at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral? Or, is Pharaoh okay when he is merely a zillionaire trying to coerce the Church, rather than a government agency?

In a sub-chapter entitled “Creative Minority,” Gregg buys into the “smaller, purer Church” narrative that has been exploded by Pope Francis. On page 195 he writes, “Yet another option is ‘Liberal Catholicism.’ The past fifty years, however, have provided compelling evidence that this path is a sure recipe for decline. Liberal Catholicism has more or less collapsed throughout the world under the weight of its own incoherence….You will not find the spirit of liberalism in religion expressed in any document promulgated at Vatican II, including, as demonstrated in chapter four, Dignitatis Humanae.” There is much here to unpack. The word “liberalism” permits several different definitions. Gregg cites John Henry Newman’s biglietto speech in 1879, in which Newman was quite trenchant about liberalism, but Newman was not commenting on the Affordable Care Act, was he? He was not speaking about workers’ rights.

The traditions of American liberalism, as consistently articulated in this blog, are a couple of steps removed from the liberalism of which Newman spoke. Our American tradition of liberalism, as a political movement, is rooted in the belief that, in the face of unfettered capitalism and the consequent power of the moneyed interest, liberalism must harness the power of the state to achieve other important social goods neglected in the pursuit of profit. This is Schlesinger 101.

Besides, the ambiguities in Dignitatis Humanae remain unresolved and most definitely do entail grappling with a deeper understanding of liberalism. This has been the subject of much commentary across the ideological spectrum for some time now. I agree entirely with Newman that if “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another,” then, as a Catholic, I must reject it and I do so, happily. And there may be some so-called liberal Catholics who do not reject such an idea. But, the vast majority of the liberal Catholics I know do not hold such a position. Indeed, it is precisely because we believe the tomb was empty, that this is an “objective fact” as Newman said, that we are so committed to the teachings of Jesus about care for the poor and about the moral and spiritual dangers of wealth. All of this is lost on Gregg.


I understand that a controversialist sometimes allows himself a strawman here or there. The necessity to condense an argument makes it very hard to resist the temptation. But, this book is literally littered with them. In the world of agitprop production that Gregg calls home, strawmen are a kind of infantry, determined to outflank an opponents’ argument. But, here, this army of strawmen merely outflanks the facts. The arguments Gregg makes are only persuasive if you are already inhabiting the world of Fox News-watching, GOP-endorsing, hyper-uncritical Americanism that we have come to know as the Tea Party. There are plenty of strawmen in that strange universe, in the aisle just before conspiracy theories. This book is painful to read. 

Monday, we will conclude our examination of “Tea Party Catholic.”






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