A few days ago, I commented on an editorial by Melinda Henneberger, at the Washington Post, that questioned Paul Ryan’s Catholic credentials by suggesting that his willingness to cut government programs for poor people was inconsistent with Catholic social teaching. That line of argument has remained vigorous. There’s now a website, Pray for Paul’s Change of Heart, which quotes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ criticism of the Ryan budget and asks Ryan “to reconnect with the compassion for the poor and vulnerable that is rooted in our consciences and articulated by the Catholic Church.”
The creators of the website–a pair of Franciscans living near Ryan’s Congressional district–don’t identify themselves as pro-Obama; in fact, there’s also a section of the website that prays for Joe Biden to have a change of heart on abortion. However, Ryan is the site’s primary focus, which makes the Biden section look, at least, like an afterthought intended to deflect accusations of partisanship. Whatever the intent, the site’s critique of Ryan certainly has the political effect of working against the Romney-Ryan campaign and will therefore, I imagine, please Catholic Democrats and Catholic progressives.
In the face of this immediate surge of rhetoric along the lines of “Ryan’s not a good Catholic because he doesn’t care enough about the poor,” I’m left wondering: Why hasn’t there been an analogous public critique of Mitt Romney? Where’s the website challenging Romney’s business practices as inconsistent with Mormon teachings about caring for the poor? Certainly the rhetorical “raw materials” are available for such a critique. I myself posted a pithy critique along those lines several months back, at the blog The Mormon Worker. Joanna Brooks, it seems to me, has used her public platform to hint at such a critique, though she’s only hinted at it. Troy Williams, a gay activist who was raised Mormon, has made the most prominent version of this critique that I’ve seen, in an article for Salon titled “When Mormons Were Socialists.”
So why isn’t there a more vigorous public discourse of “Romney’s a bad Mormon because he doesn’t care for the poor”? I admit I ask that question partly as someone who would like to see a more vigorous discourse along those lines for my own partisan interests. But I also pose the question from the uninvested-but-curious standpoint of someone wondering what the relatively underdeveloped status of this discourse reveals about contemporary American religion. Is it a sign of how much smaller and disorganized the Mormon left is compared to the Catholic left? Is there, possibly, an element of tribalism at work here: Mormon progressives may be willing to criticize Romney among themselves but are reluctant to do it publicly? Are broader publics–i.e., non-Catholic and non-Mormon commentators–more willing, for some reason, to pursue a critique of Ryan’s Catholic cred than of Romney’s Mormon cred? Perhaps because leftish Catholic social teaching is better known in the broader public than leftish Mormon social teaching?