If Paul Ryan is a Racist, then He’s Doing it All Wrong

Paul-Ryan-RNC-speech-jpgWhat do you call someone who thinks that the sources of human solidarity are mostly to be found in personal encounters, the kind that take place in the context of civil society? What do you call someone who thinks that a flourishing civil society depends, not only on a certain degree of freedom but also on a moral culture that directs that freedom toward the common good?

In short, what do you call someone who says the kind of thing Congressman Paul Ryan said recently in a radio interview with Bill Bennett?

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with. Everybody’s got to get involved. So this is what we talk about when we talk about civil society. If you’re driving from the suburb to the sports arena downtown by these blighted neighborhoods, you can’t just say “I’m paying my taxes, government’s going to fix that.” You need to get involved. You need to get involved yourself, whether through a good mentor program or some religious charity, whatever it is to make a difference, and that’s how we help resuscitate our culture.

You might call that “someone who gets it.” Or, if you’re one the enlightened custodians of public opinion with a vested interest in keeping Republicans off the Democrats’ anti-poverty turf, you might call him a “racist.”

racistThat’s right; to the enlightened liberal elite, Ryan’s use of “culture” and “inner city” are examples of bigoted “dog-whistles” or racist code words. (Rich Lowery explains it well, here.) As political charges of coded racism go, this one gets pretty high marks for fatuousness.

But what if we take Ryan’s critics seriously? What if we assume the congressman’s comments were racially motivated? Well, then what we’re left with a very strange kind of racism, indeed.

What kind of “racist” sees a struggling black community (unemployment among African Americans is more than twice that of whites) as an occasion to insist that our obligations to solidarity do not—must not—exclude anyone, regardless of what “zip code” they live in? What kind of “racist” believes in a moral imperative to alleviate poverty in the African American community and that doing so requires more than government programs? What kind of “racist” believes that meeting the demands of solidarity doesn’t end with paying taxes and that we all have a personal responsibility to “get involved” to “make a difference” in resuscitating African American communities?

If Paul Ryan is racist, then he’s doing it all wrong.

Suffice it to say, the clamor surrounding Congressman Ryan’s remarks has produced far more heat than light. And that’s a shame, because he made some very worthwhile—and very Catholic—points. In the interest of injecting some small amount of sanity into this controversy, let me list a few way in which Paul Ryan’s comments demonstrate a profoundly Catholic understanding of society and social obligations.

Ryan’s words call to mind those of Pope Leo XIII, who—way back in 1891—wrote this about civil society:

“A brother that is helped by his brother is like a strong city.” It is this natural impulse which binds men together in civil society; and it is likewise this which leads them to join together in associations which are, it is true, lesser and not independent societies, but, nevertheless, real societies.

These lesser societies and the larger society differ in many respects, because their immediate purpose and aim are different. Civil society exists for the common good, and hence is concerned with the interests of all in general, albeit with individual interests also in their due place and degree.

Ryan’s words are also reminiscent of Pope John Paul II, who wrote this, in 1991:

According to Rerum Novarum and the whole social doctrine of the Church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good.

And later in the same encyclical, we find this:

This is the culture which is hoped for, one which fosters trust in the human potential of the poor, and consequently in their ability to improve their condition through work or to make a positive contribution to economic prosperity. But to accomplish this, the poor — be they individuals or nations — need to be provided with realistic opportunities.

Ryan’s words echo those of Pope Emeritus Benedict who, in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, made the following points about the limits of both the state and the market:

Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State.

The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift.

It goes without saying that Paul Ryan is not Leo XIII, John Paul II, or Benedict XVI. But in a political climate where debate seems to oscillate between a big-government understanding of society that sees the state as the locus of solidarity, on the one hand, and a libertarian view that treats “society” as an aggregate of so many autonomous individuals which are no more than the sum of their parts on the other, it’s nice to have a politician who speaks with conviction about that “place” where most of what we do together actually happens: the subsidiary institutions of civil society. And as I’ve said before, without subsidiarity, solidarity doesn’t have a chance.

