Sen. Joe Biden gave a feisty speech last night. And, it wasn’t difficult to see from whom he inherited that Irish feistiness: His mother was in the hall and looked like she was ready to duke it out with John McCain and anyone else who would attack her son. The news anchors all announced, in one way or another, that in addition to being the Democrats’ principal attack dog, Biden is there to reach out to two constituencies, Catholics and labor. Pollsters show that these two groups backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries and remain reluctant to get on the Obama bandwagon.
But, Biden understands something that the pollsters do not: the way to win labor is by emphasizing his Catholicism, and the way to win Catholics is to articulate his beliefs about labor. "My parents taught us to live our faith, and to treasure our families. We learned the dignity of work, and we were told that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough," Biden told the assembled crowd last night, linking faith to family and both of them to the dignity of work. He elaborated this later in the speech, saying, "That’s how you come to believe, to the very core of your being, that work is more than a paycheck. It’s dignity. It’s respect. It’s about whether or not you can look your children in the eye and say: We’re going to be all right."
At first glance, these words are mere commonplaces, rhetorical flourishes designed to appeal to working-class voters. But, when Biden speaks about "the very core of your being," you know he is not relying on a pollster for what he is saying. Whatever else did or did not take from his Catholic high school education, the Church’s belief in the dignity of work, a central premise of papal social teaching since Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 -- that took. And, when read a second and a third time, Biden’s words appear defiantly counter-cultural.
In America’s spread eagle capitalist system, work is not more than a paycheck. The system treats us like cogs in a wheel. We are reduced to being homo economicus, our value, our sense of worth tied up precisely with the size of our paycheck. Our children are not taught to struggle and save. They are taught to escape via the glamorous lives portrayed in People magazine or the faux dramas of the inaptly named "reality tv." Respect comes not from work but from success, success in the sight of the world, success that allows you to go to fancy restaurants and wear fancy clothes.
In Joe Biden’s world, success comes from, as he put it, when "you can look your children in the eye and say: We’re going to be all right." In Biden’s world, faith, family and work are intimately linked: These are the touchstones of our identity, not our designer clothes or our flat screen tv’s. In Joe Biden’s world, unemployment robs a man or woman of the ability to provide for their family, it keeps a person from participating in God’s on-going work of creation. In short, unemployment is a sin and an economic system that puts corporate profits before full unemployment is not only unjust but unholy. Biden has touched a chord deeper than what most politicians mean when they talk about "values." He is touching the Imago Dei here, getting past mere questions of right and wrong and addressing what it is to be human and humane.
The Democrats’ failure to honor the inherent dignity of the unborn has rightly made Catholics skeptical of their seriousness when they talk about human dignity in other regards. As noted previously, the changes in their platform plank on abortion are a small step that moves them towards a more humane stance. And, Lord knows, I am not equating abortion and unemployment! But, there is a sense in which any affront to human dignity feeds all other affronts to human dignity. The Democrats appear hypocritical when they invoke human dignity regarding better health care for the aging but ignore the plight of the unborn and the Republicans appear equally hypocritical when they champion the right to life but defend an economic system that robs workers of their dignity.
The changes in the platform, the invitation to pro-life Sen. Bob Casey to address the convention, and the choice of Biden who supported the ban on partial birth abortion, all point to a Democrat Party that is altering its strident pro-abortion stance. Will the Republicans next week demonstrate a similar shift when it comes to the dignity of work?
Michael Sean Winters