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J.D. Vance Becomes Catholic

Exclusive interview with 'Hillbilly Elegy' author, who was baptized and confirmed today

I’ve been in Cincinnati, Ohio, for a special reason this weekend: my friend J.D. Vance was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. This has been a long journey for him. He was officially brought into the Catholic faith by Father Henry Stephan, a Dominican priest, at St. Gertrude Priory. Here’s a short interview I did with J.D. about his spiritual life, and the road to Catholicism:

Why Catholicism? Why now?

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 two 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.

First communion

To what extent do you expect your Catholic faith to guide your views on public policy?

My views on public policy and what the optimal state should look like are pretty aligned with Catholic social teaching. That was one of the things that drew me to the Catholic Church. I saw a real overlap between what I would like to see and what the Catholic Church would like to see. I hope my faith makes me more compassionate and to identify with people who are struggling. But my politics have been pretty consistent over the past few years. I think the Republican Party has been too long a partnership between social conservatives and market libertarians, and I don’t think social conservatives have benefited too much from that partnership. Part of social conservatism’s challenge for viability in the 21st century is that it can’t just be about issues like abortion, but it has to have a broader vision of political economy, and the common good.

What are the chief spiritual dangers you perceive for committed Christians in political life in the current moment?

At a fundamental level, being in public life is in part a popularity contest. When you’re trying to do things that make you liked by as many people as possible, you’re not likely to do things that are consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. I’m a Christian, and a conservative, and a Republican, so I have definite views about what that means. But you have to be humble, and realize that politics are essentially a temporal game. …

I know a lot of people are very critical of how a majority of self-described Christians have approached Trump. To me, fundamentally the issue that most Christians confront is, which of these two political parties is the least offensive to my faith? When that’s the question, the answer is almost always going to be unsatisfactory. I am definitely critical of the way some Evangelicals have reacted to the president. But I also know that most of them aren’t doing it because they are sycophants. They’re doing it because they don’t think they have a better option.

Ron Howard wrapped up filming last week on the “Hillbilly Elegy” movie. Millions more people will be introduced through that movie to your personal pilgrimage from your hardscrabble childhood to the present day. Is there a spiritual way to interpret the “Hillbilly Elegy” narrative?

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. 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.

It’s my sense that being a good person is actually pretty hard. Recognizing that grace works over the long haul is liberating, but also consistent with the way I’ve seen my own life change, and the lives of people I’ve known change. One thing I’ve had trouble relating to about some corners of Christianity is this idea that transformation is easy, and it happens whenever you say a prayer. That’s not consistent with how I’ve seen people struggle, and improve, and change.

Here’s the world’s newest baptized and confirmed Catholic, with the priest who baptized and received him:

J.D. and Father Henry

The Dominicans at St. Gertrude Priory were very nice to Your Working Boy. Some of them read this blog (hi fratres!). Just before this group pic, Father Henry joked that everything had worked according to plan, and now they were going to surround me and compel me to return to Catholicism on the spot. I stood ready to appeal to the Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II to send a detachment of spiritual Cossacks to rescue me if necessary, but it turned out we just had a good laugh and took a picture:

It was a great weekend, and I am grateful to God for the friendship of J.D. Vance. I gave him a St. Benedict medal from the Tyniec monastery as a gift.

UPDATE: Slightly altered a line in the piece above at JDV’s request, to make a point more clear.