money in politics
A new PAC has popped up in Colorado with a simple platform: “Bruh, can you not?”
The PAC, started by Denver-based Kyle Huelsman and Jack Teter, seeks to help get more qualified women, LGBT people, and people of color in office — by convincing straight white men not to run.
The site is tongue-in-cheek, promising “interventions for the misguided bros in your life who looked in the mirror this morning and thought ‘yeah, it’s gotta be me.’”
“We challenge brogressives and others to reject any notion that they are uniquely qualified or positioned to seek political office in districts that don’t need them. As well-represented white dudes, we feel it is our obligation to know when to shut up and Not,” says their statement at canyounot.org.
But the Can You Not PAC — started “by white men, for white men” — is fully serious.
The movement to give every American an equal say in the government decisions that affect our lives gained a “great new ally with a worldwide voice” last week. I’m referring of course to Pope Francis, who when speaking to an Argentine magazine said, "We must achieve a free sort of election campaign, not financed. Because many interests come into play in financing of an election campaign and then they ask you to pay back."
The Pope is a welcome addition to the growing national movement in the United States that aims to refocus government on fulfilling the needs and concerns of everyday voters, not on granting special favors to big campaign donors. In his first two years since inauguration, Pope Francis has dedicated his papacy to addressing the staggering economic inequality tearing lives apart here in the U.S. and around the world.
His statement on how we finance elections is not a deviation from that mission. It is an acknowledgement that a functioning democracy and economic fairness are two sides of the same coin. For years political leaders have perpetuated a vicious cycle of economic inequality begetting political inequality, and vice versa. The policy levers we pull must reverse this system to create a virtuous cycle of greater economic prosperity and freedom begetting greater political equality.
Pope Francis understands this, and so too do a growing number of religious communities organizing to tackle the problem of money in elections. The Franciscan Action Network, the organization that I direct, leads a coalition of 18 national faith organizations urging the U.S. Congress and President to take steps to reduce the corrupting influence of money in elections. Methodists, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Muslims, Quakers, Mennonites, Disciples, and several Catholic organizations and religious orders have joined with others to call out their shared teachings about integrity and honesty, and their belief that a democratic country should actually adhere to democratic practices.
A variety of faith traditions have joined in our call for a constitutional amendment to curtail the role of money in politics. In the sacred texts and writing representing each of our spiritual traditions we find stories warning us about the evils of worshiping money.
In the Jewish tradition, the Talmud states, “A mitzvah is better done personally than done via agent.”
In the Christian tradition, the Gospel of Mathew tells us, “You cannot serve both God and money.”
These warnings are found throughout all faith traditions.
We applaud the Pope’s efforts in this struggle and encourage him to amplify his call for a more representative system for funding elections when he addresses Congress in September. After all, the American system is a prime example for the world of how not to fund elections. The rise of super PACs and outside political groups have given the billionaire class ever more power to bankroll the election campaigns of our elected leaders.
Five years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations are welcome to the same free speech rights that are allotted to individuals and can therefore spend freely on direct political advocacy.
To those unfamiliar with the topic, Citizens United essentially opened the flood gates for dark money to flow into the Washington electoral circuit. Within the five years since this decision the amount of money spent on political campaigns has steadily increased each election cycle. The most recent midterm elections cost $3.7 billion dollars.
Why should this matter to Christians?
1. Divine dignity is silenced.
The Center for Responsive Politics reported that only “666,773 individuals donated more than $200 to campaigns in the 2014 election cycle." What does this mean? Only 0.2 percent of the population funded the elections. Only the wealthiest Americans, through Super PAC funding and private corporation contributions have influence over the electoral state. The voice of the average American is almost completely silenced because they do not have financial influence. This becomes an issue of morality when we see each citizen as an individual with divine dignity. When the voice of the individual is silenced, the voice of the Divine is also silenced because only the economically elite are heard.
To avoid conflict, it is suggested that friendly conversation omits three things: money, politics, and religion. However, it’s no secret that in current Washington discourse two of these things seem to be indefinitely intertwined. I’ll give you a hint — it’s not “money and religion.”
In the past decade, the intimate relationship between money and politics has infiltrated the public sphere at an alarming rate: corporations set public policy agenda items, super PACS have unlimited reign over campaign finance, and just 0.4 percent of the U.S. population is responsible for funding 63 percent of candidate campaigns, political parties, and PACs.
But what do money and politics have to do with religion? Patrick Carolan, Executive Director of Franciscan Action Network (FAN), explained last week to a group of faith leaders at Catholic University why faith, money, and politics are interconnected.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court struck down a law that limited the amount of money that an individual can contribute to political campaigns in a two-year election cycle, while upholding the limit that an individual can give to a single campaign in the same period. Previously, the law limited total individual contributions to all political campaigns to $48,600, while capping individual donations to a single campaign at $2,600.
The bottom line of yesterday's McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling is that there will be more money in politics, as the Court doubles down on the controversial 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that allowed unlimited, anonymous expenditures by outside groups on election activities. Those with resources can now contribute up to $2,600 in all 435 congressional districts, more than 30 Senate races, and the presidential election, while at the same time giving millions more to Super PACs in support of these candidates.
The ruling will give more influence to corporate and labor lobbyists whose groups contribute to political campaigns. It is still illegal to give a donation that explicitly requests a legislative action in return for the contribution. But while politicians spend hours every week making phone calls soliciting contributions, they aren’t likely to forget who is funding their political future. When they hang up the phone and meet a lobbyist in their office whose group is funding their campaign, there is an unspoken understanding that the politician will be more open to the idea that lobbyist is presenting.
