Today is primary day in Michigan and that means an embarrassingly tiny fraction of the voting population will turn out to decide the Republican ticket for Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District: (A) Incumbent Tea-Party/libertarian darling Justin Amash; or (B) Challenger and quasi-Republican businessman Brian Ellis. (For some of my earlier thoughts on this race, see my commentary in Michigan’s The Bridge magazine here.) Since first taking a seat in Congress in 2011, Amash has positioned himself as a “Washington outsider” willing to challenge “the establishment,” albeit with few, if any, tangible results to show for it. Amash may have made headlines opposing the “Security State” and reports of the National Security Agency’s data-mining overreach, but let’s be honest. Amash knows full well that the current security ordo is too precious to too many Americans to overturn (or probably even reform meaningfully). Amash, like other “Tea Partiers,” has managed to curry favor with a significant number of Catholic (and Orthodox) Christians on the grounds that their platform opposes the contemporary Leviathan state which, inter alia, has threatened religious freedom on multiple fronts while upholding the onerous system known as “crony capitalism.” This is no doubt why many Catholics who take the Church’s social magisterium seriously have no qualms about endorsing Amash et al. A good friend of mine even suggested that those who are Distributist in principle can, and perhaps even should, support Tea Party-types in good conscience because they favor policies that are, at a certain level, closer to a system of localized governance Distributists — and Catholic Social Teaching (CST) — champion. While this claim may be superficially correct, it leaves much to be desired at the substantive level.
First and foremost, when discussing American politics and the realities attending to our fractured political system, it is always important to bear in mind that first-best policies rarely, if ever, work well in a second-best world. Tea Party politicians may talk a big game with respect to curtailing government intervention in the economy, but the array of horse trading, compromises, and special interests which surrounds the legislative (and regulatory) process means that passing sweeping reforms under current conditions is next-to-impossible. Should the Tea Party/libertarian wing of the Republican Party ever get into position to enacting a portion of its sweeping (some might say utopian) socio-economic vision, the most likely scenario is that such reforms will adversely affect those classes of persons who are least advantaged and politically connected/powerful in society. Entitlement programs directed at discrete populations, for instance, are far easier to attack than large-scale regulatory schemas that keep commercial incumbents protected from meaningful competition. It is no surprise that libertarians target labor unions through so-called “Right to Work” laws while largely leaving alone tax breaks and regulatory shields for powerful industries such as banking/finance, energy, and transport.
Second, prudence does not trump principle. As hard of a pill as this may be for many American Catholics to swallow, the fact we lived in the United States does not mean we are entitled to set aside CST or any other aspects of the Church’s magisterium for the dubious return of “political relevancy.” For too long Catholics have looked to America’s political duopoly as a way to see an authentically Christian vision of society enacted. It hasn’t worked. After marrying itself for decades to the Democratic Party in order to see some of the principles of CST put into practice, Catholics were hit with a cold bucket of water starting in the 1970s as Democrats came to identify themselves more and more with ideologically driven “identity politics” and social libertinism. The “Republican promise” hasn’t paid off either, however. During the early years of the Bush II Administration, the Republican Party had the clout to pass, at the federal level, meaningful pro-life legislation that could challenge the Supreme Court’s Roe/Casey consensus. It didn’t. Meanwhile, Catholics of a neoconservative bent sacrificed their moral integrity to defend an unjust war in Iraq while turing a blind eye to how perilous the situation for American Catholics had actually become. Now we are left wandering in darkness.
And last, by continuing to see the Tea Party or other extant liberal-oriented political movements as “our way” or even “a way” forward, we numb ourselves to the need for true Catholic Action. No, it is not possible to launch a “Catholic Party” tomorrow, but that does not mean that faithful bands of Catholics are prevented from aligning together in order to renew American politics from the bottom up. The Tea Party, perversely, believes that the common good for America, if not the world, shall be supplied by the market. Catholics, who are endowed with over a millennium of serious political thought and papal teachings, know better. We know that the market was made for man, not man for the market. We know that in this vale of tears there will be no earthly utopia secured by the “higher law” of supply and demand. We know, too, that a country which is agnostic about, if not hostile towards, the social rights of Christ the King while remaining dedicated to libertas as its highest end is a country that has placed itself on the fast track to moral collapse and eventual extinction. Catholic Action is not a one-size-fits-all program for the automatic restoration of Christian civilization; it is a call for Catholics, in the light of truth, to oppose present political distortions by engaging in the long and difficult work of setting forth and implementing a new order that ensures the families remain the foundation of society, laborers are given their due, and that consumerism is no longer the ideological driver of the economy.
All of this may seem far fetched and distant to some, but that fact — if it is a fact — should spur us first to lamentation and then to action. The way of the Tea Party is not our way. It cannot be our way if we are to faithfully follow the words of our present pontiff, Pope Francis, and the centuries-long teaching of the Catholic Church on right order. Aligning with their policies is a temptation, but like all temptations we must resist it.