Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
J.D. Vance, the conservative author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, the well-timed 2016 memoir about a young white man’s rise from poverty to Yale Law School and career success, has become a Catholic.
Rod Dreher announced Vance’s conversion on his popular American Conservative blog yesterday.
During an interview with Dreher, Vance said he was drawn to the Catholic faith by the example of Catholics he admired, and by Church social teaching.
Here’s a portion of the interview:
Dreher: Why Catholicism? Why now?
Vance: I became persuaded over time that Catholicism was true. I was raised Christian, but never had a super-strong attachment to any denomination, and was never baptized. When I became more interested in faith, I started out with a clean slate, and looked at the church that appealed most to me intellectually.
But it’s too easy to intellectualize this. When I looked at the people who meant the most to me, they were Catholic. My uncle by marriage is a Catholic. Rene Girard is someone I only know by reading him, and he was Catholic. I’ve been reading and studying about it for three years, or even longer. It was time.
It probably would have happened sooner if the sex abuse crisis, or the newest version of it, hadn’t made a lot of headlines. It forced me to process the Church as a divine and a human institution, and what it would mean for my 2-year-old son. But I never really questioned over the past few years that I would become Catholic.
You chose St. Augustine as your patron saint. Why?
A couple of reasons. One, I was pretty moved by the Confessions. I’ve probably read it in bits and pieces twice over the past 15 or so years. There’s a chapter from The City of God that’s incredibly relevant now that I’m thinking about policy. There’s just a way that Augustine is an incredibly powerful advocate for the things that the Church believes.
And one of the subtexts about my return to Christianity is that I had come from a world that wasn’t super-intellectual about the Christian faith. I spend a lot of my time these days among a lot of intellectual people who aren’t Christian. Augustine gave me a way to understand Christian faith in a strongly intellectual way. I also went through an angry atheist phase. As someone who spent a lot of his life buying into the lie that you had to be stupid to be a Christian, Augustine really demonstrated in a moving way that that’s not true.
You know as well as anybody the kind of difficult condition the Catholic Church is in today, with the scandals, with uncertain leadership, and all the rest. Do you find the Catholic Church’s travails daunting?
I do in the short term, but one of the things I love about Catholicism is that it’s very old. I take a longer view. Are things more daunting than they were in the mid-19th century? In the Dark Ages? Is it as daunting as having a second pope at Avignon? I don’t think so. The hope of the Christian faith is not rooted in any short-term conquest of the material world, but in the fact that it is true, and over the long term, with various fits and starts, things will work out.
For those who haven’t read Hillbilly Elegy, here’s some background on a book that has helped Americans understand the problems of white rural America, and thus the particular appeal of Donald Trump’s campaign for president of the United States.
“These people — my people — are really struggling,” Vance said, during an earlier interview with Dreher back in 2016. “And there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries.”
The young author, then in his early thirties, became a thought leader as he explained the values, dreams and regrets of white working class America to U.S. elites, who had never given this community much thought—and still don’t. (Meanwhile, one 2019 study suggests that the recent focus at U.S universities on “white privilege” has actually made people less compassionate toward poor whites, while having no discernible impact on the status of white elites.)
Vance’s own family background highlights both the strengths and blind spots of white rural Americans who have struggled to keep pace with economic change.
His focus is on the need for self-help and community outreach. Uncle Sam can’t fix the learned behaviors that often trap parents, children and grandchildren in poverty.
‘I believe we hillbillies are the toughest god----ed people on this earth,’ he writes at the book’s conclusion. ‘But are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children? Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . . I don’t know what the answer is precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.’
For Vance, “home” was “an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember,” as he recalls in Hillbilly Elegy.
His mother, a licensed nurse who went through a slew of boyfriends and husbands, becomes a heroin addict.
His grandmother, “Mamaw,” who had her own troubles, gradually stabilizes her life and helps her grandson learn to accept responsibility for his own actions.
She also raises him to believe “that we live in the best and greatest country on earth. This fact gave meaning to my childhood.”
Vance finishes strong in high school, and is headed for Ohio State University. But after reassessing his ability to cover expenses, he signs up for the Marines first. The lessons he learns offer a wonderful portrait of the military’s success in transforming boys with similar family problems into thoughtful, effective men.
College and Yale Law School follow the Marines. As he retraces these years, Vance provides both a funny and harrowing reminder of the advantages enjoyed by students from stable, well-credentialed families.
But a more important contribution is his celebration of personal responsibility, an important antidote to the politics of grievance that define so much of American life.
“There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself,” he writes.
After he graduates from law school, Vance joined a Silicon Valley venture capital group before moving back to Ohio to be closer to his family.
But his memoir does not present the author as a self-made American, but a man who understands that he has much to be grateful for — a man who stays humble, as he works with his wife to overcome behaviors learned in childhood.
And in his interview with Dreher this weekend, Vance returns to what he sees as a life-long campaign to attain virtue.
“One of the things Hillbilly Elegy is about is a struggle to find stability in your own life, but also to become a good person when you didn’t have an easy upbringing,” Vance tells Dreher.
“That means being a good husband and a good father, and being capable enough to provide for your family.
“One of the most attractive things about Catholicism is that the concept of grace is not couched in terms of epiphany. It’s not like you receive grace and suddenly you go from being a bad person to being a good person. You’re constantly being worked on. I like that.”