This past election season “Tea Party” rallies were held around the country to protest government policy or to call for a new direction for the country. The movement even showed some substantial political clout at the ballot box. But is the movement compatible with Catholic social teaching?
CNA spoke about the movement with Dr. Steven Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, and Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Acton Institute.
Fr. Sirico described the Tea Party as “an amorphous thing” with a lot of variety and as a “populist, spontaneous movement.” He thought its common themes include a desire for less government and a desire “to limit the power that politicians have over peoples’ lives.”
Participants find motivation in a variety of philosophies. Some have “well-developed Catholic sensibilities” while others’ sensibilities are “almost anarchistic.” He thought it was “remarkable” that the Tea Party could bring so many non-political people into the political process.
The Church’s teaching on subsidiarity can meet these people and “augment what they’re doing,” he said, while also guarding against “the more fanatical edges of the tea party.”
Fr. Sirico explained subsidiarity as being the principle that higher levels of society should not intervene in lower levels without “manifest and real necessity,” and such intervention should only be temporary.
“Needs are best met at the local level,” he said, calling government “the resource of last resort.”
For his part, Dr. Schneck agreed the Tea Party is still a movement being formed. He sees it as motivated in part by middle class frustration with “a political environment that seems to reward the rich and the poor but ignores or even undercuts the middle.” He also sees a “libertarian dynamic that wants to end do-gooder, nanny government.”
He told CNA that Catholics are called to practice politics based on four aspects: the dignity of the person, the common good rather than private interests, solidarity with our fellow citizens in community, and an understanding of subsidiarity that recognizes the appropriate role of the state and civil society in addressing community needs.
This approach also reveals other requirements for good politics, such as preferential consideration of the poor, welcoming the immigrant, the importance of family and community, and a “stewardship” understanding of property and creation.
Granting that no political movement conforms to these principles, Schneck said the Tea Party movement has its clearest tensions with Catholic teaching on the issues of the common good and solidarity, while immigration, poverty and stewardship may be other areas of tension.
“Solidarity reminds us that we must properly understand ourselves and others as part of the Mystical Body of Christ,” he explained, saying that responsibility to others is “prior to our individual liberties.”
“Our freedom is not limited by our responsibilities to others in community, but is rather enhanced by what we do for others.”
Schneck also warned that a “hard-edged individualism” which sees justice best resolved in competition ignores solidarity’s emphasis on “caritas,” that is, Christian love.
On the issue of national health care, which many Tea Party participants have opposed, Schneck noted Pope Benedict’s recent insistence that health care is an inalienable right and governments are obliged to ensure universal health care for all citizens regardless of their ability to pay.
Like Fr. Sirico, Schneck thought that subsidiarity “dovetails quite well” with Tea Party thinking, for example in arguing that education policy is best set by local government rather than national.
“As part of subsidiarity, however, it is also true that if local government or the private resources of civil society are unable to address the needs of the common good, then the national government is morally bound to respond,” he continued.
Fr. Sirico had his own criticisms of the movement. He thought charismatic leaders could lead people in the wrong direction, and the Tea Party’s lack of a “historical memory” of past mistakes means that it lacks safeguards against plausible-looking proposals that “end up being harmful.” Some Tea Party rhetoric suggests it has no role for government to serve the poor.
However, Fr. Sirico said in his experience most people sympathetic to the Tea Party movement, including himself, are not of that mindset.
He compared the government policy to a dentist visit, saying “we just want to get through it with as little pain as possible.”
Schneck added that it was “gratifying” to see individual Tea Party representatives oppose abortion “even though libertarianism theoretically is suspicious of government promoting moral or religious values.”
The future of the Tea Party’s support for pro-life concerns and marriage issues has also been a public issue. Some Tea Party spokesmen have said the Republican Party should not focus on either.
Jeffrey Bell, a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told CNA he saw very little of this opinion in the daily activities of movement participants and sympathizers.
“People who think that voters are not concerned about social issues should go look at Iowa,” he commented, referring to the electoral successes of traditional marriage activists in the key presidential primary state.
“People don’t get amnesia on other issues just because the economy is in bad shape. They’re still a factor,” Bell remarked. “And the people who feel strongly about these issues, who are quite a few, are going to be less likely to vote for a candidate who is on the other side.”
He did not think a Tea Party focus on fiscal issues and small government could eclipse social concerns. Polls indicate that most Tea Party participants are social conservatives, said Bell, and “very, very few” Tea Party-backed candidates for the Senate or the House were pro-choice on abortion.
He contended that both movements are “very similar” because of the importance they place on returning “to the values of the Founding.”
“It’s really a triumph of social conservatives that people would see these economic and size of government issues in the same light as many would also see abortion and traditional marriage,” Bell claimed.
Those who are speaking of a “big civil war” between social conservatives and others in the Tea Party are, in Bell’s view, “creating an issue where, on the ground, not much of an issue exists.”