Catholics And The Cultural Salience Of Party

While we’re on the subject of Catholic public opinion, a different recent Pew study recently found that:

values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years. Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides. … Nearly all of the increases have occurred during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

This is, of course, because membership in the Republican Party has degenerated into a tribal identity with no policy content. The GOP rejects with savage ferocity ideas like the health insurance mandate, which Sen. Grassley and Gov. Romney professed to support up until a month or so before the Democrats tried to agree with them.

The increased salience of party explains why self-described “conservative Catholics”– people like Justice Scalia, Ross Douthat, and Rick Santorum– don’t care very much about a lot of what the Catholic Church teaches. 

Scalia is a US conservative Catholic. He’d probably say that the religious part is the most important, but I don’t think it is. After all, Catholics in Europe aren’t as into the culture war as conservative US Catholics are, and they tend to care more about Church teaching on the death penalty, torture, poverty, and just war. Scalia is highly exercised about gay marriage, abortion, and ending affirmative action, because those are hot-button cultural issues for the Republican Party. That explains why he ignores originalism in his anti-affirmative action opinions, and ignores Church teaching on issues like torture. Ross Douthat’s blog has tags for liberalism, the deficit, foreign affairs, sex and marriage, the mysteries, abortion, taxes, economics, etc., but nothing about poverty.

These folks would maintain that his views are shaped by the eternal truths of the Church, but they’re not. They’re the product of a highly contingent, contextually circumscribed culture.

US conservatism has no policy content anymore; it’s an identity defined by suspicion of those it perceives to be outsiders. So Douthat and Scalia care a lot about conservative Church teachings on same-sex marriage, and not much at all about what the Church says about poverty or just war theory.

All our identities are highly contingent and culturally determined; all theological debates are at least somewhat cultural. That doesn’t mean that they’re all stupid, but it does mean that US conservatives who offer a pretense of speaking for “eternal truths” are not doing anything of the sort.

We used to see wars in Europe over whether or not predestination was true; we don’t anymore, even though one could still take either side in the argument. 150 years ago, we cared a lot about the passages in the New Testament that appear to endorse slavery; now we’re much more interested in whether Paul meant to condemn homosexuality.

That explains why Cardinal Dolan cares much more about regulations about birth control than he does about policy to ameliorate poverty. He’s a Catholic, sure, but he’s also steeped in US conservatism. So “culture war” issues have much more emotional salience to him.

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