I was in America when Paul Ryan announced he was retiring as Speaker of the House. Mr Ryan represented the pinnacle of Catholic influence among the Republicans. In an alternate reality, Jeb Bush won the 2016 race on a ticket with Marco Rubio and, working with Ryan in the Congress, they consecrated America to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Instead, Trump’s victory spelled the end of Ryan’s era: the President is neither privately virtuous nor interested in casting policy in terms of morality. It’s America First for the moment, with a big wall to prevent the Catholic Mexicans from breaking in and doing all the work.
We should have seen this coming. Ryan is a decent, intelligent man, but was an example of the tendency of American politics to lag behind the culture. Take the Democrats. I found plenty of liberal parishes during my wander through the north east: in one instance, the priest’s accent was so Noo Yourk he made the Gospels sound like a police report. Here it is forever 1968, in décor, liturgy and Vatican II idealism. The age of the Kennedys.
There isn’t a church in New England that doesn’t claim to have been Jack Kennedy’s favourite, although the winner is probably St Francis Xavier in Hyannis, an attractive white building on Cape Cod where – to my surprise – there is a Tridentine Mass said every Sunday. Well, Rose Kennedy, Jack’s mother, did insist on wearing a mantilla in church – and if she had been a Latin Mass fan, it would sure be a win for the traditionalists. Doubtless a disappointment, though, for Congressman Joe Kennedy III, the latest family member with ambitions to be president. His guest to January’s State of the Union address was a transgendered soldier.
If Democrats are prisoners of the values of the 1960s, you might say that Ryan was stuck in the 1980s. Just as the liberals believe there is redemption in welfare, so he placed his faith in tax cuts and balanced budgets – honestly and imaginatively. But boringly. These were the approaches of the Reagan era, when they were exciting and appropriate. But after the Credit Crunch – a crisis caused by a mix of bad government and corporate greed – to keep banging the drum for fiscal conservatism was electorally misguided, no matter how well it was justified by some creatively interpreted Bible passages.
And when Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney ran for the presidency in 2012 on the budget slogan “Cut, Cap and Balance” it’s no surprise, in retrospect, that they lost. Or that the Republican leadership was later captured by Donald Trump running on the far more exciting promises to “Build That Wall!” and “Lock Her Up!” Neither pledge has yet been delivered. I don’t know why Trump doesn’t kill two birds with one stone by building a wall around Hillary Clinton.
Catholic elites have been caught on the hop. It’s highly likely that many Catholic laymen have not only ignored their liberal priests and voted Republican, but also ignored Republican establishment figures and voted Trump – because both Democrat and Republican administrations have failed to address their real, contemporary concerns. As Speaker, what precisely did Paul Ryan do to alleviate poverty, stop jobs going overseas or reduce war? I’m sure he can give good answers. But his failure to sell his vision makes him just as responsible for the rise of Trump as Obama or Clinton were.
The good news is that creative destruction is forcing a rethink. On my trip I met plenty of non-ideological young conservatives who want to root their political thinking in religion rather than the other way around. The most influential journal among Washington’s intellectuals is currently First Things, which is dominated by Catholics, and the Catholic Herald intends to bring an equally smart voice to the dinner tables of America. One reason why the time is so right for us is because the anarchy of Trump has made new ideas – pinched from both Left and Right – possible, and the culture war he is prosecuting proves that the big themes of God, history and identity really do matter.
Pope Francis functions as a helpful disruptor, too. America’s liberals are waking up to the fact that he’s deadly serious about abortion and a vision of life that goes beyond sectional “rights”. But conservatives are also being confronted with elements of Catholic teaching on economics and the environment they might not be so comfortable with.
A friend in Washington said: “The goal of government is surely to help make the citizen become more virtuous.” Trump has thrown that fine ambition out the window, but the electoral reaction to Trump – which is inevitable and, when it comes, will be yuge – offers the chance to bring back the language of moral concern. As always, the best of America lies in its potential and its future, in its ability to surprise the world and do the right thing.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and a Catholic Herald contributing editor.
Next week: Matthew Schmitz
This article first appeared in the April 20th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here