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Catholic and Conservative:
A Conversation with
Ramesh Ponnuru

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, the venerable magazine of conservative politics founded by William F. Buckley, Jr., in 1955.

Ponnuru grew up in Kansas City and graduated summa cum laude from Princeton’s history department. He has published articles in numerous newspapers including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Newsday, and the New York Post. He has also written for First Things, Policy Review, The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, Reason, and other publications.

He is a regular guest on television programs, including CNN’s "Inside Politics," NBC’s "The McLaughlin Group," MSNBC’s "Buchanan & Press" and "Donahue," CNBC’s "Kudlow & Cramer," PBS’s "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," CSPAN’s "Washington Journal," Comedy Central’s "Politically Incorrect," Fox News, and NPR’s "Morning Edition."

Ponnuru lives in Washington D.C. with his wife April, a policy adviser to the Majority Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives.

IgnatiusInsight.com spoke with Ponnuru about his recent conversion to Catholicism, the current state of politics in the United States, and the upcoming presidential election.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You recently entered the Catholic Church. What was your religious background and what led you to become Catholic? Were you surprised by anything as you journeyed toward becoming Catholic?

Ponnuru: My father is Hindu, my mother Lutheran. I was raised without much religious instruction, except that of example. The process by which the Church drew me to her was long. It would be presumptuous for me to say that I myself entirely understood how the Holy Spirit worked here. To summarize the intellectual aspect of the process: I first came to see that many of the virtues the Church inculcates were good for people, and then to see that they were good for people because this was the way we were meant to live--and so forth until I saw that I now believed the Church’s claims for itself to be true.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You’ve been a senior editor for National Review for several years. Have you always been politically conservative? Who or what had the most influence in shaping and informing your political views?

Ponnuru: When I first became interested in politics, in high school, I tended toward liberalism. But I was cured of that well before I became an adult. Richard Nadler, who gave me my start as a columnist for a conservative newspaper in Kansas City, was a great influence on me. So was my reading of The Economist, National Review, and various books about the Vietnam war.

IgnatiusInsight.com: The tension between Church and state seems to be intensifying, especially when one considers both older issues (abortion), more recent issues (euthanasia), and current ones ("gay marriage," stem-cell research). In your opinion, what are some effective ways for Catholics to be involved in the political realm and make a difference in these important areas?

Ponnuru: Catholics should become informed about these issues, about Church teaching on them, and about the best arguments on both sides. And they should be able, e.g., to explain why opposition to the intentional destruction of innocent human life is binding on the consciences of all--including non-Catholics.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What other areas of tension or conflict are coming up on the horizon that people might not yet be aware of?

Ponnuru: It is possible that in years to come we are going to have to grapple with polygamy, the ethics of cloning-to-create-babies, and age-of-consent laws regarding sexual activity.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you think that "gay marriage" will be largely accepted in Western society in, say, ten years? Why or why not?

Ponnuru: I suspect so, for many reasons. A belief in the biological givenness, and immutability, of homosexuality; a privatized understanding of marriage; an instrumentalized view of the purpose of sexual activity; a desire not to persecute or even offend homosexuals; hostility to governmental attempts to promote morality: All of these are very widespread (in some cases, as in the desire not to persecute, rightly so).

IgnatiusInsight.com: You’ve written several articles on stem-cell research. What misconceptions do many Americans have about stem-cell research and what do you think the future holds for stem-cell research?

Ponnuru: Immortality is popular, and suffering rather less so. So long as research is believed to promise to reduce suffering and prolong life, many people are going to find that prospect more compelling than adherence to moral norms they dimly understand. So we may be dealing with this and similar issues for a long time to come.

There are more misconceptions than facts in this debate. In the second presidential debate, John Kerry made it sound as though there were hundreds of thousands of human embryos available for research if only the federal government would fund it. This does not appear to be true. A recent study suggests that most of the frozen embryos have been deliberately frozen by their parents, who have chosen not to exercise the option, which they are usually given, to destroy those embryos or to donate them to research. Either because they want to be able to use those embryos in future pregnancies or because they can’t bear the thought of destroying them, they are paying to keep them stored. Kerry would have to seize them over their parents’ wishes if he wanted to use them for federally funded research.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You recently wrote that President Bush, in his speech at the Republican National Convention, " proposed a practical plan to end American liberalism." How so?

Ponnuru: We are living in a time of economic transition to what has often been called a post-industrial society. Liberalism exploits the insecurities that attend that transition. The welfare state will provide people with security. In his convention speech, Bush offered an alternative: the security of ownership. That concept has great promise with regard to both health care and retirement.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What do you think are President Bush’s biggest strengths? Weaknesses?

Ponnuru: Bush’s instincts, and especially his moral instincts, are good. But his administration has been secretive, unwilling or unable to communicate its thoughts, stubborn on some points and unimaginative on others.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What do you think are Senator John Kerry’s biggest strengths? Weaknesses?

Ponnuru: Kerry is an intelligent man who seems to have given some thought to the challenges facing the United States and how to address them. But his moral vanity is hard to overlook, and his views on abortion and embryonic human beings license barbarism.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Care to make a prediction about the presidential election?

Ponnuru: Bush wins, with the first absolute majority any presidential candidate has received since his father got one sixteen years ago.

Recent Articles by Ramesh Ponnuru

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