“I think politicians who divorce themselves from their faith are being hypocrites. I can’t see how one can do that. …We’re taught that in business, that in raising our children, in how we conduct ourselves with our family, in everything we do, our religious principles need to be in the forefront of our minds. That should apply to people who hold public office, to politicians.”
–Rep. Paul Ryan, December 2004
A few weeks after the 2004 election, my brother and I interviewed Rep. Paul Ryan for a TV series on Catholic political figures and their faith. The role of faith in politics was at the forefront of the political debate. Senator John Kerry’s narrow loss in the presidential election was widely viewed as partly the result of the former altar boy’s inability to credibly reconcile his Catholic faith with his support for abortion and same-sex marriage.
Our interview with Ryan, who had just won his fourth term in Congress, never aired. I highlight parts of it that offer insight into the faith of the only Catholic nominated for national office since the culture wars erupted who does not disown the core moral theological doctrine of his church.
Ryan’s abortion position has been much in the news. Ryan once described himself as “as pro-life as a person gets.” Democrats are labeling Ryan’s position — anti-abortion except when the mother’s life is at risk — as extreme and making it a cornerstone of their case against Republicans. But Ryan’s view reflects that of his church. “I’ve always been pro-life. I believe life begins at conception and ends at natural death,” Ryan explained.
I think the Pope’s (John Paul II) consistent leadership on this issue has been very important. His unwavering support for life is very important because the Pope is our rock in this. If he had not advocated a consistent position on life throughout his pontificate, I think the entire life movement would have been damaged.
For me as a politician, as a person who votes on those issues, I just can’t see how one can separate themselves from your religious principles and the laws we vote on, especially with respect to life. We see politicians do that every day up here.
The last Catholic presidential nominee said that he personally believed life begins at conception and ends at natural death, but he wouldn’t want to impose those beliefs through public laws. I just can’t conceive of how a person could make that statement. That basically means you believe that abortion is a taking of a life that ought to be protected but you’re not going to do anything to protect it. I just can’t understand how someone could justify that kind of position inside their mind let alone their conscience.
That’s why I think it’s very important that our church has been very consistent on these issues. And it’s very important that when we run for office, we tell people who we are, what we believe and what we’re going to do in office. Then we’ll never have a position or a situation where we are torn when we act on these convictions while we are in office, while we are serving.
We asked Ryan whether his Catholic faith might sometimes put him at odds with non-Catholic constituents. “I really don’t worry about alienating non-Catholics because when I talk about how I, as a Catholic politician, conduct myself in office, consistent with Catholic principles, I talk about our founders, I talk about our Constitution, I talk about the Declaration of Independence, the fact that our country was founded on the belief that we are free to express our religion in the public square,” he said.
The separation of church and state is not a phrase that is contained in any of our founding documents. The concept that is behind that phrase is one where the government won’t back one singular denomination over another, but that we are free to practice our faith in the public square, and I site constitutional framers, and the principles of our country in defending what I do in office. So non-Catholics and Catholics alike respect the principles and the writings of our founding fathers. And those are what I invoke when I talk about how and why I do what I do in office.
We did not discuss fiscal issues with Ryan that day. But at other times he has talked about how his faith informs his economic views. “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it,” Ryan told an audience at Catholic Georgetown University in April. “The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’ and ‘living in untruth.'”
Ryan’s approach to fighting poverty, he explained at Georgetown, is rooted in solidarity and subsidiarity, “virtues that, when taken together, revitalize civil society instead of displacing it.… We put our trust in people, not in government. Our budget incorporates subsidiarity by returning power to individuals, to families and to communities.”
Much has been made of Ayn Rand’s influence on Ryan. The atheist philosopher, Ryan said in 2005, is “the reason I got involved in public service.” But Rand’s objectivism is not what sustains Ryan. “I reject her philosophy,” he said recently. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts, and it is antithetical to my worldview.”
Some pundits have suggested that Ryan is distancing himself from Rand and emphasizing his faith in order to appear more compassionate to a national audience. But from our interview, which took place only a few months before Ryan’s Rand remark, it seems clear that it’s Ryan’s faith that has always guided his policymaking.
Instead of Rand, Ryan has offered Thomas Aquinas as a fundamental influence. In our interview, Ryan talked about the influence of another popular St. Thomas: St. Thomas More, English martyr and patron of politicians:
We have a study group here in Washington among conservative Catholic politicians called the St. Thomas More study group. We have guest speakers who come in to meet with us about once or twice a month.… So the example that St. Thomas More set is one that many of us here in Congress are not only trying to emulate but try to learn about… trying to respect, trying to study and trying to have the example set out for us. So it’s something that many of us have in the front of our minds as an example of how we ought to conduct ourselves while serving in office.
We asked Ryan what he prays for. He said:
I pray for my family, to be a good husband to my wife to be a good father to my children. And then I pray to keep my principles intact. That in my daily life, as a member of Congress, that I follow God will, and that I follow His consistent principles. That’s what I pray for, and to have the strength to do that. There are a lot of pressures in every job. There are tremendous pressures in this job as a member of Congress, especially in these times. And so I just pray for the strength to be consistent, to follow God’s principles as I know them to be.
Ryan concluded our interview by distinguishing between the two kinds of people who run for office. The primary dividing line, he said, is not between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals or Catholics and non-Catholics, but instead between what he called “be-ers” and “do-ers.” Using a formulation that helps explain Ryan’s subsequent political rise and offers a forecast of Ryan’s future, win or lose, he said:
Some people run for office because they want to be a congressman or be a senator, or to be a governor. And then there are people who run for office because they want to do something. And they want to act on certain convictions and principles, and advance a cause.
We unfortunately have a lot of be-ers in Congress, a lot of be-ers in government. Do-ers are the people who actually advance society, make a difference. And that’s the covenant that we as elected officials have with our constituents, where we tell our constituents who we are, what we believe and what we will do. That’s the covenant we have with our constituents. And when in office, we have the obligation, the moral authority, to act on that covenant.