CV NEWS FEED // CatholicVote President Brian Burch recently sat down with Hillbilly Elegy author, Catholic family man, and Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance for an interview. As part of CatholicVote’s 5 Questions series, we are publishing just a portion of their wide-ranging conversation below, edited slightly for clarity.
NOTE: Courtesy of the Napa Institute and EWTN the full interview of Brian Burch interviewing J.D. Vance may be viewed here.
Burch: J.D., you’re widely known as the bestselling author of your memoir, Hillbilly Elegy — now a Netflix movie produced by Ron Howard and starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close. Tell us about the book, why you wrote it and how has it been received.
Vance: At the time, I really just wanted to tell a story about people that I felt didn’t have stories told about them.
I’d heard people talk about the American dream. The problems people face in the Rust Belt. The decline of the industrial Midwest, and the fact that so many people felt like they couldn’t get ahead. And yet I felt like those problems were always discussed in a very academic way.
Like, I’m a big fan of Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart. It’s a very interesting book. It’s a very smart book. But Coming Apart is a book by a very sociologically-minded person about a very sociological problem. And I felt like people, if they actually wanted to really understand these problems, they needed to get a sense of what it actually looked like, what it actually felt like.
The American dream was this abstract thing that was interesting from the perspective of political science and sociology. But it was the story of my family. And so I thought that if I told a story about not just the problems that exist in the community, but about the people who were experiencing them — my mom, my sister, my grandma, my dad — others would actually gain an appreciation for these people as people. Instead of having maybe a fake sympathy or a certain amount of judgment, they would actually understand a little bit about where communities like mine actually came from.
And so I decided to write the book. It’s funny, you know, when I started to write the book, I didn’t think that many people would actually read it. So the book came out, I think in June of 2016. That November we had Thanksgiving dinner, and my Uncle Jimmy — who really is the source of so many of the family stories that are in the book, because he’s the oldest of my mom’s siblings –my Uncle Jimmy was talking about how the book had sort of completely blown away his expectations.
And he said: “You know, I kind of wish you hadn’t put some of these family stories in their … aired the family’s dirty laundry in this book.” And I said: “Well, Uncle Jimmy, you gave me all these stories… So it’s really your fault.”
“Well, yeah,,” he said. “I gave you all these stories, but I didn’t think anybody would actually read it!”
And that’s sort of how a lot of us reacted to the book. And that’s why I think it was so open and so raw and so honest. I didn’t think anybody would actually read it. And if I had known that so many people would read it, I probably wouldn’t have written the same book.
Burch: You were raised a nondenominational Christian, and I understand you were never baptized. You’ve also said you went through an angry atheist phase. But in 2013, you took the plunge and were received into the Catholic Church. Tell us about that journey.
Vance: Well, first, it’s good to be home, and I do think the Catholic Church is my home.
…There are all these ways that I could over-intellectualize the way that I became a Catholic. I mean, the simple fact is I think that Christianity, broadly speaking, answered important questions about character and virtue which my elite educational credentials were not answering for me.
I think that at Yale Law School, where I went to law school, it’s all about get the best degree, go to the best school, get the best job. And these things weren’t making me a good person.
But Christianity was asking me to ask much more important questions, like how do you treat this girl that you’ve fallen in love with? The girl that I eventually married. How do you be a good person? How do you eventually become a good father?
That, to me, was a fundamentally Christian worldview. And so that led me back to Christianity writ large. But why didn’t I become a Catholic? I mean, there are all these things that I could point to, but one I really like: The Catholic Church was just really old. I felt like the modern world was constantly in flux. The things that you believed ten years ago were no longer even acceptable to believe.
I like the fact that I felt like [The Church] had stood really strong on some of the core moral issues. You know, I’m a very pro-life person. I’ve been pro-life since I was 14 years old. But I think anybody who’s looked at the history of the American Christian conservative movement would give a lot of credit to the Catholic Church for pushing that movement in a more pro-life direction, especially in the 1970s.
…A lot of the people who were really, really influential to me as I thought about how to be a good Christian in this new era of my life were Catholics. And just a lot of really good people who took their faith very seriously were Catholics. And it felt like a natural home for me.
Burch: You’re not a typical Republican. You’ve been highly critical of the so-called establishment, including Republicans. You recently said: “We need fighters who are actually going to fight to rebuild this country, to punish the companies and elites who are destroying it.” Who are these elites and what needs to be done?
Vance: I think it was Justice Holmes who said about pornography: “You know when you see it.” And I think everybody knows the elite when they see it.