Last week marked the fourth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled that corporations are entitled to the same free speech rights as individual humans as guaranteed under the First Amendment.
The political repercussions of Citizens United include the rise of “Super PACs” — political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, independent of direct campaign contributions, to influence politics. The power yielded to such corporations, as well as indiscriminate spending allowance, has deleterious effects upon our democracy.
Because money talks, big money will talk a lot louder, drowning out the voices of average Americans trying to exercise their own civic rights. Politicians are undoubtedly more apt to respond to the requests of companies that shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars on supportive campaign politics than to the needs of a college graduate or working family who donated 10 bucks. Doesn’t exactly smack of sound democratic governance.
Marianne Williamson, a bestselling author and convener of the upcoming Sister Giant conference on women and politics, has called on President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney to address “a meaningful array of topics” – including poverty, money in politics and incarceration rates in the U.S. – tonight during the first presidential debate.
Williamson talked to us earlier today about these issues, which are particularly pressing for Christians who take Matthew 25 seriously.
The interview was edited for length and content.
Q: What are you doing to get these issues out there?
A: Having a voice and creating your own platform is not all that difficult with today’s technology. I think what’s happening now is that, firstly, people are realizing that. Secondly, people are realizing that there are certain things that need to be said that simply are not being said as loudly as other things being said. When it comes to a politics of conscience, why wouldn’t we expect that during the debates there would be a conversation about the 23.1 percent of America’s children living in poverty, or the 34 percent of poor children, or the 46 million Americans living in poverty?
[editor's note: This article was originally published in 2012. References to elections or politicians without specific dates attached are in the context of the 2012 election cycle.]
AS I CAREFULLY watched both the Democratic and the Republican conventions this summer, I realized, once again, how challenging and complicated it is to bring faith to politics.
For example, the phrase “middle class” was likely the most repeated phrase at the conventions. And even though both parties are utterly dependent on their wealthy donors (a fact they don’t like to talk about), they know that middle-class voters will determine the outcome of the election. Now, I believe a strong middle class is good for the country, but Jesus didn’t say, “What you have done for the middle class, you have done for me.” Rather, Matthew 25 says, “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”
When your first principle for politics is what happens to the poor and vulnerable—and I believe that is the first principle for Christians—you keep waiting at conventions for those words and commitments. There were a few moments when the poor were briefly mentioned, but it certainly wasn’t a strong theme in Tampa or Charlotte. “Opportunity” for the middle class was an important word in both conventions this year, but Christians must be clear that creating new opportunities for poor children and low-income families is critical to us.
The conventions also talked a great deal about “success,” but how we define that is very important. Is success mostly about how much money we make, defining the “American Dream” as being able to pass on more riches to our children than what our parents passed on to us? Or is success measured by how we as a nation prioritize, in our spending and political choices, the sick, the vulnerable, the weak, and the elderly? Is it determined more by the values we pass on to our children—evaluating our lives, and theirs, by how much we are able to help others?
America is a nation of immigrants, and how we welcome “the stranger” in our midst is another Christian principle for politics. So is our racial diversity as a nation, where all our citizens must be treated as having equal value. The most inspiring stories at the conventions for me came when that diversity was evidenced on the stage—from a young undocumented “dreamer” and a black first lady on the platform at the Democratic convention to Condoleezza Rice telling her fellow Republicans how a little girl from a segregated Southern city became secretary of state. But little mention was made at either convention of the racial disparities in America’s burgeoning prison industry or voting suppression efforts that most affect minorities and people who are poor.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Each month, Sojourners send out a Faith & Justice Newsletter to folks who are interested in intersection of faith and social action. This month, we pulled content from the magazine and our blogs relating to the corruption of the common good. Enjoy.
This year’s election cycle is expected to cost more than $6 billion -- the most expensive in U.S. history. During election years, members of Congress spend on average 40 to 70 percent of their time fundraising. One quarter of one percent (.25 percent) of donors provided two-thirds of all the campaign cash spent during the 2010 election. In a recent article for Sojourners, Nick Penniman argues the problem is only going to get worse.
This influx of campaign cash and the influence of special interests in Washington should cause even the most idealistic citizen to ask whether our politicians have completely lost sight of the common good. If the basis of democracy is each person having an equal voice in government and having her or his interests weighed equally by elected officials, then democracy in the United States appears to be profoundly broken.
Christians need to wrestle with these questions and discern how we’re called to respond. While our hope resides firmly in Jesus Christ, we can’t ignore the power of government to protect the poor and improve the lives of millions. The command to love our neighbor as ourselves means we cannot ignore the corruption of the common good.
Today, in a long and complicated ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. This is an important victory for millions of uninsured people in our country and ultimately a triumph of the common good. Children, young adults, and families will have access to basic health care, adding security and stability to their lives.
While I believe the decision is reason to celebrate, it doesn’t mean that this legislation is somehow the flawless will of God; it is an important step in expanding health care coverage and reducing long term costs, but it still is not perfect and more work is yet to be done.
Many Christian organizations and people of faith were involved in advocating for expanded insurance coverage, specifically for low-income and vulnerable people. And that’s what we can never forget: our involvement in the world of politics is always based in and motivated by the way that it affects the lives of real people, and especially poor people.
This last week, I’ve watched the endless political pre-coverage of the Supreme Court decision, and I was struck first by the poor quality of the questions being asked. Now that the decision has been made, the pontification is just as bad. We need to be focused on those who are left out and left behind, not who is up or down in politics and the polls.