The all-American picture of the All-American family struck our Facebook walls hours after the announcement: A trim dad, donned with a baseball cap and a sweatshirt, sits on the porch swing beside his beautiful wife. Three children smile on their laps. The headline pleads above: “Please say a prayer for the Ryan Family.” The caption explains below: “They are about to face a terrible and merciless onslaught of lies, rumors, and smears from the progressive/Democrat propaganda machine known as the, ‘Impartial and Objective Main Stream Media.”
So the culture-war detonates with a prayer, sealing Mitt Romney’s vice presidential designate from criticism because he’s a pity-worthy victim. Political discourse – always filled with passion and never for the faint-hearted – is no longer about reasonable versus unreasonable or practical versus impractical. It’s good verses evil, the wholesome verses the malicious, the decent verses the vile. Think of that harmless family. Think of the children.
I actually sympathize as they face the potential onslaught. I have no reason to doubt Paul Ryan’s sincerity or his religious devotion. I honestly wish him no harm. He might be a great guy. Perhaps we’d be friends. Maybe he’s one of those give-you-the-shirt-off-my-back libertarians, individually charitable but suspicious of candy-doling but power-hungry governments. I should listen – especially if he’s the admired GOP intellect and policy wonk. At the same time, my American citizenship obliges me to gauge a candidate’s intellectual coherence, what previous generations called wisdom – and, since he’s a self-advertised Christian, his representation of Christ. Romney opened that door when he played the religious card, apparently forgetting how the deck was once loaded against him. He hailed Ryan’s Catholicism and, in a Virginia campaign ad, accused the president of waging a war on religion. Many are leaving churches of all stripes because the faithful are seen as Bible-heaving, take-no-prisoners zealots, so I need to see what we’ve been dealt.
And the facts – not rumors or smears or lies from a liberal cabal – ring alarms. Maybe Ryan can debate. Maybe he’s a great salesman (and I mean no disrespect: persuasiveness is laudable). Maybe he deftly fields objections with the clicks of his PowerPoint presentations, but beneath the surface lie rocky, isolated intellectual islands. He fails to link the dots. For example, his stake in the late Ayn Rand’s thought is not only innately jarring but logically ill-founded. Listen to his oft-cited 2009 Facebook video: “It doesn’t surprise me that sales of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have surged lately with the Obama Administration coming in, because it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of writing, that is sorely needed right now.” He goes on: “The issue that is under assault, the attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America, is an attack on the moral foundation of America – and Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism. And this, to me, is what matters most. It is not enough to say that President Obama’s taxes are too big or that health care doesn’t work for this or that policy reason. It is the morality of what is occurring right now and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack …”
So much for the pragmatic policy wonk. This is “us” verses “them” language; morality collides with immorality; the righteous fight the wicked. Sometimes that’s necessary: Nazi Germany was evil and the Allies, for all their flaws, were good. But, despite Tea Party paranoia, the 2012 election does not pit dictators against freedom fighters. Ryan’s statements expose misplaced zealotry. They mistake Obama’s policies – which are actually a little to the right of Richard Nixon’s and which Andrew Sullivan described as “conservative” in the tradition of Edmund Burke – for an “attack.”
Then there’s his appointed moral arbiter: Ayn Rand, whom he credited as “the reason I got into public service.” The late Charles Colson, hardly a liberal, worried about her growing popularity among Republicans: “What makes this newly-renewed regard especially troubling is that Rand’s worldview is explicitly anti-Christian. She once said she wanted to be known as the ‘greatest enemy of religion.’ And when Rand said ‘religion’ she meant Christianity, which she once called the ‘kindergarten of communism.’” Colson did not misunderstand Rand. She called self-sacrifice and altruism “evil” in her now-infamous 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, bluntly claiming that no human being should “wish to sacrifice himself for the happiness of others.” She was nothing if not forthright: “I am the creator of a new code of morality, a morality not based on faith.” Her “new code” dismisses the pre-natal child: “Never mind the vicious nonsense of claiming that an embryo has a ‘right to life.’ A piece of protoplasm has no rights – and no life in the human sense of the term.”
