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The Wrong Reasons

February 18, 2020 (1,838 words)

We are all entitled to our opinions, and we tend to take great pride in them. Unfortunately the vested interest we show in our present level of understanding is what stands in the way of improving our discernment of the world around us.

Speaking of vested interests, nothing is more curious to me at this stage of life than to look back on the way social conservatives in general, and conservative Catholics in particular, have tethered themselves to the Republican Party over the course of the last fifty years.

The strategic alliance was formed in the 1970s, in response to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and specifically to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973. It helped sweep Ronald Reagan into office in 1980.

So things were already well under way by the time Rush Limbaugh hit the airwaves in the late 1980s. But this effective and entertaining communicator has played a major role in strengthening that symbiotic relationship ever since. I was reminded of this recently when he once again made headline news.

On Monday, February 1, Mr. Limbaugh announced he is suffering from advanced lung cancer. The next day he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Trump during his State of the Union address.

Then on February 4, a Catholic priest and frequent blogger who prides himself on being an orthodox defender of the faith offered the following remarks on his blog:

”Please pray for a complete, swift, durative miraculous cure for him, perhaps through the intercession of Venerable Augustus Tolton.

“Every reader here, every committed conservative, faithful Catholic in these USA and elsewhere, owes Rush a huge debt.

“Some of you are young and don’t remember what mainstream media was like back in the day. It was dominated by few, extraordinarily liberal outlets.

“Then came Rush. He busted the liberal hegemony.

“I think he made it possible for the emergence of a new conservative movement in general and, therefore, in the Catholic sphere.

“Talk radio changed everything. And there really isn’t much of a lib talk radio. The same goes in the Catholic blogosphere. When ideas are truly exchanged, libs flee.

“Rush was the trailblazer. He developed a new genre in radio.”

To be clear, I have nothing against Rush Limbaugh. He has always struck me as a genial sort with a clever mind. He started as a popularizer of scholarly political theorists like Richard Weaver. Weaver was one of many such serious writers brought together by a young William F. Buckley, Jr. in the 1950s under the banner of what was then a new magazine, The National Review

As his fame grew Mr. Limbaugh became less of an incisive analyst and more of a predictably partisan cheerleader/critic. Even so, I have nothing but fond memories of my time as a devotee of Rush, and of his take on the “gospel of prosperity.”

But a funny thing happened on my way to the Promised Land. I became a Catholic again in 1994.

Coming face-to-face with decades’ worth of modern-day Catholic social (economic) teaching, as articulated by a cadre of marvelous writers and summarized magisterially by various papal encyclicals, it was hard not to notice a pronounced disconnect between this teaching and that of Rush Limbaugh and the Republican establishment.

It’s not that Rush and the Republicans are dead-wrong. It’s that they are only partially right. He and they show no interest in trying to address the economic question comprehensively, as Catholic teaching does. They are content to break off little chunks of the problem and offer partial solutions that work well enough in isolation, I suppose, but leave the larger landscape unattended.

Many other talking heads came along to join Mr. Limbaugh on his perch high atop the Excellence in Broadcasting (EIB) tower. His followers eventually supplanted him in influence. They have a much broader infrastructure at their disposal to disseminate their opinions, what with Fox News and the proliferation of other cable news outlets, podcasts, blogposts, YouTube, etc.

At the risk of coming off as a bit old-fashioned, I find the new infrastructure to be producing mainly noise – lots of heat with very little light, as they say.

Which brings me back to social conservatives in general, and conservative Catholics in particular, and the way they have allowed themselves to be swept along by this partisan noise.


too easily talked into believing what is not true…


Since their focus is unquestionably on the disintegration of personal morality and the promotion of sexual license, this group is easily distracted away from the subject of economic justice. They are easily talked into believing the party of family values has the right idea when it comes to economics.

This means good people with no particular allegiance to Republican fiscal policy accept that policy, in some cases even defend that policy, simply because the other political alternative has caved on the morality issue.

But this shows a real lack of discernment. If you are concerned about our cultural funk, you must consider how our predatory economic system – based on the freedom of economic actors to do as they please, unbound by scruples or outside regulation – is as much to blame as hot-bottom social issues like reproductive choice and marriage equality.

This opening of the eyes means no longer automatically and consistently identifying as Republican, finally realizing conservative politics and economic policy is NOT a faithful expression of one’s Christian beliefs.

It will not be easy to break this habit of reflexively denigrating liberals as nothing but evildoers undermining virtue and honor, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Especially for the petitioners who bring interesting historical antecedents to their argument.

