On January 21, 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court opened the gates for a flood of corporate money into our political system. By reversing decades of campaign finance law with the landmark ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and through related changes in campaign finance laws, we have deeply undermined American democracy.
A broad spectrum of faith traditions share religious teachings that recognize each person as a gift of the Creator and emphasize the importance of the essential humanity of every person. These teachings have prompted people of faith to take an active part in movements for civil rights, especially voting rights for people of color and women. Every person, our shared teachings tell us, should be able to contribute his or her ideas and concerns to the shaping of our democratic government and the policies it adopts.
Pope Francis frequently comments about the corruptive influence of money. “We have created new idols; the worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal,” said Pope Francis I in a speech to the Vatican on May 16, 2013. In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
The Citizens United ruling and related cases tipped the playing field towards the super wealthy. To succeed, candidates in competitive races must spend more time seeking and attending to very wealthy donors, rather than talking to constituents or fundraising from smaller dollar donors. There are many examples where money appears to speak more loudly than the voices of the electorate – often on issues on which the faith community advocates change. One does not need to look very far on a few very important issues including those FAN addresses -- immigration reform, climate change and gun safety -- to see how money influences policy decisions.
Among these examples:
- Ending gun violence. Although over 90% of the American public appears to support some controls on the sale of guns –such a universal requirement for background checks – Congress has been unable to take action on the issue. We strongly suspect the role of potential spending on “independent” ads by associations and businesses that oppose such laws.
- Federal immigration policy may be the latest victim of corporations influencing policies to grow profit margins to the detriment of community members and our democratic system. For-profit companies providing detention services to the federal government, such as the two largest providers Geo Group (Geo) and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), have been covertly maneuvering and deceiving the public about their political involvement, undermines the democratic process and financially rewards policy makers for supporting increased detention of immigrants and escalated militarization of the southern border. When elected officials pay closer attention to corporations than to voters, our entire system of democracy is undermined and immigrants pay the ultimate price: their liberty.
- Military hardware vs. human needs. Similarly, investments and potential investments by large corporations that benefit from purchases of military hardware continue to push Congress away from decreases in the military budget, even as the country approaches a post-war period. Though we collect and re-tell stories of the needs in our communities, these real stories seem to have much less impact than the claims of military contractors.
For People of faith we need to understand the connection between the immediate issues – the jobs that aren’t being created, the food pantry that is running out of food, the clinic that can’t afford supplies, the Head Start class that can’t enroll needed children - and the integrity of our democratic system. We have seen the effect of the corruptive influence of money on policy discussions. Another area where we have seen the corruptive effect of unlimited spending to buy influence is in the protection of Gods wondrous and beautiful creation. As people of faith our spiritual traditions teach us to love and care for all of creation. The great Franciscan theologian St Bonaventure taught us that God is present in all of creation and to love God we need to love and care for all that God loves and god loves all creation. If we destroy creation we destroy a part of God. Yet folks who call themselves people of faith are spending hundreds of millions of dollars funding groups that are working to delay policies and regulations aimed at stopping climate change. In 2011 and 2012 alone, Koch Industries Public Sector LLC, the lobbying arm of Koch Industries, advocated for the Energy Tax Prevention Act, which would have rolled back the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could regulate greenhouse gases. Pope Francis said: “We are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation. The implications of living in a horizontal manner [is that] we have moved away from God, we no longer read His signs.”
As people of faith, we must ask what our priorities are as we move forward. Will we continue to allow a select few to overwhelm the voices of the many, or will we follow Biblical precedent and rally against abuses of economic wealth and power that sow injustice for the people? Will we settle for leaders who spend billions to divide us, or will we tell them that money would be much better spent to rebuild our communities, feed the hungry, and build schools? People of faith need to step up to restore the heart of democracy – to claim it as an essential element of who we are as a people, and to work to protect it. People of faith, like everyone else, need to know that change is possible in this area and that there are things we can do.