The Battle for the Future of America: Catholics Vs. Victorians
Is the dominance of Protestant thought in U.S. politics bound to be challenged?
April 17, 2012
The strategy of the Republican Party relies on a very Victorian concept of pitting the “worthy” against the “unworthy.” This is especially evident in the debates over the federal budget and deficit reduction that are continuously roiling Washington.
The “worthy” are those who have worked hard and are thus recompensed amply with material goods. To maintain U.S. society’s dynamism, Republicans argue their asset-building and accumulation needs to be protected at all costs.
In contrast, the “unworthy” are those who, for whatever reason, have not managed to move into the ranks of the “asseted” classes. In the Republican worldview, protecting them via social benefits and transfer payments, is to be avoided because it stifles the U.S. economy’s growth potential. Otherwise, they say, the United States would fall prey to the sclerosis that has infected the European economy.
This concept has obvious Puritan overtones. It is evidently closely linked to America’s foundational roots. But the time when the Puritans sought out U.S. shores now lies back almost 400 years, and nothing in the canon of human evolution says that these territories ought to be governed by similar principles today.
And yet, Puritanism, in its Victorian — i.e., self-righteous, wealth-displaying — kind of way, is having another heyday in American history.
When Catholics enforce Puritanism
In the astonishingly bold effort to tilt a modern society in that direction, a group of Catholics plays a key enforcer role. In case something “un-conservative” has slipped through the U.S. legislative, judicial or executive branches, the Gang of Five — U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — can be relied upon to put an end to that practice by “virtue” of their rulings.
And in case something brazen needs to be invented — such as arrogating onto corporations the right to free speech, something that was previously only accorded to natural persons — they will most dutifully apply their juris-“prudence” to tilt the power structures in U.S. society even further.
The U.S. Supreme Court in its actions is thus very reminiscent of 19th-century French politics. Back then, the modernizing forces in French society were regularly hampered by extremely conservative countermovements. That is why one best understands the U.S. Supreme Court as America’s restoration force par excellence.
Things look quite as bleak at present for non-conservatives in the United States, especially in view of the lock that conservatives seems to have on the country.
However, in the country as a whole, a dramatic shift is emerging. Given U.S. immigration dynamics, Hispanics — a heavily Catholic group — are going to become an ever larger force in U.S. society. By 2050, Hispanics are projected to account for 29% of the entire U.S. population.
A sea change
This is no idle statistical matter. Given the power of the anti-poverty doctrine in Catholic social thought, along with its emphasis on protecting the rights of workers, the long-term dominance of Protestant thought in U.S. politics — where assets equal political power (and hence moral validation) — is bound to be challenged.
This is no theoretical matter, but a very practical one — and one that has begun to surface in the context of the current U.S. budget debates. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offered several moral criteria, based on the tenets of Catholic social teaching, to help guide difficult budgetary decisions.
At the core of it all is the finding that the moral measure of a budget debate “is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated,” the U.S. bishops said in their May 5, 2011, letter to the U.S. Senate.
Specifically, they held that the three moral criteria in making budgetary decisions are:
Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.
A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.
Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.
The battle is fused
It would be foolish to over-interpret a single letter among the millions of communications directed at the U.S. Congress each year. The real question is whether this document is an early indication that a battle has been fused in American society. That battle concerns a determined effort to challenge the dominance of Victorian values, of the haves over the have-nots.
The fact that U.S. society will in the coming decades turn “majority minority,” and that these minority ethnicities with a few exceptions are, broadly speaking, in the camp of the economically less well-off, cannot remain without consequence.
At some point, the reflexive counterargument — that such thinking pushes “socialism” onto U.S. society — will be countered with a resounding, “No, it upholds human dignity, including for the less well-off.”
Mind you, that shift has even happened in quite a few Latin American countries — such as Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile — that used to be military-dominated, feudalist societies. And as such, this push-back experience is something that belongs to the collective memory of Hispanic immigrants to the United States.
Catholics: conservative or progressive
If and when this comes to pass, the traditional role of Catholics in U.S. society will swing from being an enforcer of conservative moral thought to one of progressive socio-economic practices.
The current Republican modus operandi of going into overdrive in their imbalanced budget-cuts-only strategy is bringing these forces out into the open. In the broader context of U.S. history, this may be triggering a significant pushback against the prevailing Victorian logic of distributing America’s national wealth.
Segregating society into the “worthy” and the “unworthy,” assuming it was ever an appropriate measure, has become a faulty distinction — in that it certainly isn’t the poor who are responsible for U.S. budget deficits.
Most benefits afforded to individuals by the U.S. tax code and spending policies either accrue to the middle class (witness the home mortgage interest deduction) or are a function of a brazen unwillingness to rein in costs (witness Medicare spending).
Or they are a consequence of the favoritism displayed toward the rich, with lower tax rates for capital gains and the like, which greatly benefits the plutocrats.
Everybody works hard
Catholic social thought, fused powerfully with the economic self-interests of Hispanic Americans, does not see economic outcomes so much as a function of how hard one works. In a society without much of a social safety net, the simple truth is that pretty much everybody works hard.
However, we now live in a time when hard work by and large no longer leads to upward mobility on any broad scale in U.S. society. How to explain social immobility? The best explanation for the standstill in social and economic terms is that it is due to the prevailing social structures. These feature a consistent tilt in policymaking in favor of the haves, notwithstanding all the rhetoric to the opposite.
Curiously, the progressive “Catholicization” of American society is already way overrepresented on the U.S. Supreme Court. Six of its nine members are Catholics. In fact, there is not a single Protestant among the nine justices.
What is currently very misrepresented by the Supreme Court, with its 19th-century values, is progressive social thought. This thinking will increasingly go into direct battle with the — as of now unperturbed — Protestant dominance, which sees asset accumulation as a measure of human dignity.
When this process plays out in full, it will not only turn the classic alignment of Catholics as conservatives into its polar opposite. It will also turn all the cynical talk about “socialism” into a true dialogue about economic and social justice.
Call it the impending American Cultural Revolution.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on April 17, 2012. It was updated by the author on June 3, 2014.
Catholic social thought, fused powerfully with the economic self-interests of Hispanic Americans, does not see economic outcomes as a function of how hard one works.
The traditional role of Catholics in U.S. society will swing from being an enforcer of conservative moral thought to one of progressive socio-economic practices.
Given the power of the anti-poverty doctrine in Catholic social thought, the dominance of Protestant thought in U.S. politics is bound to be challenged as Hispanics gain more clout.
The strategy of the Republican Party relies on a very Victorian concept of pitching the "worthy" against the "unworthy."