Rick Santorum and me
GOP Poor Bashing VS. the Catholic Preferential Option for the Poor
Why Gingrich and Santorum are Catholics in name only
Mark E. Rondeau
Originally published, under the first headline, in the Bennington Banner, Jan. 14, 2012
With Newt Gingrich’s "super PAC" releasing a half-hour video attacking Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney’s record as a venture capitalist, "class warfare" seems to have infested the Grand Old Party.
Indeed, a Pew Research Center poll released this week indicates that tensions between the rich and poor are at the highest level in almost 25 years. According to an Associated Press story about the study, "Americans now see more social conflict over wealth inequality than over the hot-button topics of immigration, race relations and age."
I wish to examine one part of this "social conflict" -- the bashing of the poor, particularly by the Tea Party and the Republican candidates for president. Their attitude seems to be that the poor are not only to blame for being poor but aid to them is also the main cause of the federal deficit.
In this view, aiding the poor and unemployed will create dependency, so money targeted for them should be redirected for more tax cuts for corporations and the rich -- the "job creators."
We’ve had more than 30 years of this now, and it doesn’t seem to have worked. For one thing, a significant percentage of the poor do have jobs, but these jobs don’t pay nearly enough to live on. Moreover, bashing the poor is nothing new, President Ronald Reagan, patron saint of the 21st century GOP, relished telling his story of the
welfare queen drawing checks through numerous false identities and driving a Cadillac. That no such person existed to match the story was apparently beside the point.
In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, poor bashing has frequently made headlines. There was Herman Cain’s response to the Occupy Wall Street protestors: "Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks -- if you don’t have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself!"
Then there was Gingrich’s brainstorm to replace adult, unionized school janitors with school children, supervised by one adult janitor. This supposedly would teach them a work ethic they don’t get from their families -- again blaming the poor for their poverty.
Then Rick Santorum came out with this classic comment, with offensive racial overtones: "I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn their money and provide for themselves and their families. The best way to do that is to get the manufacturing sector of the economy rolling."
This is wrong on so many levels it’s breathtaking. For one thing, most poor people in the U.S. are white. Second, Santorum has as much ability to create manufacturing jobs as I have ability to pitch for the Red Sox. He’s just another doctrinaire drone who would funnel money away from the poor and middle class and give it to the rich, with the hope that so placated, the job creators would in fact create some jobs.
What’s sad to me as a Catholic is that both Gingrich and Santorum are Catholics, the latter sort of an über-Catholic who doubles, triples and quadruples down on abortion, gay rights, and even the public sale of contraceptives.
However, he’s much weaker on Catholic social teaching in such areas as war, torture and economic justice. For instance, asked by the group Faith in Public Life if he agreed with the Catholic Church’s position that there should be a preferential option for the poor in public policy, Santorum said he didn’t understand what the term meant.
This unfamiliarity is very surprising in a man who wears his Catholicism in such a prominent and often militant way. As Faith in Public Life notes, the term is very prevalent in Catholic social teaching and can be found in numerous papal statements, "The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church," and in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual election guide, "Faithful Citizenship."
According to the "Compendium," the preferential option for the poor means that "the poor, the marginalized and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern."
This is a biblical concern, based on both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus separates the saved from the damned in how they treated him in the person of the distressed: "I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me." (Matthew 25:35-36)
This concern for the poor and outcast was also apparent in the way Jesus lived: "Jesus always put people first. And his concern was, emphatically, for the vulnerable, the despised, and the outcast. He displayed special regard for those characterized as sinners," writes the Rev. Wilfrid J. Harrington in his book "Jesus Our Brother."
The preferential option for the poor does not mean demonizing the rich, nor does it mean excusing the small percentage of the poor who would rather game the system than work. For Tea Party activists and GOP presidential hopefuls, it might mean first really getting to know some poor people.
For nearly a year now, I have been privileged to work directly with the poor for two or three hours per week at a large food pantry in my hometown, North Adams, Mass.
One thing I have experienced is that the poor are poor for many reasons: layoffs, physical illness, mental illness, addiction, disabilities, lack of skills, illiteracy, having inadequate retirement savings, having children, being children. I have encountered several people working full-time jobs for minimum wage or not much more -- the working poor. Another thing I’ve learned is that private charity is not enough to meet the needs of the poor. Without access to state and federally subsidized food, the pantry I volunteer at could not serve the 90 to 100 households we serve each week. Utopian conservatives who feel that private charity alone can take care of the poor are very mistaken.
Driving through my hometown, I used to see the obviously poor walking the streets during the day as somehow "other," somehow not quite up to snuff -- and I’m an economic liberal! Now, very often I have the pleasure of recognition: "Oh, there’s Jim, there’s Gracie. He comes to the pantry, she comes to the pantry."
In its concern about President Obama engaging in "class warfare" against the wealthy, the Republican Party, which prides itself on its friendliness to religion, especially Christianity, might want to stop bashing the poor. This may not be possible, however. Whether a political ideology that equates wealth with virtuousness is compatible with understanding and respecting the poor is an open question.
Mark E. Rondeau is the religion editor of the Banner. Follow him on Twitter @banner_religion