Republican Congressman, budget guru, and professing Catholic Paul Ryan attended a service in an all-black church in inner-city Indianapolis. When a preacher at the service declared that “in Black America, we have a 9/11 every six months,” Ryan responded only by looking down and mouthing, “Wow.”
I would have been tempted to dismiss the provocative declaration out of hand if not for the fact that Ryan seemed to take it quite seriously. He didn’t scoff at the analogy or shake his head at it; he seemed to absorb it. His reaction is the striking but not particularly surprising result of the project—an examination of various locally run programs that have successfully reduced poverty—in which Ryan has been engaged since the 2012 election and which was inspired by a single event in the closing weeks of that campaign.
Over the course of the 2012 presidential campaign, Ryan eagerly employed the language of Catholic social thought, invoking subsidiarity alongside solidarity and arguing that the preferential option for the poor does not imply a preferential option for big government. It may once have been possible to read his use of such terms as a cynical attempt to twist the Church’s teaching to support Republican economic policies, but Ryan seems to have taken these principles to heart and sought out the opportunity to see them lived out.
That, at least, seems to have been part of his motivation for a campaign stop and meeting with a number of community activists in Cleveland in October 2012. The meeting was Ryan’s idea and, had he his own way, the campaign would have included a number of such stops, but the Romney campaign allowed him only this one visit. As the evening drew to a close, one preacher asked to be allowed to pray over Ryan by laying his hands on him. The event—especially the prayer—affected Ryan profoundly.
He was not simply giving lip service to the idea that problems should be addressed as locally as possible. He wanted to see it in action, and this desire led him to put himself into a position where he could have a genuine and transformative encounter with people whose experiences have been tremendously different from his own, and from whom he could learn much.
This encounter, in turn, has animated him in the project on which he has embarked: a series of visits to inner-city neighborhoods across the country, accompanied by one journalist and one young filmmaker. The journalist has published two articles based on his experiences with and observations of Ryan (do not be deterred by the fact that he works for Buzzfeed: The stories are full of striking quotes and vignettes like the one with which I started this essay), and the filmmaker’s documentary is now available in its entirety on Youtube. These visits were guided by community activist Bob Woodson, who had helped organize the initial meeting in Cleveland and whom Ryan has taken on as a personal mentor.
That Woodson was the preacher who said black America has a 9/11 every six months may go far in explaining Ryan’s contemplation of the statement. His receptiveness to it is undoubtedly due in part to the fact that it came from a man he trusts deeply, but his reaction nonetheless encapsulates the way in which this project has led him to step outside of his comfort zone in ways he probably did not anticipate and to learn just how much he does not know.
The stated purpose of Ryan’s project was to help shed light on ways in which people in poor communities were successfully breaking the cycle of poverty with the hope that a respect for local initiatives can be integrated into federal anti-poverty policy. Given that Ryan is the Chairman of the House Budget committee and regards it as a comfortable cruising altitude for his political career, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Republican budget proposals in the coming years emphasize local, subsidiarity-based anti-poverty programs.
But if this is where Catholics can see the greatest hope for principles of Catholic social teaching finding their way into general public and political discourse, it is also where the Catholic Left is most rightly skeptical of Ryan, whose previous budget proposals included substantial reductions in spending on social programs. Similar budget cuts for social programs and benefits in Greece, Britain, and other European states have carried a shocking human cost, and austerity in my home state of Illinois promises to have a similarly devastating effect on its most vulnerable residents.
I therefore find myself increasingly convinced of the importance of these existing programs even as Ryan’s striking earnestness convinces me that, even if he has not entirely outgrown whatever affection he may have once had for the writings of Ayn Rand, there is a real (however distant) hope that he might help convince the Republican Party not to try to balance budgets on the backs of the poor, sick, and disabled.
Ryan’s experiences in inner-city neighborhoods have enabled him to seriously consider the suggestion that the trauma—the feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and anger—of urban black communities in the wake of the numerous well publicized deaths of young black men could be similar in kind (lower in intensity but greater in frequency) to the trauma experienced by the nation as a whole on 9/11. And, frankly, that a Republican congressman took the analogy seriously made it tremendously easier for me to do so as well.
Ryan’s earnest engagement demonstrates that personal encounter and patience are far more effective than partisan confrontation with respect to bringing about this sort of development. The people who accused Ryan of taking more policy inspiration from Rand than Jesus Christ don’t yet have a concrete reason to change their slogan, but they may find a readier audience for their arguments about the importance of existing social programs if they look for opportunities for genuine encounter rather than evidence for accusations of heresy or heartlessness.