December 9, 2008
One associates Louisiana politics with many exotic things, but Asian Catholic Republicans are not among them. Now there are two. The first is Bobby Jindal, born to Indian immigrants, who abandoned the Hinduism of his youth and converted to Catholicism. In 2007, he became the first Indian-American governor in the nation's history. Then, over the weekend, Joseph (Anh) Cao defeated the disgraced William Jefferson to become the nation's first congressman of Vietnamese antecedents. Before becoming a lawyer, he spent some time in a Jesuit seminary studying to be a priest.
Jindal and Cao both deserve to be considered Catholic intellectuals, but there the resemblance ends. A graduate of Brown University and a Rhodes Scholar, Jindal quickly established himself as a culture warrior. Here he is writing on "Atheism's Gods" in the Catholic apologetic magazine This Rock in 1995:
The wave of political correctness, which has affected universities at every level, has also infected religious and philosophical thought. Whereas Western universities once existed to train clergymen and educate others in the fundamentals of the Christian faith, modern centers of higher learning are much more secular and skeptical toward anything remotely religious.
Currently being touted as presidential material, Jindal is a favorite of the social conservative elite.
Cao, by contrast, appears to be anything but a social conservative ideologue. According to Adam Nagourney's profile in today's NTY, he has spent most of his adult life as a political independent--an existential choice perhaps related to his fondness for Camus and Dostoevsky. While studying to be a priest he worked with the poor in Mexico and in Vietnamese refugee camps in Hong Kong, then decided to work for social change via politics, helping his community as a lawyer in post-Katrina New Orleans. "Politics and religious life," he told Nagourney, "don't mix."
If anything, Cao seems most akin to fellow freshman congressman-elect Tom Perriello (D-Va), a "common good" Catholic who has spent much of his legal career working for international nonprofits dedicated to improving the lot of the least among us. It will be interesting to see how Cao fares in the House Republican conference.
(Originally published at Spiritual Politics.)