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Ryan’s Story: Congressman and Former VP Candidate Writes About Faith Journey


Mark Stricherz - published on 09/04/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Three Catholic Takeaways from "The Way Forward."

WASHINGTON — On Capitol Hill, Representative Paul Ryan is known as a budget wonk, workout fiend, and funnyman. The Wisconsin Republican has a reputation as an expert on the ins and outs of the federal budget, a devotee of P90-X, and a member of Generation X given to quoting lines from the 1985 comedy “Fletch.”

Beyond the Hill, Ryan has a more polarized identity. To progressives, he is the Republican who wants to slash Medicare and Medicaid benefits and gave a misleading time in finishing a marathon. To conservatives, he is the man whose budget blueprint will help return the country to fiscal sanity and at the age of 44 is a fresh face in a graying political party.

In "The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea," which was released last month, Ryan seeks to present a clearer, more likable version of himself to ordinary voters; this is not a book heavy on political history in the vein of John F. Kennedy’s "Profiles in Courage" or scholarly citations and data sets like Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s "Miles to Go." Ryan wants to create the impression he is an intellectually serious, down-to-earth, and soulful Republican politician.

Like any Republican with his sights on the White House, Ryan pledges fealty to Ronald Reagan. Although Ryan’s invocations of Reagan are genuine, his real hero is Jack Kemp, a legendary congressman from Buffalo, N.Y. The link is not farfetched. Ryan worked as an aide to Kemp in the interregnum between Kemp’s service in the Bush administration and his being named as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 1996.

Reviewers of "The Way Forward" have picked up on Ryan’s admiration for and affiliation with Kemp. But none has explored Ryan’s stated Catholicism, which in its emphasis on domestic spending differs from that of, say, Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator’s 2012 presidential campaign was oriented around cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

The reason for the oversight cannot be Ryan’s slighting of his religion. Ryan peppers references to and explains his Catholic faith throughout the book. In the interest of filling in the gaps, gives you three takeaways about Catholicism from "The Way Forward."

Takeaway #1: Ryan details his loss of faith for several years.

When Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1976, the Georgia governor’s invocations of his Christian faith were considered unusual. “It was what [Carter campaign manager] Ham Jordan irreverently but unabashedly called the “weirdo factor,” and it plagued Carter throughout the long election year,” reporters Jack Germond and Jules Witcover wrote in "Marathon," their tome on the 1976 presidential race.

Ryan’s book is notable for its details about the loss of his faith. Ryan takes pains to show that doubt if not about God but a loving God has been a key part of his spiritual journey.

The precipitating event in Ryan’s spiritual slide was the death of his father in 1986. Ryan had finished his sophomore year of high school, and he was the family member who found his dad’s body lying in his parents’ bed. Although Ryan blames his father’s death on alcoholism, he said his family members were not consoled by the knowledge.

Ryan describes the grieving process as “brutal.” He notes that more or less, he stopped going to Mass through four years of college at Miami University in Ohio and a few years in his early twenties as an aide on Capitol Hill. As he writes,

I could list the holy days of obligation and detail the Gospels. I could recite the Act of Contrition on command and knew the Apostle’s Creed by heart. But of course, saying the words and feeling the meaning behind them are two very different things. Losing my dad was brutal for my whole family, and I can’t say that the experience inclined my heart much toward faith. In high school, I had tried to resolve the dissonance I felt by reading about different beliefs. I learned about all kinds of organized religions. I studied the writings of existentialists and atheists. But no matter the faith or philosophical position, my spiritual journey always brought me back to that same place where most everyone has been at one time or another: I believed in God, but I was mad at God.

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