When I received the latest issue of The American Conservative the other day one article in particular caught my attention, an interview with Nebraska congressman Jeff Fortenberry. It caught my eye because I had been friends with the congressman’s wife, Celeste, when I lived in Virginia. I had heard through the grapevine that she had married a man who had been elected to Congress, but had heard nothing since.
I had last seen her in 1994, when I first moved to Ohio and visited her in Steubenville, where she was living and working as a nanny to the children of Scott and Kimberly Hahn. After going out for lunch with her that was also the occasion of my only lengthy conversation with Dr Hahn. He is a likeable guy, and at that time he was sound on Catholic social teaching, which I had never heard him address publicly. I was disappointed to learn recently that his wife was deeply involved in the Republican Party in their county, and that they had supported Rick Santorum for president.
Anyway I read Rod Dreher’s interview with Congressman Fortenberry, which he of course titled “Crunchy Congressman”. Mr Dreher has been milking that term for ten years now, sounding, to switch metaphors, like a one-note Neil Young guitar solo, only without the imagination and passion that Mr Young brings to his craft.
But as I read the interview I was impressed; Mr Fortenberry seemed like the first Catholic politician I had ever seen who had more than a superficial acquaintance with the Church’s social teaching, and the only Republican one who used the word “subsidiarity” not as a cloak for individualistic market ideology but as it was meant to be used: to mean localism, smallness, and an ethos of freedom within a broader framework of solidarity. He favored policies that encouraged small farms and ones that helped aspiring farmers to buy land and get started, and otherwise seemed to have a genuine vision of a well ordered society.
I was pretty inspired by his words, and found him on Facebook. I sent a message complimenting him on the interview and asking him about foreign policy and immigration, which Mr Dreher did not touch on and which are the two issues where a Republican Catholic is likely to allow nationalism to trump faith.
He didn’t respond.
I googled his name and found a site that chronicles the votes and positions of elected officials.
And was I disappointed.
He voted for the Ryan budget, which slashes social programs and leaves military spending untouched, and which cuts taxes for the wealthy while raising them for the poorest Americans. He voted for the war in Iraq and for the Patriot Act. He voted for warrantless wiretapping and other post 9/11 assaults on our freedoms. He rated a perfect rating by an anti-immigration organization and voted for fences along the Mexican border. (To his credit, he also has a perfect antiabortion voting record).
In other words, however eloquent and visionary he sounded in the interview, when it came down to voting his record was pure Right Republican, and pure nationalist.
Why did this surprise me? I long ago concluded that Rod Dreher’s “crunchy” was a con, a superficial cover for a neoconservative core. So why would I expect anything more from someone he publicly praises?
Or perhaps in spite of his record Congressman Fortenberry is evolving, growing more into harmony with the teachings of the Church?
I certainly hope and pray this is the case.