Take as an example the short essay entitled “Liberalism and the End of Virtue,” written by a senior contributor to The Imaginative Conservative, a young man by the name of Paul Krause. He hits all the philosophical hots spots: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Spinoza, John Stuart Mills, and John Rawls. Then he backs up to the Epicureans, the Platonists, and the Stoics.

Mr. Krause identifies the core of liberalism as “freedom from harm,” and “the pursuit of pleasure.” He sees virtue, on the other hand, as “the anti-pleasure philosophy.” Virtue, he writes, “sacrifices the pursuit of pleasure for the contentment of the soul.”

It’s an inspired little piece, and I agree with everything Krause has to say. But he leaves out two important words from his concluding sentence:

”What does a world absent of virtue look like? Look no further than Hollywood or Jeffrey Epstein.”

The two words missing at the end of Paul Krause’s last sentence are “Wall Street.”

In the similarly short essay “The Liberal Mind: Its Genesis And Propensities,” esteemed philosopher Jude Dougherty (b.1930) covers much of the same ground, and reaches some very familiar conclusions.

”Its propensity to create socialist regimes in the light of its romantic notions of equality leads to expropriation through the graduated income tax and death duties. Equality is defined as equality of reward. Liberty is by its nature non-egalitarian because men differ in intelligence, ambition, courage, perseverance and all else that makes for success. Equality before the law and equality of opportunity cannot guarantee equality of outcome.

“Equality of outcome can only be achieved through massive coercion.. Utopian schemes that insist on the equality of citizens entail despotic authority. There is no method by which men can be free and equal. The propensity of liberal governments to redistribute wealth inevitably subordinates individual rights to group rights.

“Satisfying group claims necessarily enhances the power of the state that acts on their behalf. Welfare, with its sundry entitlements and spurious rights, removes family responsibility and the role of private charity.

“With government interference in the lives of citizens greater than at any period in history, the conservative mind exists to challenge the liberal myths that have governed recent social and economic policy in the Unites States and abroad.”

To read Mr. Dougherty defending his ideal construct of the conservative mind in this way – after years of devastating economic upheaval, and the systematic syphoning of our nation’s productivity and wealth into the hands of a select few – is more than a little disappointing.

Especially since Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America,

One wonders what Mr. Dougherty thinks of the report that Apple earned $22 billion in just the last three months of 2019? (That’s “billion,” with a “b.”)

What does he think of the way our tech giants squirm and maneuver out of paying their fair share of taxes? Of the way they pit cities – and entire countries – against one another to see who can offer the biggest tax concessions to attract the business?

Or of the report issued earlier today, that HSBC, the giant financial services company, is cutting 35,000 jobs because its profit plummeted in 2019 to a mere 6.5 billion? (Again, that’s with a “b.”)

All this while municipalities large and small face bankruptcy and can’t afford to pave their roads or rebuild their bridges. And rural areas don’t have access to decent broadband service, this era’s version of electricity. And we remain the only nation in the industrialized world without some form of universal health care.


economic justice and equitable distribution are not utopian or socialist…


It feels a little awkward quoting Catholic social teaching to a dean at Catholic University. But economic justice and equitable distribution have nothing to do with any socialist utopia seeking equality of outcome.

Bitterly complaining about a graduated income tax, death duties, and the “redistribution of assets,” as Republicans are wont to do, carries the righteous assumption one’s prized assets have all been acquired through fair and moral means.

If you believe that, you have simply not been paying attention to what’s gone down in the business world during the last fifty years.

Such as the demise of the social contract between successful businesses and the people those businesses employ, and the communities in which they operate.

In hindsight a healthy middle class was only allowed to exist for a fleeting moment, in the middle of the 20th century. Now things are not-so-slowly reverting to the way they have always been – a small cadre of the well-off, and a burgeoning mass of the out-of-luck, with a widening chasm between them.

Mr. Dougherty’s principled analysis provides ideological cover – whether wittingly or unwittingly – for corrosive economic behavior that ranges from being inconsiderate of one’s fellow man, to being exploitative in the extreme.

To ignore these realities is to live in a bubble, a conservative utopia, where all economic actors are thought to be good and true.

And to harbor a naïve belief that the ones who aren’t will be kept honest by savvy independent consumers who can always take their business elsewhere. Or by that phantom notion still routinely invoked, known as open competition.

Just like the good old days, when Adam Smith first penned The Wealth of Nations in 1776.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
February 18, 2020

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