Liberal and Catholic: 12 Questions for James Carville
James Carville is a New Orleans-based political pundit and media personality who is a major figure in the Democratic Party. Nicknamed "the Ragin' Cajun," he rose to national fame as the chief political strategist of then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign in 1992. He was a co-host of CNN's Crossfire until its final broadcast in June 2005, when he began his current role on CNN's news program The Situation Room. As of 2009, he has hosted a weekly program on XM Radio with Luke Russert called 60/20 Sports. He has taught political science at Tulane University since 2009. In 2014, he also joined Fox News Channel as a contributor.
Mr. Carville is a lifelong Catholic and his wife, the Republican political consultant Mary Matalin, is a convert to Catholicism. He holds B.A. and J.D. degrees from Louisiana State University and is a graduate of Ascension Catholic High School in Donaldsville, La. On July 9, I interviewed Mr. Carville by telephone about the intersection of his faith and politics. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.
What makes you feel at home in the Catholic Church?
It’s the way I’ve always been. I grew up in a French-dominated Catholic part of the country, I was an altar boy, I went to Catholic school, I have a cousin who is a priest—it’s part of my DNA. It’s kind of hard to separate me from the church, to try to say where one starts and the other stops.
Who are your role models in the faith, either living or dead?
Pope Francis for sure. I’m also a big fan of John XXIII. I actually thought Pope Paul VI was the most tragic figure in the modern church, like Lyndon Johnson was a very tragic figure in politics in some ways. Pope Leo XIII is another one. Growing up, I learned to respect St. Francis of Assisi and all of the usual people. From what little I know, St. Augustine’s influence on the church was enormous. That’s about it.
How has your faith evolved or changed over the years?
You know, I was very intense as a young guy and I lost some contact with the church, but then as I got older I re-established that contact. What I really like is having a framework to think about things. But I also understand that the church has made some pretty big mistakes. I didn’t go to Rome until I was in my early 40s, and when you’re there for five minutes, you kind of understand the Reformation. I mean, man, people have a point when they say “those Catholics got pretty far away.” But I think, in some ways, that kind of journey is oddly enough sort of cathartic, because then you understand some of the wisdom too. It’s like when you grow up thinking your parents are omniscient and then you discover one day that your parents are human like all the rest of the people. I think the same thing is true of an intense cradle Catholic like me in how I relate to the church. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people say there’s the “smaller, purer church” and we don’t need these cafeteria Catholics or these doubting Thomases. But hey, I think they’re part of the whole thing too.
How do you pray?
Like a lot of people, I pray for a sick relative or that kind of thing, but I don’t pray to make my next flight connection at the airport. I find prayers before sports contests to be insensitive and kind of demeaning, at least when someone prays to beat the other team or something like that. I like the creed because it makes me think. I still recite the Confiteor in Latin, but I like it in English too, because it’s pretty humbling. Hail Mary is a great prayer, succinct and to the point. At Sunday mass, I like to read the passage from the gospels and think about it. The reason these prayers have been around for a long time is that they’re good. But I guess the creed is the one I think about the most.
How does Catholicism influence your approach to being a husband and father?
You know, family was such a huge part of my life growing up and it was such a part of the faith that I almost find the two to be intertwined. You know, I say this not knowing what tomorrow will bring, but there’s relatively no divorce in my family. I understand life is complicated and I’m not arguing against divorce laws or anything, but faith and family go together in the culture I grew up in. It gives you a real respect for the elderly, respect for the infirm, and respect for every human life as precious—I think that’s pretty essential to the faith.
You are considered a political liberal on economic issues, favoring a progressive tax rate. Where do you feel the most congruence between Catholicism and your politics?
I find it in the moral basis of Catholicism to “do unto others.” It’s hardly a uniquely Catholic thing, but it’s definitely a part of the faith that all life is to be respected as you respect your own life. And it’s part of the faith that there’s some gift and virtue in poverty. Today it seems like some people think God shines on you when you’re rich because it means you’re holy, but the church doesn’t teach you that. I’m sure there are some guys in Grand Rapids who will tell you that, but not the church. I always find it offensive when people say God showers riches on you if you’re good. The pope doesn’t say that. I do a lot of work in Argentina, so I know a lot of people that Pope Francis knows, and people loved him when he was their cardinal, and some of these people are pretty secular. He had a remarkable reputation down there, so I was really disposed to like him even before he became pope.
