Deconstructing ‘Why conservatives just don’t get Pope Francis’ anti-poverty crusade’

In re Elizabeth Stoker’s piece in The Week, “Why conservatives just don’t get Pope Francis’ anti-poverty crusade”:

U.S. conservatives like to pair the cross and the coin, but that’s not the case elsewhere around the world.

The “cross and the coin”? Well, aside from the faux pas of “the cross” not being capitalized (which seems an odd oversight from “a graduate of Brandeis University, a Marshall Scholar, and a current Cambridge University divinity student”), that is a false dichotomy, a straw man, and a laughable oversimplification–and it won’t be the last we see of those sorts of logical fallacies in the article in question.

On Sunday, Pope Francis matter of factly announced that he was not actually a Marxist, telling Italy’s La Stampa, “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.” It was an incredible thing for a pope to proclaim about himself, especially since it was directed at one particularly loud group of critics: U.S. conservatives.

Well, actually, Pope Francis did not “matter of factly announce” that he is not a Marxist; he was asked, “Some of the passages in the ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ attracted the criticism of ultraconservatives in the USA. As a Pope, what does it feel like to be called a ‘Marxist’?” Why the author thinks that “was an incredible thing for a pope to proclaim about himself” escapes me. He was answering a question.

Or perhaps the “Cambridge University divinity student” author found it remarkable that he did not condemn Marxists as individuals? If the latter, I find it rather frightening that I know more about Christianity than the author.

Finally, the author subtly implies a unanimity of opinion among U.S. conservatives regarding the Pope’s comments that simply does not exist.

Since outlining his vision for the Catholic church in late November, Pope Francis has endured an amount of criticism from the American right wing commensurate only with the praise piled on by the remainder of global Christianity. For most, Francis’ moving exhortation to spread the gospel and engage personally with Jesus was a welcome and invigorating encouragement. But for many right-wing pundits in America, Francis’ call to relieve global poverty through state intervention in markets was unconscionably troubling.

In the first sentence, the author neatly places opinions regarding “Evangelii Gaudium” in two camps: “the American right wing,” and the rest of Christendom. First, that is a false dichotomy. Second, the Catholic Church does not comprise the entirety of Christendom. Presumably the author, since she is a Cambridge University divinity student, has heard of Protestantism?

The second sentence implies that American conservative Christians are unmoved by the Pope’s “exhortation to spread the gospel and engage personally with Jesus.” That is nonsense on stilts.

The third sentence has nothing to do with the second sentence. To be troubled by what some perceive as the Pope’s embrace of command and control economics in the name of helping the poor simply has no inherent relationship to ones attitude toward spreading the Gospel (again, no capitalization?) and engaging personally with Jesus–except in the minds of Leftists.

As for the pointless inclusion of the word “unconscionably,” it simply serves to reinforce the false dichotomy and obfuscate the continuum of opinion that exists on the topic among the American Right. (And note how the author has shifted from talking about American conservatives in general, to using the more specific construction “many right-wing pundits.”)

Francis’ message likely raises American conservative hackles because the American right wing has invented such a convincing façade of affinity between fiscal conservatism and Christianity over the last few decades. Though free markets, profit motives, and unrestrained accumulation of wealth have no immediate relationship with Christianity, the cross and the coin are nonetheless powerful, paired symbols of the American right wing. Catholic conservatives thus must carve a way around Francis’ difficult insistence that governments be harnessed toward the relief of poverty, not the creation of it.

Good grief.

What the author characterizes as an invented “façade of affinity between fiscal conservatism and Christianity”–recently-invented, no less–is in fact long-standing, coherent with Christian teachings (although certainly not the entirety of those teachings by any stretch), and a damn sight more Biblical than the sort of claptrap that attempts to turn Jesus Christ into the First Marxist.

“Though free markets, profit motives, and unrestrained accumulation of wealth” is a conflation of two things that are most certainly Biblically sound (free markets and profit motives) with something that most certainly is not (unrestrained accumulation of weath). It is a cartoonish oversimplification that serves as a preamble for what follows.

What’s with this “the cross and the coin” nonsense? Is this a way of saying that American conservatives worship money in the same way they worship Christ? Poppycock. No, dear author, this is far more a function of your Leftist imagination than any potent symbol for the Right. Either that, or you’ve been watching Pat Boone movies and thought it a catchy, and damning, phrase.

