Mitt Romney's latest TV ad, featuring Blessed John Paul II and Lech Wałęsa, got one thing right. The former pope and son of Poland did say "Be not afraid" in 1979.
Beyond that, however, the ad distorts reality in a number of ways. Romney and his aides should recall another famous phrase of the former pope: "Freedom must always be grounded in truth." In fact, the entire thrust of the Solidarność movement was encapsulated in its untiring demand for "life in truth."
Romney's ad, on the other hand, contains a number of untruths.
Romney's ad falsely claims the endorsement of Lech Wałęsa, the heroic leader of the 10 million strong Solidarność movement, which played a major role in toppling Communism in Europe. According to the Polish news outlet Dziennik, Wałęsa explicitly denied endorsing Romney after their meeting. Poland's most widely circulated paper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that Wałęsa stated: "We are similar to each other, we look for solutions in a very similar manner. The visit allowed me to gain a sense of the direction in which the USA will go if Romney wins. But I am not giving any endorsement, it is not appropriate; one is not allowed to interfere in internal affairs..." Wałęsa made a statement to the same effect in a Polish television interview
The ad's disregard for truth goes beyond ignoring Wałęsa's words. Romney, the staunch adversary of unions in his business and political careers, is cynically attempting to co-opt Wałęsa's and Solidarnosc"s legacy, which is built upon the demand for free and powerful labor unions.
Why then did Poland's former president meet with Romney? Some Polish commentators have speculated that he did it for his own gain. According to Wałęsa, he wanted to learn more about Romney's stances on various issues. Even if the gregarious Wałęsa publically praised Romney, how does one possibly square Wałęsa's support for Occupy Wall Street with Romney's decidedly pro-Wall Street stance and his background as a well-heeled financier? And what about his support for his vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which has nothing in common with solidarity and creates massive budget cuts that will harm the poor?
The Solidarność union's current leadership was less cordial than Wałęsa. The union issued a statement disavowing any connection to the meeting with Romney. The statement also criticized Romney's anti-union stance and expressed solidarity with besieged unions in the U.S.
Romney's ad likewise takes John Paul II's exhortation "Be not afraid" out of context, trivializing the pope's words and the plight of Poles under Communism. The insinuation is clear. Americans need to realize their freedom of religion is under attack by President Obama, just as Poles' faced an assault against religion by the Communists. The comparison, however, falls flat on its face.
Although the Roman Catholic church remained stronger there than in other Communist countries, thousands of priests, nuns and lay believers were persecuted because of their faith in Poland. Poles of all persuasions were forced to put a gag in their mouths, as the Polish intellectual Adam Michnik put it, and suppress their convictions.
Those who did not, such as Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, who was killed by the Communist Secret Police, suffered the consequences. According to the renowned Polish historian Andrzej Paczkowski, Poles "suffered every form of Stalinist terror: the hunt for spies, dekulakization, anticlericalism, national and ethnic 'cleansing,' the Great Purge, the purges of border regions ... forced labor, the execution of prisoners of war, and mass deportations of groups of people labeled 'socially dangerous elements.'"
Most churches did remain open, and Poles attended mass regularly, especially during the Solidarność years. However, the regime closed all Catholic theology deparments save one, the Catholic University of Lublin. No religiously-based schools existed for the mostly Catholic children to attend, and discussion of faith was banned from schools. Church properties were confiscated, including hospitals, orphanages and monasteries
When the Primate of Poland Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński refused to allow the Communist party leaders to choose bishops, he was thrown in jail for three years.
Thus, John Paul II felt compelled to tell his compatriots "Be not afraid."
In the U.S. today, every religious person has the legally protected right to worship as she or he sees fit without the fear of persecution. Not a single Catholic or Protestant Christian -- the primary targets of Romney's ad -- has been jailed, tortured or killed by the American government because of their religious beliefs. Americans also have the legally protected right to criticize their leaders. This includes those who do not agree with President Obama's health care mandate. No one has been hunted down and interred by the administration for doing so.
Catholic hospitals treat one out of every six patients in the U.S. today. More than 220 Catholic colleges and universities educate young adults, deepening their appreciation of the Roman Catholic tradition. Most of these institutions receive substantial federal dollars. Catholic schools have been exemplary in providing quality education, especially in inner-cities where public schools often fail the poor and working class.
Moreover, the Obama administration allocated a great deal of federal stimulus money to faith-based charities. In 2010 Catholic Charities alone received about $2.9 billion from the federal government, 62 percent of its overall budget. Many other faith-based institutions rely heavily on government funds to keep their operations running. Does this look like the "war on religion" that the Romney ad ascribes to Barack Obama? On the other hand, the Ryan budget, endorsed by Romney, will in fact result in massive cuts to this funding of faith-based efforts to assist the poor in solidarity.
Poles should be outraged by Romney's implicit comparison between the situation of religious believers in Poland under Communism and that of Americans today. Even if one does not agree with the Obama administration's controversial decision to require health care plans to cover contraception, one need not liken it to religious persecution. Those who disagree should use rational arguments, not fear-mongering, to persuade the Obama administration that it has taken the wrong course.
If Romney truly embodied the spirit of solidarity, which "turns toward all and against no one" according to the of Solidarność chaplain Fr. Józef Tischner, he would not attack Obama. Rather, he would convince Americans that his social policies will be founded on solidarity if he becomes the next president. As Tischner stated in his book "Etyka solidarnośći," Paul's Letter to the Galatians expresses the ethic of solidarity in a nutshell: "carry one another's burdens"
In a homily in Poland in 1999, John Paul II added that solidarity requires fulfilling the economic rights of the poor, which "cannot be put on hold until tomorrow." The pontiff believed these rights cannot be fulfilled by market mechanisms alone. Government must play a key role in protecting the rights of the poor, he argued. Meanwhile, Romney and Ryan -- a professed Catholic -- espouse the libertarian "government is the problem" mantra, which conflicts with Catholic social teaching.
We invite Gov. Romney and vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan to be faithful to the real values of Solidarność. First among them is life in truth. And let's not forget that Solidarność fought for unions and the rights of workers, not the right of the rich to pay lower taxes than the working class! As Pope John Paul II stated in his encylical on human labor, every Christian is obligated to defend workers' rights, as a sign of "fidelity to Christ," who "himself was a man of work, a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth."