There has been a lot of ink spilled, slathered, and slothed about in attempting to explain (or, in many cases, explain away) the Tea Party movement. The key word or image used by many in the mainstream media is "angry", with a number throwing in "racist" for good measure (the latter ploy has gotten so out of hand that even WaPo columnists are becoming uncomfortable with it). What isn't as readily available are serious examinations of the roots and aims of the Tea Party movement. And even when attempts are made, the results can be a bit puzzling or misleading. For example, the October 17th edition of Our Sunday Visitor (for which I am a weekly columnist), has a piece, "Is the tea party movement in sync with Catholic teaching?", which has the following quote:
Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said that Catholic voters have been known for their propensity to switch party allegiance, but their strong show of support for the tea party comes as a surprise.
“What strikes me is that even though Catholics are attracted to this movement, there really is a pretty sharp tension between some of the basic teachings of the Church in regards to politics, the role of government and what we owe to the poor, and what these tea party advocates are promoting,” Schneck told Our Sunday Visitor.
Church teaching, he explained, has an inseparable link between rights and responsibilities for both the citizen and the government, with both having an eye toward promoting the common good. The tea parties, however, have argued for rights based on liberty, not responsibility.
“From that perspective it’s all about getting the government out of our lives and about citizens being free from the demands and needs of the country as a whole,” Schneck said. “Much as we might like otherwise, the Catholic argument is that government and citizen are equally expected to be our brother’s keeper.”
Now, I'm not a member of the Tea Party movement, nor am I claiming special expertise on the topic, but I sometimes describe myself a as a Traditional Burkean-Kirkian Conservative and I've been following and studying American politics quite closely for nearly twenty years, and I find Schneck's comments to be misinformed at best. Sure, you can undoubtedly find self-described conservatives/libertarians who say they don't care one whit about other people, whether poor or not, or who scoff at any notion of social responsibility. But that certainly isn't the case of most folks who call themselves conservatives, and I'm fairly confident it's not even close to what most Tea Party participants believe. They would likely say that it's not a question of whether or not to be responsible and to help the poor, but a matter of how best to do so—and, even more importantly, why we do, in fact, have a responsibility to look out for those who are vulnerable and in need.
But why not let a Tea Party member talk about what the movement is about? Notice that there is an emphasis on a particular view of man, a specific anthropology. Then see Greg Forster's just posted piece, "Tea Party Metaphysics: Economics and First Principles", on the Public Discourse; Forster states:
The 20th-century economic conservatives did better than that, but not well enough. They argued against state control of property beyond a necessary minimum, but they did so on the basis of what was, ultimately, a set of utilitarian considerations. They argued we should respect what are traditionally called “ownership” and property “rights” because doing so makes everyone better off. On this view, property is not a political or legal convention, but it is still a social convention. “Rights” to property are civil, not natural rights.
Over against this, the human race at large, and almost all of its best intellectuals, have insisted that property is neither an arbitrary creation of the state, nor in any larger sense a useful human convention. The reality of property ownership is “just there,” whether or not we acknowledge it or find it useful. It is given in the human situation before we do anything and regardless of whatever we may think, say, or do about it.
So in the popular and traditional understanding, the statement “this is mine” commits me to believe in the existence of a whole invisible universe. Behind each visible object is an invisible reality that designates its ownership, and all these invisible realities are related to one another in a dense, intricate network of relationships. This invisible universe stands behind the visible universe and dictates its proper organization. It follows that we cannot simply rearrange the visible universe any way we like; there is a higher structure of meaning, purpose, and obligation to which our management of the visible universe must conform.
Most modern Americans are profoundly uncomfortable when confronted with metaphysical claims. But few of them feel uncomfortable looking at the house on which they’ve labored to pay the mortgage, the food they’ve labored to put on their children’s table, and the bank account they’ve labored to build up so they can pay the family’s medical bills and make charitable donations, and thinking: It’s not right for the government to just arbitrarily take this away from me. If they were taking it for a legitimate reason, like if there had been a national catastrophe, that would be one thing. But I can’t let them take it away just to reward irresponsible behavior and feather their cronies’ nests.
Far from being selfish, that is a profoundly pious thought. People do, of course, have selfish desires. But they also have desires that are not selfish. And the desire to fight back against a capricious redistribution of wealth that is transparently motivated by envy and cronyism is not a selfish desire. It is a manifestation of our invisible, intrinsic human dignity.
I think Forster is correct. So, is this perspective one that fosters loss of responsibility? Lack of concern for others? Disdain for the welfare of those in need? Is it contrary to Catholic social thought? Before answering, consider this lengthy quote from a well-known Catholic:
These general observations also apply to the role of the State in the economic sector. Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical or political vacuum. On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principle task of the State is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labours and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly. The absence of stability, together with the corruption of public officials and the spread of improper sources of growing rich and of easy profits deriving from illegal or purely speculative activities, constitutes one of the chief obstacles to development and to the economic order.
Another task of the State is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the State but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society. The State could not directly ensure the right to work for all its citizens unless it controlled every aspect of economic life and restricted the free initiative of individuals. This does not mean, however, that the State has no competence in this domain, as was claimed by those who argued against any rules in the economic sphere. Rather, the State has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis.
The State has the further right to intervene when particular monopolies create delays or obstacles to development. In addition to the tasks of harmonizing and guiding development, in exceptional circumstances the State can also exercise a substitute function, when social sectors or business systems are too weak or are just getting under way, and are not equal to the task at hand. Such supplementary interventions, which are justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom.
In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called "Welfare State". This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the "Social Assistance State". Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.
By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.
