WASHINGTON — The same week that President Obama's health regulations go into effect, forcing people of faith to violate their conscience or shut their doors, Mitt Romney was preaching the gospel of economic and religious freedom in Poland and Israel.
By that juxtaposition, the contrast in presidential candidates could not be starker.
Romney's recent tour, the reporting of which has tended to focus on his "gaffes" — noting, for instance, that economic culture matters when it comes to a nation's prosperity and his questioning of security at the London Olympics — has provided a far more-important glimpse of how, as president, he would view and reward Europe.
His speeches and comments in both Poland and Israel were testaments to the strength of U.S. alliances based on shared economic principles, as well as a rebuke to Obama's perceived lack of conviction regarding same. Romney pounded his free-market message by noting Poland's heroic struggle for freedom against an oppressive government. He made clear the point that individual freedom rather than government largesse had created one of the strongest economies in Europe.
"Your nation has moved from a state monopoly over the economy, price controls and severe trade restrictions to a culture of entrepreneurship, greater fiscal responsibility and international trade," said Romney.
"When economists speak of Poland today, it is not to lament chronic problems but to describe how this nation empowered the individual, lifted the heavy hand of government and became the fastest-growing economy in all of Europe."
Romney pointedly spoke of the "false promise of a government-dominated economy," the importance of stimulating innovation, attracting investment, expanding trade and living within means. He also employed a few of those dog whistles that journalists are keen to hear, though some may have whistled right over their heads.
They surely landed as intended on the ears of Catholic voters, however. Romney remembered Pope John Paul II in his homeland, mentioning him as the "pope from Galilee," and also via a reference to the title of a famous biography of the pope, "Witness to Hope."
No accidental contrast, that, few countries have understood and experienced hope and change as Poland has.
Romney also liberally sprinkled terms that correspond to two of the most important Catholic social justice principles: subsidiarity and solidarity.
Subsidiarity, in addition to being one of the features of federalism, also refers to the theological belief that nothing should be done by a larger, more complex organization that can be accomplished as well by a smaller, simpler organization. As developed by German theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning, the principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual and emphasizes the importance of small institutions from the family to the church to labor unions.
Inasmuch as the welfare state is an instrument of centralized government, it is in conflict not only with personal freedom, but also with Catholic teaching, as John Paul II noted in his 1991 encyclical "Centesimus Annus." He wrote that the intervention of the state deprived society of its responsibility, which "leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending."
All of this history and understanding were bound up in Romney's few, carefully selected words — and Catholic voters surely heard them. They also would have heard "solidarity," which resonates among America's working-class Catholics who were inspired by Poland's labor-led uprising in the 1980s. In what can only be viewed as a crowning achievement, Romney was endorsed by Poland's iconic labor leader and former president, Lech Walesa.
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