Rand coupled with morality? Behold the intellect of rocky islands. The dots lie on the page, isolated, with no links. Rand was an anti-moralist (and, incidentally, an incredibly bad novelist). To put it starkly but accurately, if Rand is moral, Christ is immoral. If Rand is right, then Ryan’s own Catholic Church is wrong. Rand is not merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing, she is an unabashedly unfleeced, snarling wolf. If anyone is attacking America’s moral foundation, it is Rand’s ghost. Rand waged an outright, verbal war on religion similar to Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s.
GOP Randians are calling the wolf a sheep and the sheep a wolf. Why didn’t Ryan see that long ago? His recent back-pedaling from her leaves me little solace.
But that photograph: the handsome husband … the lovely wife … the innocent children. Is not a picture worth a thousand words?
Perhaps – and that’s why I seek an accurate portrait of Ryan’s thinking. Unfortunately, more analytical inconsistency rears when I peer beyond Rand’s “morality.” His mind is calmly made up despite the facts. THINKPROGRESS listed statements and votes showing his blind eye to the vast evidence of human-induced climate change. Trim the article of its sarcasm and the realities remain: He accused scientists of conspiring to “intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change;” he implied that snow invalidates climate change theory; he voted to abolish federal limits on greenhouse pollution and to block the US Department of Agriculture from implementing its Climate Protection Plan; he voted to cut climate advisory positions in the White House and to eliminate light bulb efficiency standards. He voted for the Keystone oil pipeline and for big oil subsidies; he voted to slash investment in clean energy.
Ryan is isolated from his own church on this issue. Witness his bishops in 2001: “Human behavior and activity are, according to the most recent findings of the international scientific bodies charged with accessing climate change, contributing to a warming of the earth’s climate;” and in 2007: “We believe the moral measure of debate and decisions on climate change will be how we act with prudence to protect God’s creation, advance the ‘common good,’ and mitigate the ways that climate change and its remedies burden the poor and the vulnerable.” He stood far from the Church this spring when he claimed that Catholic social teaching supported his budget plan, which would gut social programs and slice taxes for the rich. Nearly 90 Georgetown University Faculty called him to task: “We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.” The US bishops said the plan failed to meet their “moral test.”
No doubt Ryan is “clever.” His islands loom tall with information and quick-witted rejoinders – but wisdom links the dots. If he thought like a civic Catholic, as marketed, he would remember Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), which validated private property and endorsed union formation and the preference for the poor. He would know of Monsignor John Ryan (1869-1945), an activist priest who worked in an America with 40% poverty levels, partly stemming from policies based on Social Darwinist assumptions eerily similar to Rand’s. His ideas anticipated the New Deal. Paul Ryan would know of Christianity’s rich heritage in public theology. Personal prayer and spirituality is urgent, but thinkers from Augustine to John Calvin to Leo to Abraham Kuyper to Walter Rauschenbusch to Dorothy Day to Pope John Paul II have wrestled with the communal implications of Christ’s teachings as well.
Wise people see nuance and shades; they grasp why others reach different conclusions. They see the interplay between the community with the individual. Ryan views his own past and sees himself as a self-reliant 16-year-old in the wake of his father’s early death. We sympathize and we commend individual resourcefulness, but the wise would see the government-funded schools he attended and the government-funded roads on which he drove. If Ryan were wise, he would remember how he used Social Security survirors’ benefits to help pay his way through college. He would see eddies and currents and undertows – and he would remember that he voted for every spendthrift proposal under George W. Bush.
We’ve had many intelligent presidents, but I can only think of five truly wise ones: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. Each had the capacity to see beyond what he wanted to see; each knew the difference between a political adversary and a personal enemy; each could crawl into another’s skin and make an argument from another view. Each bridged islands; each connected the dots.
Ryan’s islands are marooned; the dots have no links. He is intelligent, but his wisdom has yet to bloom – and our information-saturated society cries out for wisdom.
No doubt unfair comments will pile on Ryan and his family. No doubt venomous liberals will heave their scorn. I honestly wish that family – who may be salt-of-the-earth types who’d do anything for you – only the best. So I will pray for them.
I will also pray for our country.