Growing up in West Texas, I was accustomed to conservative Christianity from a very young age. Not necessarily a doctrinal conservatism; most Christians I knew (conservative or liberal) couldn’t really be bothered with the basics of the faith. No, it was more of a religious aesthetic that covered already deeply held beliefs on politics and the way things ought to be. It wouldn’t be out of place to hear the Beatitudes read at church and condemnations of illegal immigrants in the hall.
So, I wasn’t surprised when I heard Oliver Anthony’s runaway hit “Rich Men North of Richmond” using the same double-speak I heard growing up. It’s an “Amen” for working people but an “anathema sit” for those on welfare. Again, it was no surprise to me when I heard conservative Catholic commentators defending and propping up the song. (Matt Walsh, for example, calls it the protest song of a generation.)
A friend of mine posted on his Instagram that Oliver Anthony should be the next president of the United States. I laughed at the notion, having already taken umbrage with Oliver’s welfare descriptors. As we discussed the notion, he used a lot of the same phrases I had heard around the internet: “He’s saying what people are thinking” and “He’s the voice of all of us who have been silenced.” Pushing back, I highlighted that I was the person that Oliver describes: I’m the man struggling with mental health issues, feeling devalued and depersonalized by society, and being an obese welfare recipient. And that’s when he said something that I didn’t expect. It wasn’t just typical conservative Catholic talking points about lowering taxes, letting the market take over, and letting private charity do its work. He said, “The government needs to let people suffer more, and let that suffering mean something.”
This stuck with me. And it hurt me for days. I would wake up thinking about it, think about it while I was driving to work, and discuss it with my wife at night. It wasn’t just that I was piggybacking on the government. I could let that slide as naïve political idealism. I’d be annoyed about it, sure, but a little political disagreement between friends is nothing. But to say that I need to suffer more hurt. Because I suffer a lot, and so do so many.
This conservatism dressed as Catholicism is dangerous. The over-spiritualization of suffering and the political disdain for government doing what it ought to do—provide for the common good—doesn’t hurt the “haves.” It hurts the “have nots.” And these conservative Catholics have been doing this for years.
In 1961, William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote a short series of essays that would become cornerstones of neoconservative dissent against church teaching. Praising the technological progress and freedom of the individual that exists in Western states, Buckley famously dismissed the commentary of Pope John XXIII in Mater et Magistra (On Christianity and Social Progress) as misplaced and a “triviality,” considering the “demonic successes of the Communists.” The phrase, “Mater, si; Magistra, no,” has become somewhat synonymous with this dissenting opinion.
Neoconservatives continue the tradition of dissent from papal teaching at every turn. George Weigel famously showed how we could draw delineations in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), that we could distinguish the “real” teaching of Pope Benedict XVI and the stuff that was just put in to appease the justice and peace crowd. Michael Novak continued along the same lines in First Things. The National Review later published an article critical of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’ (On Care for our Common Home) entitled “Laudato, No,” praising consumption as crucial in building up undeveloped economies, though it is the immoral culture of consumption decried across generations of papal thought that was at the core of Francis’ encyclical. And the loudest voices in Catholic commentary are all too eager to look at the social doctrine of the church with little more than criticism and the quick addition that “well, it’s not ex cathedra,” as though these were the only kinds of statements Catholics have to follow in intellect and will.
Their criticisms are not altogether different from Buckley’s 1961 complaints: Human prosperity, especially in the 20th century, owes itself to the amazing innovations only made possible by capitalism. It is the response of free individuals that makes this amazing production happen, and nothing else is going to give humanity the benefits they have been afforded other than this free market economy. This belief (that capitalism will make things affordable) isn’t just understood by these neoconservative critics. Even Karl Marx recognized this in his tome, Capital. This has never been the totality of the neoconservative critique, though. Otherwise, it wouldn’t center around insight shared with Karl Marx. It’s really about how to use money, their money. Every neoconservative repeats, time and again, that private charity is better and more important than any social welfare policy. Why? Because it is free individuals enacting that charity.
Acting with charity is not wrong. It is always a laudable thing to do and ought to be the perfect example of Christian love. But when stated to be the sole Christian response to poverty, it is never adequate to address the needs of the poor. This has remained a core critique of social doctrine. Pope Pius XI states unequivocally “those who thought it in their abundant riches the result of inevitable economic laws and accordingly…wanted the whole care of supporting the poor committed to charity alone.” Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice.” And what belongs to him in justice? Everything he needs, because it isn’t “their money.” Every good thing is a gift from God, so our faith teaches us.
But the neoconservatives love to push the narrative that anything the government does is the actual problem, and cutting taxes would be the best solution. It opens the pathway to better private charity, and everyone is just a little bit freer. This should be no surprise to those who have seen the movement of neoconservative Catholics. For instance, Michael Novak’s work is at the core of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which stemmed back to his time in the Reagan administration.
The neoconservatives have a hard time reconciling their beliefs on welfare and social justice with the church’s teaching, so, it is always best to just ignore it. You can take up Weigel’s red and gold highlighters, find the real beliefs, and ignore all the rest. Did the popes talk about unions? Yeah, but that’s unimportant. Did they talk about a living wage? Yeah, but that’s not the responsibility of the state. Turn after turn, we find the dismissal of important and necessary parts of social doctrine. But the nature of social doctrine doesn’t work like this. Catholics must take into account the whole of the teaching, and form their consciences in accordance with them. Does every union work? Maybe not, but this doesn’t show that all unions are evil. Does this government program work perfectly? No, but a failure within a government program doesn’t show that the program itself is useless.
The crushing burdens of debt, low wages, and increasing costs have made it impossible to save, let alone rise out of poverty. Social mobility is shrinking, and the responsibility of the government—to provide for the common good—is already failing. But it isn’t doing so because it is the nature of government to do this. It is doing so because it is managed by wealthy capitalists who profit while we poor fight against one another. To that end, Oliver Anthony was right. I think he found a viable and important thread to pull. The problem is that when he pulled, he found someone like me, wrapped all up in the same thread, and saw us as part of the problem. But we’re more like him than them. I hope he, and all the conservative Christians like him, see that. Because we need their help in changing this system.
Image: Unsplash/Rex Roberts