It’s the people who went to the right schools. They say the right things. They have the right credentials, and they ultimately have most of the control over how our society operates.
And my biggest concern as a Republican who thinks about how to solve big problems that exists in our society is I think that our movement, the conservative movement, the Republican Party … is we have to recognize the fundamental truth of American public life for conservatives today — and I think Catholic conservatives especially…
We have lost every significant institution in this country.
It is a stark fact, but it’s true. We’ve lost the universities, we’ve lost the media, we’ve lost the technology sector. We’ve lost Wall Street. We’ve lost our biggest businesses. You see this in any number of ways. But the simple fact is that the biggest institutions, whether in the private or the public sector, are actively hostile to some of our values.
[I have] a friend in Middletown, Ohio, which is where I grew up, a middle class guy. He has five kids. He supports his family on this middle class wage. And he nearly lost his job because he posted something on Facebook that somebody didn’t like. And some of his Facebook “friends” ganged up on him, called his employer, said this person is offensive, is cancelable, and tried to get him fired from his job.
Now, in that world, we have to rethink what our priorities are and how we actually accomplish our vision of society. And I unfortunately think that the natural instincts that we have in this moment is the classic principles that conservatives rely on, things that I don’t disagree with: Limited government. We want lower taxes. We want all these things that really matter.
But if you’re lowering the taxes of the companies, that then take their lower tax revenue and fund anti-American protest movements that destroy our cities … or if they send literature into our schools that are teaching our children that they’re bad people or that their country is fundamentally a bad place … does that actually make sense anymore?
And I think the answer is “No.” We are not in a world where we find ourselves on the side of businesses and we need to acknowledge that fact.
The most stark and obvious example of this was in 2018, I think maybe 2017.
Then- Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, in arguing against abortion restrictions in Georgia, said these restrictions are bad for business. And her argument was pretty straightforward. And honestly, it was true.
Her argument was if we passed these abortion restrictions, businesses are going to pull money, jobs and investment capital out of our state.
Now, I disagree with her values, but she was right. Georgia suffers. Ohio suffers. A lot of states suffer from abortion restrictions because the business community is actively pro-abortion in this country. What do we do with that fact?
If our answer is to continue to give more power to the business community that’s combating our values, what we’re doing is sacrificing the life of the unborn and our future on the altar of these companies.
Burch: You recently created a stir by criticizing politicians running the country who do not have a personal, indirect stake, as you put it, in improving because they do not have children. You specifically called out future Democratic Party presidential aspirants, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Cory Booker. You said if you don’t have as much of an investment in the future of this country, maybe you shouldn’t get nearly the same voice. What do you mean by that?
Vance: …I got in trouble for that one… Look, my basic view is that if the Republican Party, if the conservative movement stands for anything — and I’m running as a politician trying to advocate for what we should stand for — the number one thing that we should be is pro-babies and pro-families. That’s what this whole thing is all about.
We have, I believe, a civilizational crisis in this country, where we have unhealthy families, we have families falling apart, we have the rise of childhood trauma. And even among healthy, intact families, they’re not having enough kids such that we’re going to have a long-term future in this country.
The Declaration of Independence [mentions] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If you don’t have babies, if you don’t have life, and you do not have a future country.
And we have to face this fact.
…So many of the most miserable and unhappy people in our media and in our public life are people without kids. And I think that they were trained to chase credentials, to chase degrees, to chase money when the thing that is ultimately going to give you the most fulfillment in life is your family.
Now, I want to be clear here. I know a lot of people who do not have children, and my goal here is not to criticize people, you know, who haven’t found the right person. Or they’ve chosen a life of celibacy for medical reasons, or they’re unable to have kids.
My goal here is not to criticize every single person who doesn’t have children. My goal is to point out a very simple fact that it’s one thing to have a society where some people don’t have kids. It’s another thing to build an entire political movement that is explicitly anti-child and anti-family.
And that’s what the Left in this country is. It is anti-child and anti-family.
Just one example: One of the politicians that I criticize is [Alexandria Ocasio Cortez]. Now AOC, it’s one thing, you know, OK, maybe hasn’t found the right person, whatever the case may be. But AOC has said, basically, if you look at her public remarks on this, that it’s immoral to have children because of climate change concerns.
Let’s just be direct: This is a sociopathic attitude towards families. And I think somebody just has to point this out and it’s a little bit weird now.
Pope Francis called this out in Europe and he himself got in a lot of trouble because when Theresa May was the prime minister of the United Kingdom, the U.K., France, Germany, Japan, I believe, and a couple of other countries — none of their leaders had children!