There is one bit of unintentional truth in the final sentence of the paragraph: “governments [should] be harnessed toward the relief of poverty, not the creation of it.” Absolutely! And conservative principles are far more effective in relieving poverty than the sort of failed, statist, zero-sum-game nonsense the folks at Salon regularly advocate.

A popular conservative criticism has thus been to accuse the pope of having an unhealthy, non-theological affinity for the political Left. Rush Limbaugh labeled Francis a “Marxist” for that reason, while Fox News’s Adam Shaw wrote him off as akin to President Barack Obama, derisively noting that “anti-Catholics in the left-wing media are in love with him.” Ross Douthat at The New York Times put the same argument more delicately, writing that Francis’ “plain language tilts leftward in ways that no serious reader can deny.”

There we go. The Rush Card. The most tedious rhetorical tendency of the semi-serious Left.

Is the author implying that anti-Catholics in the MSM are not cheering on the Pope’s (apparent to some, debatable to others) statist proclivities? If so, she might want to catch “up on news of the temporal world” more often.

Is the author denying that Douthat is correct pointing out a leftward tilt to the Pope’s comments? On the one hand, the author is making Leftist arguments; on the other hand, she is implying that any characterization of the Pope’s remarks as Leftist is beyond the pale.

It is no surprise that aligning Francis with the whole of the political Left brings with it the arguments critics on the Right usually lob against liberals: That the Left is corrupt on the moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage; that the Left is incorrect as to how poverty comes to exist; and that the Left means to replace Christian charity with soulless, dependency-producing state aid programs. Between Limbaugh, Shaw, and Douthat, Francis has been accused of each of these errors, all in an effort to drain the religious content from Francis’ message in order to dismiss him as just another leftist.

Yikes, now that’s a steaming stew of a paragraph.

Those arguments that we on the Right “lob” against “liberals” happen to be fact-based and empirically demonstrable. Nice summary, if unintentionally so.

The concluding sentence is odd. The author conflates all conservative arguments critical of the Pope’s remarks in order to accuse them of conflating the Pope’s remarks.

If by “religious content,” the author is referring to the Pope’s “exhortation to spread the gospel and engage personally with Jesus,” the author is (ahem) in error. Religious conservatives have been overwhelmingly supportive of that aspect of the Pope’s message.

But the reality is that this method of criticism does little more than demonstrate the ordering of right-wing priorities: Though they claim Francis’ message arises from an unduly political place, their arguments rely on a uniquely American political frame rather than a Christian one. Limbaugh, Shaw, and Douthat may claim to object to Francis as Christians, but they argue against him first and foremost as conservatives invested in the free market.

Dear author, are you questioning fellow Christians’ relationship with God? Are you sure you’re a divinity student?

And the reality is that your “method of criticism does little more than demonstrate the ordering of” Left-wing priorities. Funny how that worked out.

Douthat, for example, argues that global capitalism has been responsible for an overall reduction in poverty. But Francis’ exhortation never called for an elimination of capitalism, only that states, as creations of humankind, be structured so as to alleviate the poverty that arises after capitalism has done its work. For Francis, all institutions created by humanity — and yes, distributions of wealth are created, not spontaneous — must be intentionally shaped to further just goals. Since Francis’ notion of justice is informed purely by the teaching of Christ, just goals include establishing an equitable distribution of wealth that alleviates poverty and contributes to peace.

First sentence: Douthat’s argument has the advantage of being true, particularly compared to the terrible consequences of the sort of statism that the author apparently embraces.

Wait, did Douthat say that the Pope was calling for the elimination of capitalism? Dear author, you need to be more subtle in the future when you project onto others things they haven’t said.

This is actually interesting: “states, as creations of humankind, [should] be structured so as to alleviate the poverty that arises after capitalism has done its work.” And remarkably similar to what most conservatives advocate, ironically. The author’s time would have been better spent focusing on that core idea, than on all this predictable sniping at the Right.

But she can’t make it to the end of the paragraph without utterly undoing the preceding: “just goals include establishing an equitable distribution of wealth that alleviates poverty and contributes to peace.” But I won’t hold the author’s blatantly Marxist formulation against Pope Francis.

The rest of her piece is pretty much more of the same. Read it here if you like.


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