The GOP's immoral budget

Prominent Catholic theologians across the country recently took Ryan to Sunday school by explaining how his budget is "morally indefensible and betrays Catholic principles of solidarity, just taxation and a commitment to the common good." Before a recent lecture at Georgetown University, Ryan received a letter signed by nearly 90 professors and priests at the Catholic university who took offense at his distortion of Catholic teaching. It noted that Ryan's budget seems more indebted to Ayn Rand than to the message of Jesus. Ryan has praised Rand –  a libertarian icon who mocked all religion and rejected the Gospel's ethic of justice and compassion – with inspiring him to enter politics and for explaining "the morality of individualism."

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This fundamental challenge to Republican economic orthodoxy has rankled conservative politicians whose opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage usually gets them a free pass from many Catholic leaders. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), a Catholic, accused the bishops of missing the "big picture." Rep. Ryan desperately tried a divide and conquer strategy, telling Fox News that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' stark objection to his budget does not represent the views of all church leaders. He has yet to tell us which Tea Party bishops support his efforts to portray social Darwinism as social justice. The backlash from the right also included some righteous indignation from pundits. Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, a conservative Catholic and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, called one prominent bishop's criticism of Ryan's budget cuts an "attack on a good Catholic layman" and even accused him of parroting "a reelection slogan for the Democratic Party."

Republicans used to thinking they have a lock on "values voters" are now facing moral scrutiny that has been lacking in the past. In recent years, Catholic bishops have pounced on pro-choice Catholic Democrats, scolded the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to give a commencement address, opposed health care reform legislation and recently launched a national religious liberty campaign. Last month, the Catholic bishop in Peoria, Ill., compared President Obama's policies to those of Stalin and Hitler, and not so subtly urged Catholics to "vote their conscience." This broadside is reminiscent of the 2004 presidential election, when several Catholic bishops repeatedly blasted John Kerry over abortion, a critical factor in helping George W. Bush win the Catholic vote and with it the election.

It's time for a better conversation about the role of faith in politics. A one-sided values debate preoccupied with a few divisive issues lets conservative politicians off the hook. When it comes to immigration, poverty, climate change and the use of torture on detainees, many Republicans' policy views fundamentally clash with bedrock Christian principles and centuries of moral wisdom. But too often this inconsistency goes unchallenged. This does a profound disservice to voters and diminishes the credibility of religious leaders in public life.

Conservatives who talk a big game about family values should be held accountable when their economic policies undermine human dignity. They should be forced to explain how gutting programs that protect vulnerable families, demonizing immigrants and putting corporate profits and tax breaks for millionaires before workers' rights reflect Christian values. If they can't explain those glaring inconsistencies, they should drop the religious rhetoric.

Gehring is Catholic program director and senior writer at Faith in Public Life in Washington.