The Common Good
May-June 2002

A Moment of Triumph

by Scott Harshbarger | May-June 2002

It takes real faith to make change happen.

The effort to end unlimited campaign contributions is a fundamental civil rights issue, a chance for people who elect our leaders to take back power from those who give them money. While it is clear what the campaign finance reform movement opposes, we need to make it just as clear what we stand for: reclaiming our democracy. And the House debate on reform made clear how much a government of the people depends on continuous acts of faith.

Working to reform our political system seems very much in keeping with my personal faith as a Christian. Our broad coalition for campaign finance reform includes many denominations—the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Methodists, Episcopal Church, the Catholic group Network, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. But the opposition to reform also includes faith-based groups. Even on slavery, President Lincoln noted, both sides "read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."

Early on Feb. 14, my thoughts returned to the role of faith in reforming our democracy. The House was debating amendments to the Shays-Meehan Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform bill before holding the final vote. By 2 a.m. our lobbying was long since done, and a dozen of us from Common Cause were sitting in the Capitol, watching the debate. In the course of opposing a mean-spirited amendment to restrict the rights of immigrants, Rep. Christopher Shays began by saying, "I had fainted unless I believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living."

His text was Psalm 27:13, and at first it seemed out of place, even when he added, "I see this goodness in this House." But I thought about all those who have worked so long at something so foreign to the culture of Washington, D.C.—my colleagues at Common Cause and the AARP and so many other groups—trying to break the link between money and politics. The psalmist's spirit would be crushed without the faith that goodness can triumph here, in our world, just as our democracy is stronger when we have the faith that people, united, can make change.

So many here in Washington work to draw more money into politics, and so many others are professional cynics accustomed to the triumph of monied interests.

HARD WORK GOES into every legislative fight, but it has been such an act of faith, over decades, to even make a dent in the system. And this applies just as much to any organization working to benefit the downtrodden, the marginalized, or even for the public interest rather than the special interests, whose special pleading is accepted as normal in American politics. It applies to work to make our welfare laws humane. I would also suggest a connection—it is no accident that child poverty is not topmost on the Washington agenda.

Cunning corporations have given millions—to make billions. But knowing that is not enough. If someone read all the reports on what political contributors receive in return, they might well conclude our government is beyond saving. To make change, we need the faith that in this, the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world, the total of our individual voices matters more than money or missiles. When we believe in this government of the people, by the people, and for the people, we make it so.

The success of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill banning unlimited contributions from corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals is a moment of triumph for that belief. Passage is a triumph of faith in our democracy, our government by the people. We all showed we can win a fight, even against the concentrated power of great wealth.

You need to believe in democracy to practice it. If we all keep taking leaps of faith together, imagine what we can achieve.

Scott Harshbarger is president and CEO of Common Cause, a citizens' advocacy group for open, accountable, and democratic government.

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