So let’s hope the unhappy (and unnecessary) controversy surrounding Paul Ryan’s remarks doesn’t keep him—or others in the GOP, for that matter—from looking for new and effective ways to address the problem of poverty. Too often, that turf has been ceded to Democrats, to the detriment of those most in need. Would that both parties better understood the words of one more bishop of Rome, Pope Francis:

Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.

Amen to that!

  • morganB

    Ryan, like all the TP young guns will fade like he did once Romney discovered how really far right he was. It has been proven that the more centered, (reasonable), you are the greater your electability. Ryan, like Cruz make good antagonists , but poor realists. Just look at his new budget. It cuts out many of the things the electorate, the Pope and the Catholic Bishops want. It favors those with wealth.

    Recently, my US Senator Marco Rubio offered a reason for Citizens United that gave the Koch brothers and other billionaires a blank check to buy election offices. Rubio said that CU simply gave the rich the right to have their votes, (money), counted. I asked him two things… does Citizens United violate our constitution and if not, how does the constitutionally guarantee of “one man, one vote” remain effective? He never responded. He knows all to well that CU destroys one man, one vote

    Paul Ryan is no racist, but he also is no realist.

    • Joshua Mercer

      We each have one ballot on Election Day. Citizens United doesn’t change that.

      • morganB

        Joshua, how can you take such a position? The overwhelming power of the wealthy is leveraged prior to the casting of votes. That is when the Kochs, Soros, Adelsons, Roves, PACs and CPACs are spending unlimited cash to get their way. You and me and John Q. Public do not participate except to be barraged by true and false TV ads of the PACs.

        Until I get a straight answer from my congressmen I will consider Citizens United to be unconstitutional. It is blatant.

  • George

    Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless.

    • Stephen White

      Precisely. Ryan, like Pope Francis, is insisting that we NOT content ourselves with assigning blame, but instead getting personally involved. You might even say he recommends a “culture of encounter.”

      • George

        Can you please explain the cultural problem that I have as someone who lives in a city?

        • Stephen White

          George: Why do you assume that a criticism of the culture of our inner cities implies a criticism of you just because you live there? You seem to be suggesting that what applies the whole (e.g. to a culture) must also be true of a part (you, or some other individual). I find this entirely unpersuasive.

  • faithandfamilyfirst

    Ryan’s comments may be reminiscent of and may call to mind Rerum Novarum, but he himself professes to be a devout following of Ayn Rand. Until he explains this contradiction (which, by the way, he cannot), or until he retracts his earlier praise of Rand, I will avoid casting a vote his way.

    • Stephen White

      Paul Ryan has he never professed himself a “devout follower” of Rand. The idea that Rand’s objectivism is Ryan’s central motivating ideology is a lie fabricated by his political opponents. Here he is addressing precisely this charge:

      Brit Hume, FOX News: What is your view of Ayn Rand? Are you an Ayn Rand disciple?

      Rep. Paul Ryan: No. I really enjoyed her novels, Atlas Shrugged in particular. It triggered my interest in economics. That’s where I got into studying economics. That’s why I wanted to study the whole field of economics.

      I later in life learned about what her philosophy was, it’s called Objectivism. It’s something that I completely disagree with. It’s an atheistic philosophy. But I think what she’s done is she’s showed — she came from communism. She showed how the pitfalls of socialism can hurt the economy, can hurt people, families and individuals and that to me was very compelling novels. Which says freedom, free enterprise, liberty is so much better than totalitarianism and socialism. Those novels, I thought were interesting. But her philosophy, which is different, is something I just don’t agree with.


    • Stephen White

      And here’s an interesting piece from “The Objective Standard,” a magazine dedicated to the ideas an philosophy of Ayn Rand. In it the author makes the case that Paul Ryan rejects Rand’s philosophy in both word and deed. (The author also seems rather offended by any suggestion to the contrary.):

      “Whatever Paul Ryan’s merits or demerits as a vice-presidential candidate, he does not embrace the philosophical or political views of Ayn Rand. He rejects Rand’s views—in both principle and practice. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either uninformed or aiming to deceive.”


  • Robert Herreid

    Great article! Thanks.



Receive our updates via email.