Those of us who are morbidly pessimistic about the current state of American and world politics can find some cause for cheer in Senator Bernie Sanders’ primary results—and we need not be liberal Democrats to do so. Contrary to what some may think, Catholic conservatives can and should celebrate Senator Sanders’ candidacy and welcome the prospect of his eventual nomination. They should do so not out of some clever partisan calculation that hopes for a Republican victory should the Senator gain the Democratic nomination, but rather out of genuine hope for a Sanders Presidency. As poor a reflection on our politics as it may be, few of the remaining candidates come as close to embodying Catholic conservative hopes for America and the world as Bernie Sanders.
First, contrary to the stereotype that Catholic conservatives are preoccupied with abortion and sex, we are actually far more preoccupied with war, peace and justice. This is not merely because Pope Francis has taken pains to emphasize the latter while obscuring the former. Catholic conservative thought has long toiled for peace on Earth and for bringing about a cessation of war. Serious Catholic conservatives cannot and do not fail to see that the greatest political challenge of the present age is how to extinguish an ever-widening world war which has consumed hundreds of thousands of lives and produced millions of refugees as well as impoverished countless populations from Ukraine, to Syria, to Iraq. Working to bring an end to violence on such a scale is surely the first and foremost duty of the next President of the United States. Unlike so many candidates who continue to strive for American hegemony, Senator Sanders recognizes the challenges and opportunities of a multi-polar world and seeks American engagement for peace rather than marginal and elusive American dominance in endless war.
It is precisely because Senator Sanders is a life-long socialist that Catholic conservatives can be sure that a Sanders Presidency would use all of America’s resources on the international stage to end war, not start it, to mend divisions amongst nations, peoples and religions, not aggravate them. Socialists have a deep and rich tradition of anti-imperialism. Conservatives who care about constitutional republicanism in the United States should stand with the Senator because Bernie Sanders stands against the further transformation of America from a Republic into an Empire. No single greater threat exists to American constitutionalism than the continuation of a policy of global war in pursuit of global empire. As the son of a Polish immigrant whose grandparents were murdered in Nazi German concentration camps, and as someone who spent considerable time in the Middle East, Senator Sanders has a sense for human affairs that crosses national boundaries. Catholic conservatives should put their stock in this humane sense as opposed to the gun-slinger rhetoric prevalent in the GOP, which suggests that international affairs can be solved by further recourse to American military power.
In fact, Catholic conservatives should be alarmed that amongst too many contenders for the GOP nomination, we find men who have made clear their penchant for extending America’s over-extended military presence in the world. While Catholics recognize the concept of just war, they should also keep in mind that Pope John Paul II made clear that the American invasion of Iraq was unjust, Pope Benedict XVI took his name from a predecessor who worked tirelessly to end the first World War, and Pope Francis has explicitly called on Catholics around the world to work for peace. Conservatives recognize that war is at times necessary for the national defense, but every single, serious American conservative thinker from the movement’s inception under Russell Kirk to the present has been an outspoken critic of American foreign military adventurism. Surveying the credentials of many Republican candidates, it is rather doubtful that these gentlemen would have the wherewithal to do the difficult work necessary to resolve the conflicts festering the world over, sapping the vibrancy out of the global economy, and bankrupting the American taxpayer. Only a President Sanders, precisely because he is an intellectual socialist and because socialism is at its core anti-imperialist, might give hope to Catholic conservatives that the United States would work for world peace.
Naturally, there are several important areas where Catholic conservatives disagree with Senator Sanders. And yet it is naive to believe that the next President will or can do anything to alter the Supreme Court decisions that most frustrate Christian sensibilities: Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges. Yet a President Sanders would likely not forbid those of us for whom life is sacred from pleading with our fellows to choose life. In addition, a President Sanders will likewise be uninterested in stopping Catholic conservatives from loving their husbands and wives and remaining committed to their sacramental marriage vows. Those of us who have reservations about the legalization of homosexual civil matrimony in the United States should consider that the crisis of the family we so bemoan was caused not by homosexual unions, but by heterosexual failure to live up to marriage vows. The current divorce rate is our work. Catholic conservatives unhappy with the radical redefinition of marriage by the culture at large should put their own house in order and tend to making sure that the distinctive nature of the marriage sacrament is made evident not through the mockery of minorities, but by the simple daily act of remaining true to our husbands and wives. The present cultural malaise is a symptom of a culture deadened to moral sentiment. Senator Sanders, while not sharing important Catholic moral sentiments, at least speaks the language of moral sentiment and believes politics has a moral component.
With regard to economic issues, Senator Sanders has demonstrated a willingness to work across the aisle with conservatives concerned about the increasing centralization of economic power in the hands of a privileged oligarchy whose denizens fluctuate seamlessly between government and corporate life. The Senator supported legislation calling for the audit of the Federal Reserve, a legally privileged private banking monopoly that has been manipulating the money supply for decades. He stands with principled conservatives in opposing government handouts for those amongst us who refuse honest work: i.e., corporate bosses.
Senator Sanders recognizes the fundamental immorality of what has sadly become routine in the GOP: cutting government programs theoretically intended to help the public good in favor of government programs theoretically meant to help private interests. The Senator is opposed to government policy that calls for the free market to sort out economic crises when Main street is threatened while employing all possible mechanisms of fiscal spending in order to bail out Wall Street. If foreclosure for the family home and welfare for Wall Street is the Republican definition of free-market economics, Catholic conservatives should turn their backs on the GOP and embrace Senator Sanders, who understands that we should have the economy serve human needs, rather than have humans serve economic utility. For constitutionalists and lovers of liberty, a Sanders presidency would challenge the principles of limited government; however, it would also present an honest challenge and allow an honest congressional debate, and is preferable to more instances of Republicans branding legislation that actually increases the size and scope of government as somehow being anti-government.
There is little doubt Catholic conservatives might imagine better candidates for President than Senator Bernie Sanders, but politics is the art of the possible. In an America in which we are faced with the possibility of a Republican presidency that will commit the nation to more war, more corporate welfare, more international tensions, and more bombastic and unrealistic rhetoric, unorthodox choices are called for. Catholics of all people should be more than comfortable supporting Senator Sanders despite certain objections; after all, the rich, two-thousand-year history of the Church is replete with less than perfect Popes and lapses in judgement and action, none of which detract from the majesty of the Church in the eyes of the faithful who are taught to suffer grievances patiently and look to the good of Providence.
Human politics are far more imperfect than the imperfections of the Church, and we should use discernment when judging candidates. Under the present circumstances, if a man like Bernie Sanders actually has a chance at the Democratic nomination, Catholic conservative voters who take their traditions seriously might well consider supporting this independent socialist who has certainly taken a liking to our Pope and who seems to be our best hope for a humane, thoughtful, and moral American Presidency. At the very least, Catholic conservatives ought to hope for a Sanders candidacy making it to the general election, so that Americans can truly have a principled choice between candidates who are independent thinkers.
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