Commentary Magazine


There Is No Such Thing as a Secular Politics

You can learn a lot by running for vice president. Especially if you weren’t a vanquished opponent who tried to win the nomination but simply plucked from Congress and thrust into the national spotlight. Paul Ryan learned a few things while on Mitt Romney’s ticket in 2012–about policy, about partisanship, about messaging. But perhaps the most important lesson he appears to have learned is this: There is no such thing as a fully secular politics.

Ryan has taken a keen interest in the way public policy and state power interact with those living in poverty in America. It’s a complex subject: sometimes federal policy helps, sometimes it offers a cure worse than the malady. Local communities and local governments get involved as well, and that involvement varies from place to place. So Ryan traveled around the country to try to get a sense of how different approaches play out in different cases. Ryan was keeping generally mum about the project that grew out of those efforts, but now that it’s completed, he talked to Yahoo News about it. It’s not what his critics expected:

Paul Ryan has visited low-income neighborhoods in Texas, Ohio and elsewhere over the past two years to meet with groups and individuals working to help lift people out of poverty.

It’s been a little-publicized affair. Ryan brought almost no press with him on any of the trips. One of the few reporters to accompany him, Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins, last April detailed the Wisconsin Republican’s visit to an early-morning men’s bible study in Indianapolis.

Paul’s critics have complained that these expeditions were part of a politically calculated vanity project designed to soften the GOP’s image and set the congressman — who was the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012 — up for a bid for higher office.

But on March 17, Ryan will issue a rejoinder to that accusation in the form of a documentary film on the people he met during his travels to impoverished communities. In fact, he told Yahoo News, part of the reason he chose not to run for president in 2016 was that he wanted to protect this video project from second-guessing about his motives for doing it.

It’s true that Ryan’s critics on the left thought his attempts to alleviate the suffering of others were “part of a politically calculated vanity project,” and it’s also true that Ryan’s critics are, as is clear, not very bright. And they’re pretty cynical. But they’re also, and this is important, clerical figures in the Church of Liberalism.

Eventually the Yahoo story gets around to asking Ryan a highly relevant question: What does this all mean for public policy? Ryan is, after all, an influential congressman:

In each episode in the “Comeback” series, faith or individuals make the crucial difference in the lives of people who need help, not government. …

“We need to disaggregate it, we need to decentralize it, and we need to acknowledge that government has a very important role to play but it is circumspect and limited and it needs to be in concert with, not in contention with, these good works that are happening out there in America,” Ryan said. “The best thing the government does is bring resources to the table, but sometimes the worst thing it does is it displaces and it takes over and it displaces good works.”

The problem was never that Ryan wanted to dismantle government’s necessary role, or have civil society completely replace the federal government. It’s that government sees civil society as competition, and rejects it.

Liberalism, especially in the age of Obama, is a deeply religious movement. Obama has been explicit from the beginning that he sees himself as healer and redeemer. Much of the time this administration is engaged in redemptive politics, but when it comes to health-care and poverty, the president plays the healer.

Other religions are rival faiths. The leviathan may be the god that failed and keeps failing, but it’s the only one they’ve got. And the state is a jealous god. So no, you can’t have religious exemptions to laws the healer enacted, because these are religious edicts. The left has demonized Ryan not because he’s wrong (he’s often unquestionably correct on the facts) but because their deity–the state–views him as a false prophet.

It’s Ryan, not his leftist critics, who sees the issue with proper compassion and humility: “The big takeaway is listen and learn, because people speak things differently,” Ryan told Yahoo. “They have different experiences, and they do hurt in different ways. And I think it’s really important to try and glean another person’s perspective, so that you’re better informed and you can learn from it.”

But to the glorious state there is only one truth.

A truly secular politics might or might not be theoretically possible. But it’s not what we have, and it’s not on the menu. Ryan talks about the value of faith and community in solving problems. And the left views this as a threat because he’s bearing witness to a competing spirituality, the expression of which must be driven from the public square.

Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »

One Response to “There Is No Such Thing as a Secular Politics”

  1. CLAIRE GEBER says:

    Capitalism is the greatest force known to lift people out of poverty. Neither faith in government nor God will do it as efficiently, or as disinterestedly. What needs to change is the identification of charity – a private decency – with civic virtue. Denationalizing charity (compassion) may be a step in reducing the welfare state, but it will not cure the compassioneers – religious or secular – of their addiction to self-righteousness. “Giving back” should not be more praised than earning a living, supporting ones family and obeying the law. Charity should not seek congratulations, or be regarded as a qualification for public service. The widow who gave her mite is not a symbol of the virtue of giving charity, but of not receiving it.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.