The author of that piece was not, a Tea Party guy, nor an American conservative. But I think Pope John Paul II articulated some of the basic concerns of numerous Americans, including many Tea Party folks, when he wrote of the proper relationship between State and citizen, a relationship that has become a matter of grave concern as the federal government continues to vastly expand its economic and political powers. Where does it stop? What are the proper limits? Key to answering those questions, John Paul II further stated, is a recognition, defense, and upholding of authentic human dignity:
Faithful to the mission received from Christ her Founder, the Church has always been present and active among the needy, offering them material assistance in ways that neither humiliate nor reduce them to mere objects of assistance, but which help them to escape their precarious situation by promoting their dignity as persons. With heartfelt gratitude to God it must be pointed out that active charity has never ceased to be practised in the Church; indeed, today it is showing a manifold and gratifying increase. In this regard, special mention must be made of volunteer work, which the Church favours and promotes by urging everyone to cooperate in supporting and encouraging its undertakings.
In order to overcome today's widespread individualistic mentality, what is required is a concrete commitment to solidarity and charity, beginning in the family with the mutual support of husband and wife and the care which the different generations give to one another. In this sense the family too can be called a community of work and solidarity. It can happen, however, that when a family does decide to live up fully to its vocation, it finds itself without the necessary support from the State and without sufficient resources. It is urgent therefore to promote not only family policies, but also those social policies which have the family as their principle object, policies which assist the family by providing adequate resources and efficient means of support, both for bringing up children and for looking after the elderly, so as to avoid distancing the latter from the family unit and in order to strengthen relations between generations.
Apart from the family, other intermediate communities exercise primary functions and give life to specific networks of solidarity. These develop as real communities of persons and strengthen the social fabric, preventing society from becoming an anonymous and impersonal mass, as unfortunately often happens today. It is in interrelationships on many levels that a person lives, and that society becomes more "personalized". The individual today is often suffocated between two poles represented by the State and the marketplace. At times it seems as though he exists only as a producer and consumer of goods, or as an object of State administration. People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the State as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve. Man remains above all a being who seeks the truth and strives to live in that truth, deepening his understanding of it through a dialogue which involves past and future generations.
Further questions follow: Is the federal government in the U.S. supportive of the family? Or marriage? Of the most vulnerable among us? Of human life at every stage and at every moment? If the answers to these questions are generally, "No" (as I think they are), further questions follow: Why does the current situation exist? What should be done? Why and how? My impression is that many folks in the Tea Party movement, however they might articulate it, are concerned with these basic questions and issues. I concur with Angelo M. Codevilla's statements that "The ruling class is keener to reform the American people's family and spiritual lives than their economic and civic ones. In no other areas is the ruling class's self-definition so definite, its contempt for opposition so patent, its Kulturkampf so open", and, "Since marriage is the family's fertile seed, government at all levels, along with 'mainstream' academics and media, have waged war on it. They legislate, regulate, and exhort in support not of 'the family' -- meaning married parents raising children -- but rather of 'families,' meaning mostly households based on something other than marriage."
That analysis speaks to the core questions about the nature of man, the nature of society/societies, and the purpose of government. For many of those in what Codevilla calls "the ruling class", government is not just the most important part of society, it essentially gives meaning to and is the purpose of society. And as Pope Benedict as observed, "The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person--every person--needs: namely, loving personal concern." (Deus Caritas Est, par 28b.) But it is not the State, but the human person, who is made by and for God, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church explains:
All of social life is an expression of its unmistakable protagonist: the human person. The Church has many times and in many ways been the authoritative advocate of this understanding, recognizing and affirming the centrality of the human person in every sector and expression of society: “Human society is therefore the object of the social teaching of the Church since she is neither outside nor over and above socially united men, but exists exclusively in them and, therefore, for them”. This important awareness is expressed in the affirmation that “far from being the object or passive element of social life” the human person “is rather, and must always remain, its subject, foundation and goal”. The origin of social life is therefore found in the human person, and society cannot refuse to recognize its active and responsible subject; every expression of society must be directed towards the human person. (par. 106) ...
The common good of society is not an end in itself; it has value only in reference to attaining the ultimate ends of the person and the universal common good of the whole of creation. God is the ultimate end of his creatures and for no reason may the common good be deprived of its transcendent dimension, which moves beyond the historical dimension while at the same time fulfilling it. This perspective reaches its fullness by virtue of faith in Jesus' Passover, which sheds clear light on the attainment of humanity's true common good. Our history — the personal and collective effort to elevate the human condition — begins and ends in Jesus: thanks to him, by means of him and in light of him every reality, including human society, can be brought to its Supreme Good, to its fulfilment. A purely historical and materialistic vision would end up transforming the common good into a simple socio-economic well-being, without any transcendental goal, that is, without its most intimate reason for existing.One need not be a Tea Party enthusiast or apologist to recognize that dismissing the movement as angry and incoherent (as President Obama seems to have done) is unfair, and that speaking vaguely about being "our brother's keeper" is not a substitute for seriously pondering and applying Catholic social teaching to the American situation. (par. 170)
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Book Excerpts:
• What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
• Liberal Democracy as a Culture of Death: Why John Paul II Was Right | Dr. Raymond Dennehy
• The Religion of Liberalism, Or Why Freedom and Equality Aren't Ultimate Goals | An Interview with James Kalb
• Religion and Socialism | Peter Kreeft
• The Comprehensive Claim of Marxism | Peter Kreeft
• "Certain Fundamental Truths": On the Place and Temptations of Politics | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
And on Insight Scoop:
• On poisoned water and the principle of subsidiarity (August 17, 2009)
• Governmental expansion and the principle of subsidiarity (March 4, 2009)
• On one hand, this should be obvious... (December 5, 2008)