Conservatives Must Increase Economic Security Not Undermine It

According to the idiosyncratic twentieth-century French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, “Order is the first need of all.” She wrote this line while enumerating the needs of the human soul, and defined order as “a texture of social relationships such that no one is compelled to violate imperative obligations in order to carry out other ones.”

But her claim also applies if we use a much more prosaic definition of order—say, the everyday order of a prosperous, law-abiding society where no one worries about getting mugged on the way to work, or losing their job and being unable to find a new one, or going broke to pay for medical care. An orderly society in today’s world is one where everyone has a reasonable degree of physical safety and confidence in the rule of law, as well as access to food, shelter, healthcare, education, and work. When many people go without these basic needs and face the prospect of starvation, serious illness, or extreme financial deprivation, their lives become unstable and insecure; they lack order and predictability.

If order in this expansive definition is our “first need,” then most people will prioritize it over other goods like independence and self-expression—and they will be willing to give up a relatively high degree of liberty in order to get it. These tendencies have obvious implications for the realm of politics and economics. Capitalism, for all its power to create wealth and spur technological development, entails a fair amount of disorder. Companies are founded and disbanded, industries rise and fall, workers are hired and let go. Unemployment insurance, food stamps, welfare programs, and the rest of the safety net were created to mitigate this disorder and provide low-income individuals and families with at least some minimal degree of security.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many Americans feel threatened when conservatives seek to cut food stamps, slash welfare programs, stop the expansion of Medicaid, and limit unemployment benefits (even as job seekers far outnumber available jobs). The intentions behind these initiatives may not be cruel, but their results sometimes are. For an adult without savings and with a few mouths to feed, a $90-per-month cut in food stamps or a three-month bout of unemployment can mean serious difficulty. For those without health insurance, an unexpected emergency can mean bankruptcy. Even as conservatives tout a few sources of order—families, religious institutions, charities—their policies almost seem designed to exacerbate the destabilizing, disruptive aspects of market forces. It’s no wonder that the average American says Democrats are “more concerned with the needs of people like me” than the GOP.

If Republicans hope to win back the working class and make inroads with minorities (who are disproportionately likely to be poor or near-poor), then, they will need to do more than appeal to abstract notions of liberty. In a country that already has great freedoms, many voters will prefer to sacrifice a bit of liberty for a higher degree of economic security—and I find it hard to blame them. Conservatives should find ways to give these voters more order and stability, not less. Families, churches, and community groups are indeed crucial here, but they alone can’t guarantee well-paying jobs, health insurance, safe neighborhoods, and good schools.

But just because the government has a role to play in these areas doesn’t mean Republicans need simply sign on to Democratic ideas. Conservatives, too, have proposed creative reforms that would increase workers’ wages, spur job creation, and give families access to better schools. If they want to attract new voters and improve the lives of the financially vulnerable, they would do well to concentrate their energy not on trimming the safety net but on developing and implementing policies like these.

Anna Sutherland is a freelance writer and the editor of You can follow Family Studies on Facebook and Twitter.

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Why it’s OK to be a Liberal Catholic or Conservative Catholic

It is not unusual to hear Catholic political commentators say that the Church is above politics, that its teachings transcend the labels and descriptions that define our politics.  In articles, commentaries and discussions, a person will inevitably encounter this caveat. Whether on torture, the HHS mandate or immigration, these figures contend they are merely applying the timeless and apolitical teachings of the Church to the social and political matters that the Church and her members must engage.

This is an unhelpful and trivial observation. While it is indisputable that the Church and Her teachings exist outside of, and independent from, our current political and social circumstances, we, as persons do not. The positions that we take, even those that are rooted in Church teachings, are embedded in our unique circumstances. We are political beings. These are political issues and positions that we are taking.   Even if the Church transcends politics, we necessarily must operate within a concrete historical context.

If we as Catholics are to accept that, then we should recognize that most articulations of the Church’s teachings can be categorized using the language found in contemporary American political debates.  The application of Church teaching cannot entirely transcend the concrete and historical, and it is problematic to behave as though it does.

Catholics of many viewpoints and in various positions within the Church (lay, religious or clerical) take positions on topical debates that cannot be separated or distinguished from the political context in which these debates occur. The political circumstances frame and guide their application of Church teaching. For a politically engaged Catholic to embrace the label of “liberal” or “conservative” is to not to turn away from Church teaching, but to be realistic and practical.

The political landscape in which American Catholics operate needs to be defined in a way that is both accurate and comprehensible.  Catholics should not fear or denounce this supposed “politicization” of the faith. The faith is not somehow being corrupted by its relegation to the mundane, messy world of contemporary politics. We lack the power that God has as an omniscient being to know all truth in its complete and unadulterated form.   We are left to find our way in the world by examining our surroundings and learning from others, both Catholic and non-Catholic.  This inevitably shapes our views, including our political perspectives.

The reality is that the positions we take are recognizable by other people in this country and can be easily classified within the discursive space which fills our political world. It is clear that some Catholics are textbook liberals, while others are typical conservatives.  For those who break from these paradigms—the Catholic Bishops for instance—we can still define certain positions they take as “liberal” while others can accurately be described as “conservative.”

To employ the vocabulary used in contemporary American politics and to link these descriptions to the positions we take in applying Church teachings is a way to help us understand our world and operate in it. So don’t feel embarrassed embracing the “conservative,” “liberal,” or other adjective you attach to your Catholicism. Let’s not mistake the Church’s transcendence for our own.