I too was struck by E.J. Dionne’s discussion of the early twentieth century work of Msgr. John Ryan. What I found particularly interesting was that Msgr. Ryan thought it necessary and valuable to make a direct connection between his faith and his politics, arguing that his call for economic justice rested "ultimately on the foundational principle that God created the earth for the sustenance of all his children; therefore, that all persons are equal in the inherent claims upon the bounty of nature." This is a fundamentally Catholic social anthropology and it led Msgr. Ryan to conclude that the subsistence wages of his day were an injustice that had to be remedied.
In order for any political platform to be coherent, as you well know, it has to be built on a solid anthropology: a set of sound principles that describe who human beings are, what they require, and what should be done to achieve it. Throughout the 1990s, as Dionne rightly points out, the anthropology or worldview of the religious right led them to conclude that Christian faith is necessarily identified with the politics and policies of the Republican Party. The opportunity now is for Christians to carve out a new philosophy of public action that is post-partisan, big enough to transcend traditional ideological barriers. Catholics are uniquely situated to meet this challenge. We have a rich and compelling tradition, as Dionne points out, of sustained reflection on what it means to be human and this, it seems to me, is the first and most fundamental political question.
Mr. Obama has taken some hits lately for seeming to lack a philosophical grounding. Michael Powell recently wrote in the New York Times “Mr. Obama, an intellectually curious man, is nothing if not pragmatic in the application of philosophy to politics, temperamentally inclined toward no strand of thinking.” I suspect that isn’t quite fair. But it is true that when it comes to clearly articulating the philosophy that undergirds his positions, Mr. Obama has been less eloquent, even hesitant, about his thinking. We saw this, I think, at the Saddleback forum.
Yet Mr. Obama’s troubles in this regard seem to mirror America’s troubles as it struggles to re-cast faith, philosophy and politics on the national stage following the exit of the religious right. And Mr. Obama’s somewhat tentative philosophical instincts also seem to reflect a Democratic Party that is in the midst of some pretty big changes. Sixteen years ago, the Governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, was banned from speaking before the Democratic convention because of his pro-life views. Last night, his son, Senator Bob Casey, Jr., also pro-life, had a prime time speaking role. This seems to indicate that the times are indeed a-changing. Are these clear signs that the Democratic Party has grown more comfortable with religious and ideological diversity? Is the party expanding to fill a bigger tent?
I look forward to hearing from you.
You raise three very interesting points about the connection of faith and public life. First, whether Barrack Obama has a philosophical grounding that undergirds his policy positions. Second, are there clear signs that the Democratic Party has grown more comfortable with religious and ideological diversity? And, third is the party expanding to fill a bigger tent?
The answer to the last two questions is YES. I have been at the Democratic Convention for the last four days. I have felt the excitement and witnessed the change in the party. There have been many forums on faith and public life. Jim Wallis, the evangelical editor of Sojourners, is a rock star here, and he is pro-life. His message is that to be pro-life one must care about life after birth—as well as before.
Bob Casey, Jr.—whose father was prohibited from speaking at the 1992 convention—has been welcomed in the Democratic Party today. What a change. He has spoken eloquently about his faith. And, his message is wise. Casey argues that people of faith must, first, listen, so that we can learn from others. Faith defined as hearing what others say is in itself a shift from the unfortunate caricature of religion as close-minded and didactic.
And, the big tent in the Democratic Party also includes vets. I have attended a number of events that celebrate the contributions of veterans. Part of last night was a tribute to the many men and women who are serving our nation.
Finally, on the day when the first African American was nominated by a major party, the proceedings ended with a benediction from one of my heroes: Sister Catherine Pinkerton, the founder of NETWORK, a social action advocacy group in Washington D.C.
The question of Obama’s philosophical grounding may take a few more entries, written with a little more time, something not easily found in the chaos of a convention! One point: Joe Biden’s argument that we are all equal, that no one is better than us, could be the beginning of a uniquely American, faith-based philosophy. His point about the dignity of work is a big part of Catholic social thought. Each of us wishes to contribute to society, to feel that our work is important, to be able to say to our family and community. “I have produced. I take care of my family. I am human.”
Biden also spoke about the conversations families have over the kitchen table. People are worried about the price of gas, the declining value of their home, and the bills that keep going up. Yet we are not alone, Biden said, we all share these same worries and dreams. We are very much connected to one another. (Some in the Republican Party seem to believe that we are alone, but that’s a subject for another conversation.)
I assume that Barrack Obama chose Biden because they did share these common values…and a commitment to the common good. Tonight, we shall hear more.