Obama, Catholics and Social Justice

The New Deal Coalition drew the adherence of Catholics because it overlapped so obviously with the dominant themes in Catholic teachings about social justice. Msgr. John A Ryan, who headed the Social Action Department of the Bishops’ Conference, was so devoted to FDR and his programs that he earned the sobriquet "Right Reverend New Dealer." Parts of the New Deal bore a remarkable resemblance to the kinds of social policies advocated in papal encyclicals, especially Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, published in 1931. Democrats lost their way in the 1970s, when they became obsessed with identity politics and a view of political rights unmoored from moral considerations, summed up in the offensive pro-abortion chant, "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries." Concern for the economic hardships faced by the middle and lower classes took a back seat to debates about abortion and racial set asides. Thus was born the "Reagan Democrat," a voter, usually a white, ethnic Catholic living in the Rust Belt, who was fed up with a Democratic Party that seemed not to care that he was having trouble supporting his family. Yesterday, in his speech about race, Obama tried to move the Democratic Party past identity politics. Indeed, his entire campaign has been about trying to move the nation’s political agenda past the now stale debates of the 70s, 80s and 90s that divided Americans and prevented progress on the pocketbook issues at the heart of the New Deal. (More on the speech tomorrow.) Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to rekindle the social justice flame that was the heart and soul of the New Deal Coalition. I say unique because more than any politician since FDR, Obama knows how to employ words to political effect. He can invoke phrases like "human dignity" and "the Common Good" without them sounding pedestrian. He rarely uses that most clunky construction of which Democrats are fond - "working families" – which forgets that families exist to love not to work. He is unafraid to employ a vigorously moral language when he discusses the need for parents to turn of the television sets and work with their children on their homework, or makes the case for the "Dream Act" which helps the children of undocumented workers go to college. The task of reaching Catholics requires more than the insertion of a catch phrase here and there. Obama needs to connect the moral dots to the policy dots explicitly. One of the key differences between classic liberal thought and Catholic social thought is that Catholics insist on the word "person" rather than "individual," correctly noting that a person can be an individual but and individual can too easily become an individual part of someone else’s de-humanizing machinery. Obama will get a boost heading into the Pennsylvania primary from the fact that Pope Benedict XVI’s speeches will be filled with explicit discussions about the moral necessity of creating a more just social order. The growing gap in income inequality in America is a moral scandal, the result of Republican policies that can best be described as social Darwinism. Benedict will not be shy about calling laissez-faire economics sinful. Will Obama? Michael Sean Winters
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9 years 8 months ago
I just wanted to say, "Thank You."
9 years 8 months ago
I think Senator Obama knows Catholic Social teaching even though he dosen't use the terms listed in the Catechism or the Vatican documents. For the voting records for 2007, he was one of 7 who voted according to Catholic social teaching as listed in the Network Connection report on p. 14. I don't know too many Catholics who are really aware of the principles of Catholic Social teaching as well as living them. Some may be living them but can not name them.
9 years 7 months ago
This is a very helpful contribution to the discussion. Thank you!
9 years 8 months ago
Wow! Thank you.

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