One of the most revealing moments of this week’s GOP convention came during Paul Ryan’s speech on Wednesday night:
Our different faiths come together in the same moral creed. We believe that in every life there is goodness; for every person, there is hope. Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the Lord of Life.
We have responsibilities, one to another – we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.
Each of these great moral ideas is essential to democratic government – to the rule of law, to life in a humane and decent society. They are the moral creed of our country, as powerful in our time, as on the day of America’s founding. They are self-evident and unchanging, and sometimes, even presidents need reminding, that our rights come from nature and God, not from government.
On paper, I agree with almost everything Ryan said in this excerpt. The Romney campaign did a nice job of handling religion this week. Romney talked about religious liberty. There were moving speakers who testified to his Mormon faith, but they did so not in terms of doctrine or theology, but in terms of compassion, love, and service. These kinds of generic religious virtues can be embraced by most religious Americans.
Much of what the GOP had to say about religion this week reflected the ideas of the American Founders. The Founders believed that religion was good for the Republic. They championed religious liberty and refused to endorse any specific religious creed. I don’t think I heard anything about a “Christian nation” this week, although it was clear that the “moral creed” Ryan and others espoused was informed by a mix of Protestant evangelicalism, Catholicism, and Mormonism. (Where is the next Will Herberg or Kevin Schultz to write a book called “Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Mormon“? The “Mormon Moment” has truly arrived).
Yet it was difficult to mesh all of this rhetoric about a moral nation with what was the most prominent theme of the convention–American individualism.
Nearly every speaker referenced their roots in either poverty or the working class. According to his wife Anne, Mitt Romney ate tuna-fish on an ironing board in a basement apartment. Tim Pawlenty’s father was a truck driver. Chris Christie’s Dad worked at the Breyer’s ice cream plant. Paul Ryan extolled his humble roots in Janesville, Wisconsin.
The story that the GOP told this week was informed less by the ideas of the American founding and more by the nineteenth-century myth of the self-made man.
When the Founders thought about a moral or virtuous republic they thought about it not only in terms of individual liberty, but in terms of sacrifice. Their vision was not only about pulling oneself up from poverty and the working class, but about living in a benevolent community in which people will sometimes temporarily lay aside their rights and interests in order to serve their neighbor, their community, and the common good.
I think we got a glimpse of this from the members of Mitt Romney’s Mormon congregation who testified to his compassion and pastoral care, but unless you were watching PBS or C-SPAN you did not see these powerful testimonies. (I am still, however, trying to balance Mitt Romney the loving pastor with Mitt Romney the venture capitalist, but I will leave that for another post)
Ryan’s words about “responsibilities, one to another” were helpful, but if his voting record is any indication, this kind of rhetoric only applies to abortion. What if Ryan applied his commitment to care for the weak and vulnerable to all Americans? His stand for the life of the unborn is admirable, but his application of Catholic social teaching to public policy is very limited. (If Joe Biden bones-up on the tenets of Catholic social teaching the VP debate might be very interesting).
The GOP used its convention to tell a story of ambition, rights, and personal freedoms. All of these things are good and deeply American, but a healthy society cannot be sustained on these ideas alone. Moreover, the Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Andrew Carnegie vision of the American dream fails to recognize a fundamental fact of history, namely that people–even Americans–have struggled to make this dream a reality. Certainly people have contingency to direct their lives along the paths they want to go, and this is something that makes America unique, if not exceptional, in the annals of modern history, but we cannot ignore the fact that people are also shaped by the circumstances of their past. We are not autonomous individuals.
I do not think I heard the word “common good” at any point during the GOP convention. I heard nothing about the cultivation of a civil society in which people learn from their differences and forge a national community. It was all personal stories of rising from poverty or the working class to “make it” in America.
Of course such rhetoric will work well among people who do not like government intervention. And it works particularly well when you are trying to unseat a president who believes that the government has an active role to play in people’s lives. But such a view of America only gets the Founders half-right. As the grandchild of immigrants, a first-generation college student, a son of the working-class, and a beneficiary of the American Dream, the message I took away from the GOP convention left me hollow. I think it would have left the Founders hollow as well.