Where do you feel the most tension between your faith and politics?
As you’d expect, sexual issues. The church is way more into that stuff than Jesus was. But I’ve always thought the most uncomfortable person in Christianity, even to some extent in Catholicism, is Jesus. I think about that a lot and there’s some tension there. And it’s not a bad thing, you know what I mean? It helps me be forgiving of difficult people who are not as fortunate as I am, given the kind of background I have—the family structure, the financial gains and the way I’ve been able to provide for my kids. You know, sometimes when I’m in a Walmart I’ll see a mom yank a child, and it’s someone who’s frustrated and obviously not that rich. Part of me says I would never do that to my children, but then I tell myself to walk a mile in her shoes. You know, the air conditioning is broken in the car, the husband is away or abusive, and God knows what else.
Faith is something that’s made me less quick to judge. Every time I go to Sunday mass, more often than not, it helps me be less judgmental. So much of modern religion has become a lot of judgment on people and I do that sometimes myself. But when I think about it, that’s when my faith kicks in. You’ve got to think about what other people are going through.
On what current political issues do the church and American liberals find themselves most clearly aligned?
Family and medical leave, immigration, progressive taxation, supplemental nutrition assistance programs, Medicaid expansion, affordable health care—it’s a lot. I mean, wow, think about Medicaid expansion. The idea that a child with a cleft palate or diabetes can’t receive medical attention for lack of money is about as anti-Catholic as you can get.
On what current political issues do the church and American liberals find themselves most clearly divided?
Gay marriage and probably abortion, although on these issues there are a lot of liberals who don’t understand the church. All they do is complain that “the pope hasn’t changed on abortion or gay marriage.” Well, he’s not going to change. That’s not the way it works, that’s not the deal, and they don’t understand it. But the pope saying we talk too much about that stuff—to me, that’s bold. That’s bold. One advantage of growing up with the church is that you understand the faith a little bit. A lot of people who comment on the church just don’t understand the way it works.
What are your thoughts on Pope Francis?
I’m crazy about him. I think he’s a great guy. Like I said before, I know people who know him and they think the world of him. You know, I actually do think and choose to believe that the Holy Spirit had something to do with those guys picking him. I think he’s just what the church needs. He’s remarkably and understandably like a regular guy. He’s a humble guy, I think he sets the right tone, and I like him a lot.
Any predictions for the future of our country?
Well, I think people who have bet against this country have always lost, and we have some remarkable young people in this country. It’s just going to be a different country and we have to adapt to it. When I was growing up, we had the advantage of vanquishing two of our biggest competitors, the Japanese and the Germans, and the Chinese were under this archaic brutal system. Those three things are no longer in place now. So we live in a different world and the makeup of the country is changing, as it always does. And why is that a bad thing? I’m not sure it is a bad thing at all. I choose to believe it’s a good thing in some ways. When people say this country’s not like it used to be, they’re right. It’s not the same and, by the way, we’re not going back to the way it used to be. The church is also not like it used to be, even though it probably evolves more slowly than most things.
Any final thoughts?
From growing up in Catholic schools and everything else, I’ve had really positive experiences with the church. I think in a lot of places in the church, there’s real intellectual depth. I like the fact the church plays such a big part in our culture, especially in New Orleans where everyone knows the archbishop. But like I said before, the church is like your parents in how you relate to it. You grow up thinking the church is omnipotent and always has the answers, and then one day you find out that’s not true in every respect. But that helps in some ways. At first you get mad when someone tells you the Gospel of John wasn’t really written by the apostle John. That makes you furious when you realize John wasn’t going around taking notes! But after a while, you realize it’s really not that important to you, even though it’s the kind of stuff that drives you nuts. Why get upset about it? There’s no reason. You know, I don’t need to know whether St. Peter was out appointing bishops and stuff. I don’t need that because it’s not necessary. It’s faith, so you’ve got to understand that you can’t explain everything away. If it was that easy, it wouldn’t be faith.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.