A Presbyterian seminary released a report challenging the influx of corporate money in U.S. political campaigns as harmful to democracy and the needs of the poor.
Auburn Theological Seminary brought together perspectives of several Christian and Jewish theologians to think about moral consequences of current campaign dynamics.
Titled “Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy: A Theological Critique of the Role of Money in American Politics,” the seminary calls the document the first volume in its Auburn Applied Theology Series.
The report, compiled by Auburn Dean Rabbi Justus Baird, was funded in part by a grant from the Nathan Cumming Foundation that is “rooted in the Jewish tradition and committed to democratic values and social justice, including fairness, diversity and community.”
Noting the rising amount of campaign spending and the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case that allowed more corporate spending in political races as “free speech,” the report’s introduction claims recent changes “have raised the stakes on the national conversation about the role of money in politics.”
“Americans of faith and moral commitment have a critical role to play in this national conversation,” the introduction said.
“At their best, leaders of faith and moral commitment can avoid partisanship and instead tackle the subject of money in politics from the perspectives of right and wrong, of what is morally sound, and of what will strengthen American democracy.”
The main issue the theologians agreed on was the need to “pay attention to the poor,” even to the point of what Catholics call the “preferential option for the poor.”
The theologians argued that current campaign finance dynamics instead favor the wealthy over the poor.
“From a Christian point of view, the fact that the voice of the wealthy is the voice that is most clearly and forcefully heard is an upside-down state of affairs,” Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh, a professor at DePaul University, argued in the report. “For it is precisely the voice of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable that ought to be most clearly heard.”
Ron Sider, often credited with popularizing among U.S. evangelicals the topic of caring for the poor, similarly echoed Cavanaugh’s argument.
“Amazingly, the Bible declares that God so identifies with the poor that when we care for the poor and needy, we truly minister to God himself,” said Sider, a professor at Palmer Theological Seminary whose best-known book is “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.”
Sider, Cavanaugh and others explained that siding with the poor was not a form of class warfare but rather a way of helping the whole community.
“Precisely because God cares equally for both oppressor and oppressed, God sides with the oppressed to end the oppression so that oppressed and oppressor may become whole,” Sider said.
“The biblical God measures societies by what they do to the people at the bottom,” he said. “Biblical people must evaluate the question of unlimited political contributions on the basis of whether those unlimited contributions harm or benefit the poorer members of society.”
Cavanaugh, whose writings often deal with issues of political theology, made similar points about prioritizing the needs of the poor.
“It is to enable all persons to share in and contribute to the common good,” Cavanaugh explained. “The ‘option for the poor,’ therefore, is not an adversarial slogan that pits one group or class against another. Rather, it states that the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community.”
Thus, the theologians in the report especially critique the current U.S. political system of allowing corporations to pour unlimited amounts of money into political campaigns.
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper argued it remains problematic to allow “corporations to play a large role in political discussions” because “[c]orporations are bound by current notions of fiduciary duty to consider almost exclusively the economic interests of their owner” instead of following Talmudic principles of balancing self-interest with communal interest.
“Delegating the political speech of shareholders to corporations, which is the inevitable consequence of allowing corporations to engage in political speech, is therefore a way of ensuring that only self-interest will be considered in politics, and that the less-wealthy will not be able to influence public discourse in proportion to their assets, much less to their numbers,” he said.
Connecting the critique of corporate spending in campaigns to the biblical focus on helping the poor, the theologians criticized the explosion of corporate money in political campaigns.
“The current equation of political speech with money virtually ensures that this principle [of the ‘preferential option for the poor’] will be violated, and the interests of those with access to money will prevail in the ‘marketplace of ideas,'” Cavanaugh argued. “If money allows certain voices to dominate the ‘marketplace of ideas,’ then there is no free market; it is instead a monopoly.”
“The goal of political speech should not be that everyone with the means to do so gets to speak, but that everyone hears the truth,” said Cavanaugh, who stressed that corporations can serve a divine role with an important voice. “And for those who worship a crucified God, the truth is often revealed through those who cannot afford to speak.”
Other themes addressed in the report include “justice is achieved through multiplicity of voices,” “justice includes fair outcomes, not just fair procedures” and “bribes distort justice.”
If the online response to the report is any indication, it will not impact the public discourse on issues of faith or money in politics.
Other than a few affirming blogs, mostly by people close to someone involved in the report, the opinion of the theologians seems ignored.
A short NPR piece by their “Power, Money and Influence Correspondent” noted a couple of key points in the report and then sarcastically dismissed it, declaring “Now, back to the regular attack ads.”
Given the lack of attention to the Auburn report, the quip by NPR’s correspondent likely offers a correct prophesy for the 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential elections.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.