Catholics: the Laotians of American Politics

On the animated sitcom, King of the Hill, there’s an awkward but funny scene in the first season when redneck Hank Hill and his friend Bill meet their new Laotian neighbor, Kahn.

Hank: So are you Chinese or Japanese?
Kahn: I live in California last twenty year, but, ah… first come from Laos.
Hank: Huh?
Kahn: Laos. We Laotian.
Bill: The ocean? What ocean?
Kahn: We are Laotian-from Laos, stupid! It’s a landlocked country in southeast Asia. It’s between Vietnam and Thailand, OK? Population 4.7 million.
Hank:…So are you Chinese or Japanese?

Hank and Kahn learn to discuss important issues.
With most Americans, trying to explain a Catholic political perspective is a lot like a Laotian trying to explain his nationality to Hank Hill. This is a typical exchange:

Concerned citizen: So are you a Democrat or a Republican?
Me: Well, neither. I’m a Catholic.
Concerned citizen: Huh?
Me: Uh. I fundamentally disagree with the underlying principles of both parties. I’m Catholic.
Concerned citizen: Well I heard that new pope is a communist. Are you a liberal?
Me: NO! I’m a Catholic.
Concerned Citizen: But didn’t the last pope hate gays? Are you some kinda conservative?
Me: Buuuuuuh. Catholic political thought predates these stupid parties by well over a thousand years! Criticizing capitalism does not make you a communist and rejecting communism does not mean you embrace industrial capitalism. Your spectrum is broken because it’s based on faulty Enlightenment thinking. Both parties have disjointed and contradictory platforms because modernity has failed you! Catholicism offers a comprehensive and COHERENT alternative that doesn’t fit on the ridiculous American political chart.
Concerned citizen: …so are you a Democrat or a Republican?
[Disclaimer: This wasn’t a real conversation and that isn’t how I talk.]

And, so it goes. Like poor Hank, who can’t understand that there are other countries in Asia, most Americans can’t imagine something that isn’t either generally liberal-Democrat or generally conservative-Republican. I don’t blame people who think this way. Our mass media is completely entrenched in this dichotomy. We’re constantly told of the “polarization of America” and every idea and political group is pinned somewhere on a left/right spectrum. Anything to the right is conservative and to the left is liberal. The blessed, golden middle of this spectrum is referred to as “moderate.” According to most pundits, the further away you get from moderate, the worse things become until you arrive at the absolute extremes of fascism on one end or Marxism on the other (Curiously, Hitler seems to be present at both extremes. Political theorists are still working out why this is so).

God bless America. And Hank Hill.
The problem with this spectrum idea is twofold. For one, it conflates completely unrelated topics as if they followed the same principles. There’s really no reason people who agree on taxation should also agree on homosexuality. Or that someone who is pro-abortion should also be anti-death penalty. Yet, in this country, we automatically assume that someone who supports environmental protection will also support gun control even though these issues are, in reality, only vaguely related.

Secondly, we become completely oblivious to the origins of our perspectives and unable to imagine or understand the myriad of political ideas that have existed over the millennia and continue to exist today. Nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to Catholicism in American politics. Catholic teaching opposes unjust war AND abortion because our view of human life is explicitly Christian and NOT utilitarian. Catholic teaching supports traditional marriage AND environmental stewardship because of a well-developed understanding of what human beings actually are and how they should relate both to each other and the rest of creation. Catholic teaching opposes communism AND capitalism because both of these economic philosophies treat human beings as numbers in an equation and encourage obsession with wealth.

There simply isn’t a political party in America that mirrors Catholic values and teachings. And this isn’t about trying to mount some moral high horse. Nor is it about a general dissatisfactions with politics and politicians in general. This is about the deep, deep philosophical chasm that yawns between ancient, unchanged Catholic teaching and the brand new Enlightenment philosophy that is the foundation of both major parties in this country (and most other countries these days).

Here’s Laos on a map. Uh. Just FYI I guess.
Now, on King of the Hill, Hank’s ignorance of world geography may have been annoying to Kahn but it never posed any real danger. But, for Catholics trying to follow the Church’s teachings on political issues, there is a danger beyond extreme frustration. We risk becoming ensnared in the false dichotomy of conservative and liberal and ultimately violating our consciences. For instance, because of the party’s stance against abortion, some Catholics might join up with Republicans only to then adopt their very uncatholic views on immigration, wealth, the poor, etc. And others might see positive streaks of social justice among the Democrats and so sign up only to become apologists for abortion and euthanasia.

I’m absolutely not saying you can’t be a faithful Catholic and vote for a Democrat or Republican. And I’m not saying Catholics who remain unaffiliated are necessarily being faithful to the magisterium. We should absolutely vote! I’m just saying we should also be careful. Voting for someone doesn’t mean you have to endorse every part of their platform. Express your objections loudly, clearly, and often. Know what the Church teaches and make sure your representatives know what you want. You’re Laotian! Be proud!

And don’t forget! Laotian New Year is coming up in April!

Daniel Bearman 

Daniel Bearman blogs at where this article previously appeared.