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How Bernie Sanders is dividing Catholic opinion

Bernie Sanders (Getty)

The Church may have less to fear from 'radical' presidential candidates than 'moderate' ones

If you want to understand why so many American voters reject their party establishments, look no further than the Iowa caucuses. The results of the contest were reportedly delayed because the smartphone app used to collect them had failed. In January, NPR reported that the leaders of the state’s Democratic party “hope the new app lets the party get results out to the public quicker”. With people like this in charge, it becomes easier to see why Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, is well-positioned to become the leader of a party he has refused to join.

Sanders’s rise is only the latest sign of how dissatisfied voters have become with an establishment whose centrist style of politics seems unable to run a caucus, win a war, or narrow the widening gap between America’s winners and losers.

In 2016, Donald Trump offered seemingly simple and radical proposals that resonated with Republican voters. No one who understood American asylum law imagined that “building a wall” would stem the flow of people across the southern border. No one familiar with foreign policy imagined that we could “take the oil” from Iraq. But Trump’s straightforward rhetoric connected in spite of all wonkish objections. It was to be taken “seriously but not literally”, as indicating that he would fight harder for the national interest than any other Republican. And it showed that he was ready to defy the Washington consensus and reject its speech codes.

Bernie Sanders’s extravagant proposals should be seen in the same light. Medicare for All has no chance of passing the United State Senate, where red-state Democrats such as Joe Manchin would be sure to sink it. But the simple boldness of the idea appeals to Americans who are dissatisfied with incremental, technocratic politics. Sanders’s supporters reasonably surmise that, though he may not achieve everything he promises, he will fight harder for expanded healthcare than anyone else.

Contrast Sanders’s approach with that of his rival Elizabeth Warren, who has outlined a detailed incremental plan for expanding healthcare coverage. Her plan has been praised by wonkish pundits such as Ezra Klein, but it has been panned by the most enthusiastic advocates of Medicare for All. Instead of concluding that Warren is more practical and knowledgeable than Sanders, they regard her as less committed to expanding healthcare, and more deferential to the habits of thought and speech that reign in DC.

Why have voters soured on the rhetoric of pragmatism and compromise? Consider the presidency of Barack Obama, the last president to be elected after campaigning as a moderate who would bring red and blue together. In the eyes of some, his politics of moderation proved quite radical. Social conservatives did not see Obama’s eventual support of same-sex marriage as an act of moderation. Foreign policy critics pointed out that his invasion of Libya was far from prudent. But even when Obama lived up to his centrist billing, he received little credit for it. He was called a socialist for enacting a healthcare bill based on a proposal of the conservative Heritage Foundation and modelled on the Massachusetts healthcare plan enacted by the self-described “severe conservative” Mitt Romney.

If there is any lesson to be drawn here, it may be that the centrist left tends to be radical on social issues but not on economic ones, while the centrist right tends to be radical on economic issues but not on social ones. Over time, then, centrism becomes indistinguishable from liberal extremism, as the responsible right liberalises markets and the responsible left liberalises morals. Meanwhile, any politics that works against liberalism and toward solidarity is characterised as either fascist or communist – which tends to be hyperbole, even when the alternative options are unsavoury. The French political philosopher Pierre Manent has described this as “the fanaticism of the centre”.

In such a situation, it is reasonable to reject the politics of moderation and seek out more radical alternatives, precisely in order to moderate the excesses of our fanatical centre. Or so several prominent Catholics seem to have concluded. Among Catholic writers on the left, there is far less enthusiasm for the seemingly moderate and professedly Catholic Joe Biden than for Bernie Sanders. Writers such as Elizabeth Bruenig of the New York Times and Matthew Sitman of Commonweal regularly parry Bernie’s critics on Twitter.

“Arguably no candidate’s economic agenda so closely aligns with Catholic social teaching,” Sitman told me. “He is the most pro-union candidate running, and believes everyone has a right to healthcare, a job and housing. He shares Pope Francis’s urgency about climate change, backing the ambitious Green New Deal. He believes in the humane and welcoming treatment of immigrants and refugees. And he’s the peace candidate – no candidate is more willing to challenge the prevailing foreign policy consensus that’s caused so much death and destruction. I agree with something Pope Benedict XVI once wrote in First Things: ‘In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.’ ”

Even Ross Douthat, the less left-wing of the Times’s two Catholic columnists, has written a case for why voters concerned about attacks on the Church should prefer Bernie to his Democratic competitors. “For the kind of American who is mostly with the Democrats on economics but wary of progressivism’s zest for culture war,” he wrote, “Sanders’s socialism might be strangely reassuring – as a signal of what he actually cares about, and what battles he might eschew for the sake of his anti-plutocratic goals.”

If Douthat is right, the Church may have less to fear from the economic left than from the supposedly reasonable centre, which would rather establish its progressive bona fides by attacking the Church than by helping the poor. Sure enough, in recent days Joe Biden criticised Bernie Sanders for touting the endorsement of Joe Rogan, a podcast host who has criticised transgender athletes. “Let’s be clear,” he wrote. “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time. There is no room for compromise when it comes to basic human rights.”

On paper, there is no daylight between Bernie and Biden on social issues. Both support the Equality Act, which would employ the powerful machinery of civil rights law to suppress dissent from LGBT priorities, casting Christian sexual teaching as tantamount to racial bigotry. But Biden has stated that passing the act is (in the words of the Associated Press) his “top legislative priority”. Bernie, presumably, would put healthcare and student-loan forgiveness first.

One reason to doubt that Bernie would differ from his Democratic rivals on social issues is the fact that Trump, for all his radicalism on the campaign trail, has turned out to be a pretty conventional Republican in office. Instead of an infrastructure bill or a border wall, he has given us… a tax cut and a foolish attempt at Obamacare repeal.

Bernie is a more disciplined and experienced politician than Trump, but he too would face immense pressure to govern in the style he campaigned against. Regardless of Sanders’s own priorities, a unified Democratic government would be much more likely to pass the Equality Act than Medicare for All. Sanders may prefer class war to culture war, but a Democratic party profoundly divided over healthcare, student loans, tax rates and Israel may be eager to find a galvanising foe in social conservatives.

“Voting is always a judgment between imperfect candidates,” Sitman told me, “and Catholics are not called to be single-issue voters. Given the cruelty, criminality and incompetence of Donald Trump, a president who in no way can truly be considered pro-life, Catholics should in such a context be open to voting for candidates who they align with in other ways.”

In 2016, Charlie Camosy, an ethicist at Fordham University, argued that Catholics can vote for Sanders if they believe he is the best available option. Yet Camosy, despite his sympathy for much of Sanders’s platform, did not plan to do so. “I simply can’t make myself check the box of a candidate who so flagrantly denies equal protection of the law for the most vulnerable, thus subjecting them to horrific violence,” he wrote.

Indeed, Catholics who hope that Sanders’s health plan will lead to less suffering must reckon with the fact that he would use it to attack the unborn (“Abortion is healthcare,” he wrote in a recent tweet). Fans of his non-interventionism must confront the fact that he intends to promote contraception and abortion abroad (“especially in poor countries around the world where women do not necessarily want to have large numbers of babies,” he said in September). Trump has been criticised for expressing contempt for the weak and for foreign countries. On abortion, Sanders will turn that contempt into government policy.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things