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Will Paul Ryan help Mitt Romney win the Catholic vote?

Ryan Speaks the Language of “Faithful Catholics”

By | August 16, 2012

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“Paul Ryan’s Catholic Problem.” “Catholics for Ryan.”

“Representative Ryan’s Ayn Rand Problem.” “Congressman Ryan Denounces Ayn Rand’s Ideology.”

“Ryan’s a Packers Fan?” “Paul’s Favorite iTunes playlist.”

These and other similarly cliff-hanging headlines leave one wondering whether Representative Paul Ryan is running for vice president of the United States or set to marry into the British royal family. As long as he introduces me to Pippa, I’ll be happy either way.

Mitt Romney’s selection of “The Man with the Budget Plan” from Janesville, Wisconsin has energized his campaign and brought discussions of things like “worldview” and “vision-casting” unmistakably to the forefront of this presidential race. In all the ways Governor Romney is perceived as being, shall we say, “fluid,” in his various political positions, Paul Ryan is not. If you want to know what the man thinks—to borrow a tired Apple advertising line—“there’s a YouTube for that.”

Congressman Ryan is a man of conviction. He is a man of ideas, and specific ones at that. He is a man who proudly wears his “God, Family, Country” ethos on his well-groomed sleeves. But what does his VP nod actually mean to the all-important Catholic vote? Will his Catholic bona fides translate to votes at the ballot box come November 6th?

In an article from The Daily Beast this week, Deal W. Hudson, the president of the Pennsylvania Catholics’ Network and former head of Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee, pointed out that Paul Ryan might have a “Catholic problem” on his hands:

With the choice of Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate, the 2012 presidential election will be the first in U.S. history with a Roman Catholic on both sides of the ballot. The contrast between the Catholicism of Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Ryan perfectly represents the ongoing debate about the Catholic vote going back to the Reagan years.

He continues:

While the choice of Ryan will please the Tea Party as well as fiscal and social conservatives, it creates an opening for the Catholic supporters of Obama: Paul Ryan’s 2012 GOP budget has already been the subject of official criticism by some Catholic bishops for failing to meet certain “moral criteria” and cutting programs that “serve poor and vulnerable people.”

So we have in Ryan a candidate who is on board with Catholic teaching and doctrine when it comes to such primary issues as abortion and traditional marriage and school choice, but has taken flak from certain quarters of the Church who feel that there is far too little “social” in his justice for their liking. And this is news? It should not be surprising that some liberal Bishops in the Catholic Church don’t care for Paul Ryan’s fiscally conservative, pro-free enterprise policy proposals.

I fully realize that the point of contention here isn’t an insignificant one. The on-going battle between those who believe the government’s role is to be an ever-expanding provider of everything from “free” health care to school lunches, and those with a healthy respect for human nature and math, is by no means settled. Millions of Americans are convinced that any discussion of cuts to the federal budget is tantamount to rejecting the Biblical mandate to care for “the least of these.” The tenets of the “social justice” movement have, for many religious voters, begun to trump nearly any other issue.

According to the Pew Forum, in 2000, the overall Catholic vote went 50 to 47 percent in favor of Al Gore over George W. Bush. In 2004, it swung back in favor of Bush over John Kerry to the tune of 52 percent to 47 percent. And in the last presidential election, Barack Obama beat out John McCain among Catholics by 10 percent (55 to 45). The data suggests, however, that among white Catholic voters, Republican candidates in the last three elections defeated their Democratic opponents each time by an average of roughly 5 percent.

The Hispanic community is overwhelmingly Catholic. It is also very sympathetic to the “social justice” philosophy. And, it is also the fastest growing demographic in our country. Every politician from Berkeley to Boston knows how important the Latino vote is, and how it will only become increasingly crucial in the next decade. This is the potential “Catholic problem” that not just Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan face, but the entire GOP faces as well.

With that said, here’s why I’m personally optimistic about our chances in 2012, and specifically excited about the addition of Paul Ryan to the ticket: the guy is actually Catholic. He knows and speaks “the language” of faithful Catholics everywhere. He talks about (and can really explain) things like “subsidiarity”—the Biblical principle that things in life be handled by the lowest or least centralized “competent authority.” He has the intellectual and rhetorical wherewithal to be able to respond in kind to letters from liberal Bishops with thoughtful, articulate letters of his own, defending his budget in moral terms. He possesses compelling powers of communication and he’s already in-line with Catholic teaching on the other hot-button social and cultural issues. For these reasons, I believe the efforts to paint him as a 1 percent-loving, tone-deaf Republican are already beginning to ring hallow.

Mitt Romney’s is still the name on the ballot, but I’m convinced that putting Paul Ryan’s name on that same ticket is the right addition at the right time. If this election ends up being about contrasting visions, voters are going to follow the stronger horse. An articulate, handsome, practicing Catholic with a young family and a message riddled with actual substance can do nothing but help Mitt Romney’s chances of winning. 

R.J. Moeller lives in Los Angeles and is a blogger and podcast host for the American Enterprise Institute's Values & Capitalism project.

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