by Jeremy Kee:
The popular perception of conservatives today, and one not altogether undeserved, is that of a figure not dissimilar to Scrooge McDuck diving into his private gold-filled vault. There is, however, a curious tension today between “modern conservatives” (more aptly described as neo-liberals) who concern themselves with economics and individualism, and “traditional conservatives” more concerned tradition, community, and bringing about prudent change through moral and cultural development.
The catalysts of this tension, I argue, is two-fold: first, the 2012 electoral thumping received by the GOP; second, and more interestingly, is the election of Pope Francis in March of 2013. Though disparate on the surface, these two events share one golden thread: poverty.
The aforementioned tension is highlighted by recent and uncharacteristic comments by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI.). In short, the focus by modern conservatives on economic prosperity alone through cold calculations and their unquestioning defense of the invisible hand of the free-market appears to be somewhat at odds by the more compassionate beliefs of traditionalists that life, liberty, and happiness have less to do with financial wealth and more to do with a deeper spiritual happiness. The tension between these two views on what it means to be conservative is palpable.
In a speech given to the Heritage Foundation titled “What Conservatives Stand For”, Sen. Lee remarked that, “The conservative vision for America is not an Ayn Rand novel. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a nation of plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow, too.” (Lee reiterated these sentiments at another recent Heritage event, found here)
What’s more, there has been an increase in coverage over Rep. Ryan’s covert forays into inner-city neighborhoods with anti-poverty activist Bob Woodson after what can only be described as a conversion experience during the waning days of the Romney campaign.
The common thread between these two legislators is that both are Tea Party favorites, and both are advocating for positions decidedly on the periphery of the Tea Party’s massage – concern for the poor, community involvement, and living as if we are all bound together in some real way. This is worth mentioning because to be perfectly frank the Tea party, which has become the epicenter for the popularization of neo-liberalism ideology (see: Libertarianism) has not shown concern for those living in poverty in any direct way.
Then-presidential candidate Romney highlighted this callous disregard for the poor in his infamous “47 percent” remarks. More than any single event in the campaign, these comments are widely understood as the very moment when President Obama secured his re-election. In them, the American people realized the perceived disconnect between the conservative message, which seemed only to concern itself with maintaining the wealth of the rich, and the rest of America. Of course, conservatives have from time to time tried to shake this popular perception, but comments such as these serve only to shoot oneself in the foot. Rep. Ryan is said to have been embarrassed and ashamed by Gov. Romney’s remarks, and rightfully so.
I designated Pope Francis as the second catalyst for this tension within modern conservatism for the reason that the Pope, although quite the opposite of a political figure, has done more than any figure in recent political history since his election in March to bring to the fore the debate over the virtue, purpose, and function of free-market economics – the proverbial Golden Cow of modern conservatism. His criticisms, well documented as they are, focus on what he calls “the tyranny of capitalism”, and “the idolatry of money.” This has angered pundits and politicians alike, inspiring charged of being a communist, a Marxist, as well as several other “-ists” for good measure. The irony of this is that, as mentioned above, the Pope is not a political figure. When he speaks about economics – so cleverly designated by his detractors as “Popenomics” – he speaks not of dollar figures and calculations, but of humanity and the dignity thereof.
Despite his conservative detractors, Pope Francis has quickly grown to be an immensely popular figure worldwide not only within the Church, but without as well precisely because of his principled positions. Rather than change the teachings of the Church as some had hoped for, he has changed rather the perception of the Church, demonstrating what living out the Scriptures looks like, thereby showing a skeptical world the true essence of the Christian faith. He has also shown the immense popularity of living according to conviction regardless of political prudency. In all of this, he has not only brought to the fore of the debate social issues such as care for the poor, but has also shown that morality, and Christian morality in particular, has a very well-received albeit uncomfortable and divisive place in the public square.
American conservatives have long been a bastion of support for Papal positions because of their shared beliefs regarding social issues, and yet we now see conservatives casting aside the Pope because he is willing to speak up not only about the abuse so regularly committed through the free-market, but also about the societal ills caused by the pursuit and encouragement of an unbridled free-market. In short, he is willing to suggest that what so many hold so dear may in fact be less-than-perfect. Such vehement reaction to the economic suggestions of one who is not an economist suggests that such comments hit deeper than mere disagreement.
American conservatives reject the Pope’s position on economics because it seems contrary to their own, but why? Why not at least consider that there may be some truth motivating his concern? I believe that the reason for this round rejection is due in no small part precisely to an agreement among conservatives that the Pope’s diagnosis of the idolatry of money is right on. Pope Francis has done a stellar job, I articulating what comes from a love of money, and American conservatives recognize, accordingly, just how far down that rabbit hole they have crawled. They reject the Pope’s criticisms because they have been forced to look in the mirror, and they did not like what they saw.
It is important to look into the mirror, though. Conservatives have become so caught up in their effort to oppose Progressivism that they no longer know what they stand for. They have become a movement of reaction, and are only known by what they oppose. Conservatives would do well, then, to consider the criticisms levied against them, particularly when they come from allies. There is more to life the wealth and economics. Where conservatives once knew this, they now seem to have all but forgotten it. To point out the faults of the free-market is vastly different from opposition thereto, and conservatives must understand this. To be conservative, one must know what he aims to conserve.
Jeremy Kee is a seminarian and graduate student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor and is a contributor to The Christian Post and The Daily Caller.
NOTE: For a detailed reading of Pope Francis’ economic views, read his papal exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, and in particular sections 52-60