What does it say about our civilization that so many of our leaders don’t have kids? What does it say about the incentives that are built into the Democrats’ entire movement, that they reward the young people who don’t have families instead of the young people who do? I think it’s just pretty sick. Let’s be honest. It’s pretty sick and it suggests something’s pretty broken.
Burch: Most Catholics are familiar with what’s been termed the “culture war.” Sure, that’s been largely defined as the belief that the insights of our Catholic Church grounded in science and natural law on questions such as abortion, marriage and religious liberty, must be defended for both the good of persons and of society as a whole. You’ve described the culture war as “class war.” What do you mean by that?
Vance: There are two ways in which I think that the culture war is a class war. The first and the most obvious is that … the most socially conservative demographics in both the Republican and the Democratic Party are the working- and middle-class people. So for the Democrats, for example, the only pro-life constituency within the Democratic Party are middle-class black Americans.
You talk to people in elite circles, and very often if you’re at a Republican function … you will hear people say, “I am fiscally conservative, but I’m socially liberal.” But you talk to my family or you talk to most of the grassroots voters that are voting for the GOP, they frankly do not care whether Amazon pays a 12 percent tax rate or a seven percent tax rate.
What they care about is that we protect the life of the unborn. And so many of our middle-class people are more focused on the social and cultural issues than on the economic issues. So the first part is just that if we would actually represent and respect the middle- and working-class voters who make up our party, we have to be willing to represent their cultural values.
…But the second thing is that we have this weird conceit, I think, among conservative leaders that the culture war just happens at the level of social and cultural relations. We think that it’s all about social pressure. Why are people afraid to say they’re pro-life? Why are people so afraid to say that they’re pro-marriage? It’s because it’s sort of socially unconventional or unacceptable to say.
But that is a naive viewpoint, given how crazy corporate America has gotten, because there are real economic and financial penalties for being a social conservative in this country. It’s as simple as that. If you utter socially conservative viewpoints, if you don’t want to bake a cake that has viewpoints that you don’t agree with, if you post something on your Facebook as a middle-class Ohioan that the mob doesn’t like, it’s not just that they’ll pressure you, it’s that they’ll punish you economically.
And unless we wake up in this movement and recognize that our enemies are fighting us, not just with cultural pressure, but with economic pressure, we’re going to lose the culture war because they’re fighting on all fronts.
…To go back to something Pope Leo XIII said in the famous encyclical Rerum Novarum, the economy exists to serve the human person. The human person does not exist to serve the economy. And I think it’s the fundamental insight.
There there are all kinds of disagreements that we can have about the specific policies, but I think oftentimes when we talk about economic policy, we talk about it in a way as if the focus of it, the overall goal of it is not to maximize human welfare or life and happiness, but it’s to maximize one very abstract economic indicator.
And I think that’s what, if anything, “common good conservatism” is a pushback against.
Let’s focus. Look, we want to have disagreements on policy. We don’t have to discard important principles, but we need to respect that. A given thing might reduce the GDP by zero-point-one percent, but might still be a good idea because it’s good for our families and it’s good for our children. That’s common good conservatism.
Just to take one very basic example: I think that we need to do something about the technology sector in this country. We need to do something about the fact that if you are a seven-year-old boy or a 12-year-old boy, you can go on the Internet in this country and access the most ridiculous and absurd filth known to man.
Now what if we, for example — a policy that I support — absolutely ban pornography for minors again? There are people in our movement who would say: “Well, what about the coders who produce the Web services that send that pornography to people? What about all of the people who are generating that pornography? They have good jobs. Fundamentally, what we should be focused on is the freedom of the pornographer, not the virtue of our children.”
That is an argument that’s rooted in economics first. And my argument is we should be rooted in people first.
Ban the pornography for underage kids, get it out of our communities. That’s just one example.
The question about what do we do about the technology sector? My view is that we should break up Big Tech. I think that so long as these companies are so powerful, it makes it impossible for normal Americans to have a real stake in their society because their voices are always going to be censored by these hyper-powerful technology companies.
Now other people may disagree. I’ve had conversations with people who think the better solution is to have better private investment in some of the competitors to the big technology sector. That’s a totally valid viewpoint. Let’s disagree. Let’s argue about it. Let’s come to some agreement on what we do about this stuff.
But the fundamental premise is we should be doing what’s best, not for our GDP, not for some economic abstraction, but for the people who live in this country and the children who depend on it.