Should Politicians Really be Telling Theologians What to Think?

Here are a couple more interesting articles on Rep. Paul Ryan. We had a discussion about this last week that you can read about here.

The first article is from the Washington Post: Faith based lesson for Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan is very vocal about his Catholic faith and the role it plays in his politics. Dana Milbank’s article notes that Ryan seems eager to cite his church and religious beliefs when it comes to topics like abortion or opposing coverage of contraception. Yet Ryan seems to ignore the teaching of the Catholic Church – even vocally oppose it when it concerns the poor, the death penalty, or its opposition to things like the Arizona immigration law. To the church’s credit they seem to want to stay true to their beliefs & not bow the the whims of a political party. He visited Georgetown University this week and was rebuked by faculty & protested by students (that’s the 2nd article).

Ryan went so far as to try and call out Catholic Theologians at Georgetown:

“He [Ryan] said the faculty members would benefit from a “fact-based conversation” on the issue. “I suppose that there are some Catholics who for a long time thought they had a monopoly … on the social teaching of our church,” he said, but no more. “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.””

What do you think about this?

Its it consistent for a politician to use their religion so openly as a selling point for one policy, and then completely ignore that church when his church’s leaders tell him that he’s actually interpreting Catholic doctrine in illegitimate ways and doing things in his job that run counter to their teachings?

Should politicians really be telling theologians what to think?

I wonder if this is even more evidence that 1) you can’t be a politician on the national level and be a Christ follower. It just makes you a walking contradiction. Your party/ideological commitments will force you to do things that your Christian faith won’t allow. 2) If you are following Jesus it will put you at odds with Democrats at some points, and at odds with Republicans at other points. Conversely it will put you in harmony with Democrats at some points and at odds with Republicans at other points. If your primary allegiance is to Christ, you cannot join with either political party.

I actually think this is a hopeful thing to read about, because it tells me that there are still those within the Roman Catholic Church who are not afraid to speak truth to power – even if the power isn’t listening.

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  • These days I'm feeling more and more compelled as a Christ-follower to be A-political.

    Luther wrote, "The birth of Christ took place exactly when the Emperor Augustus sent out a decree that all the world should be taxed. This was no accident…At the very first moment of his life, Christ and his parents had to give evidence of obedience, not to God, but to the heathen emperor, the enemy of the Jews. This is the strongest proof that Christ's Kingdom is to be distinguished from that of the world. Christ did not erect a kingdom like an earthly king, but wished to be subject to a heathen government."

    So here we are, 100+ days from another presidential election, and where I stand is that we recognize the heathen government(s) we are subject to, and to remain A-political.

    If you've read my blog lately you might read that I view politics as a big joke. Politics give us pizza as vegetables, allows abusive churches (Catholic) to lobby for shortened Statute of Limitations (New York) to quiet the abused, and can be "pro-life" while also being pro-capital punishment and war.

    It's politics.

    It's a joke.

    And for that, I think A-political is where I stand.


  • I think the Christian witness to the state is really important. The state has so much power over our lives. The Christian witness to the state is essential. The State's witness to the Christian always makes me nervous, for obvious reasons…

  • Tim,

    It seems to me that the disconnect is on both sides. Correct me if I'm wrong but in my opinion politicians know about as much about theology as theologians know about economics. The thing is that both both sides want to enter the debate with minimal knowledge of that which they speak. Ryan may have a perverted view regarding Catholic doctrine but many of the theologians that I hear speak about economics are naive at best.

    Your previous post about how we should speak as Christians regarding our politics is fascinating for the fact that you and I may have had a disagreement about your original post regarding Paul Ryan. You claimed that he doesn't care about the poor. While you did amend that quote, the fact is you said it and words mean things. You said it because you meant it, without any knowledge of who he is as a person . It is very difficult to engage in a discussion when rhetoric such as that is used.

    I'm really curious as to why so much attention has been given to Paul over this speech. How often do we have a theological discussion about whether or not the State is being good stewards of what we currently provide them. I believe this is a more important conversation that never seems to occur. Why do you think that is the case?


  • Hey Scott,

    There are many brilliant theologians working in Political Theology & who are no slouches when it comes to public policy & economics. One notable Catholic theologian who really knows his political/economic policy stuff is William Cavanaugh. There are fewer theologically astute politicians, but they come around every now and then – folks like John Lewis.

    Look, I don’t know if Ryan cares about the poor, but I know that the budget he proposed would be devastating for the poor. Whatever he thinks about them, he’s trying to screw them. I don’t know how much you’ve read about the budget and I really can’t cull the data, but if you spend a couple of hours reading about it I promise you will understanding why he’s taking so much heat.

    The section titled “Repairing the Social Safety Net” calls for huge cuts in Medicaid, Pell Grants, food, stamps and so on. Take something simple like food stamps: $33 billion over the next decade from food stamps programs. 2 million people will be dumped immediately, another 44 million reduced. Job training for folks on food assistance cut by 72%.

    There are several reasons that so much attention has been given to Ryan’s budget among Christians & theologians. For one thing it was just recently passed. For another, Ryan leads with his faith all the time. He makes a big deal out of his Catholicism, and yet seems unfazed that the Catholics are uniting against his budget. A third is that he’s vying to become the VP candidate, so he’s a national player like never before. The last reason I can think of is that it is truly a radical budget. Even Romney has come out criticizing things like the hike in Student Loan interest rates and slashing of Pell Grants. Ryan engineered the writing and passage of a budget which proposes that we should drastically cut programs to the poor, leave defense spending alone, and continue to let the disparity between the rich and the poor grow by refusing to even entertain the option of raising taxes on the very rich.

    I thought of one more reason: More and more Christians who are engaged in national political discourse are not aligned with the secular right. That number is growing, the information is readily available, so Ryan & the Young Guns are going to take heat. Ryan’s plan is getting crushed in the media. Even some more conservative leaning pubs have been critical. Here are some really fast reads from across the board:

    The New Republic:

    US News Article:

    New Yorker article:

    HuffPo Article:

  • Tim,

    I'm really not sure where you are getting your information from but I don't think it is directly from the Ryan budget,

    "Convert the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) into a block grant tailored for each state’s low-­‐income population, indexed for inflation and eligibility beginning in 2016 – after employment has recovered. Make aid contingent on work or job training."

    This is directly from his plan. It's not even implemented until 2016. 2 million people will not be immediately dumped from the program because no change occurs until 2016.

    Regarding education spending the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a fairly progressive international organization, published a fascinating study last year. The USA spends more money per pupil on primary education than any other nation but two in the world and we spend more on secondary education than anyone else but one, with pathetic results I must say. Washington DC school district spends $24,607 per student on public education and is one of the worst districts in the country. Why is it that so many believe all problems can be solved by sending more money to Washington? It seems to be a position you are advocating.

    I think I will just agree to disagree with you on this issue. Please don't get the impression that I am not concerned about poverty and injustice in the world. It is something that concerns me greatly. I just think too many on the left are misguided or ignorant when it comes to economics. I believe we have failed those who are the least amongst us and there is an unwillingness to try avoid failing in the future. Any proposal other than just mailing in another payment is met with great resistance and name calling. It's not right!

    Everyone is up in arms about a budget proposal that hasn't passed and will never pass, you included. Why aren't you and other theologians morally outraged that we haven't even had a budget passed for over three years. President Obama has submitted one budget since he was in office and it was voted down 97-0, so we can't conveniently blame the Republicans.I believe that the lack of prioritization, by both parties, along with the uncertainty created because we do not have a budget is far more harmful to the poor than any proposal Paul Ryan could come up with. Once again it is selective moral outrage in the theological community.

    I still would like to know if you believe that the State has been a good steward of what we've provided them. This should be the starting point of the conversation if we are to view budgets as moral documents.

    One other thing. Isn't it funny how Catholics and Catholicism are now in vogue in the mainstream press. Rhetorically I ask why that is.


  • Yeah, I appreciate what you are saying. The education spending can make you want to pull your hair out.

    Nevertheless, I think a lot of my issues with it stem from the lack of willingness to seek common ground, balance, and compromise. There are three segments at work here: 1) entitlements 2) defense 3) taxes. All three contribute to the deficit.

    Why not push all of the levers at once? Sure – cut some entitlements (thought not quite so drastically), then cut some defense spending, and raise taxes on the very wealthy.

    Ryan & the young guns – as they call themselves – they want to increase defense spending, lower taxes, and gut entitlement. I just don't think it is a very wise approach.

  • scott stone

    Let the name calling and demagoguery begin! Prediction: This will be the most negative presidential campaign in my lifetime.

  • Tim Suttle

    Hey Scott – you concur with your prediction. I’m interesting to hear what it is you like about Paul Ryan. Don’t pull any punches. Tell me what you think, because I respect your opinion. ts