One of the many freedoms we enjoy is expressing our religious beliefs, or non-belief, as citizens from different perspectives engaging in self-government. As money flooding our political system challenges our self-government, people of faith must engage on two topics we too often avoid: money and power.
The Supreme Court's decisions in Citizens United (2010) and McCutcheon v FEC (2014) are about the power of money and how it is used to affect policymakers. But people have power outside money, and as people of faith we should grow in our understanding of how these powers are used.
In Affluence and Influence, political scientist Martin Gilens shows how public policy outcomes are biased toward the very wealthy. "The American government does respond to the public's preferences, but that responsiveness is strongly tilted toward the most affluent citizens," Gilens writes, documenting that, "The preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or does not adopt."
A system that relies on wealthy donors in order to function is quite naturally going to ensure its own survival by catering to the interests of wealthy donors. But is it sustainable? Is it moral?
Twentieth century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr suggests Christianity's unique contribution to public policy is its understanding of humans as being simultaneously saint and sinner. We are tempted to think that if we can just get our people in power then everything will be fixed. But the truth is that anytime power is accountable only to those with money and not to all people, our human institutions of justice will be corrupted.
Not only are our politics tilted toward donors who have bankrolled our elections but our independent branch of government, the Courts, are threatened too. According to The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-2 report by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, 87 percent of voters said they believed direct donations to judge's campaigns and independent spending by outside groups on TV ads had either "some" or "a great deal" of influence on the decisions of judges. The American Constitution Society's report, Justice at Risk, draws a direct correlation between contributions and judicial decisions, especially in business.
When power is concentrated and money's influence is so clearly corrupting, what options do faithful people have? While we are reminded that we are not God, and the powers of creation, destruction, and final judgment are not ours, we are encouraged to use our power of story and parable to enter the political arena. We bring people together to tell their stories and connect their experiences to the need to reform the political system by passing a constitutional amendment to keep money out of politics, and to publicly finance elections. We lift up stories a government of the wealthy cannot hear and won't respond to. We tell a story of democracy, of people speaking truth to power, revealing again the true power in the people.
We are also encouraged to use the power of community. My church, Third Lutheran Church joined with other churches as part of CLOUT (Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together). CLOUT, along with its sister organization, BUILD, is intentional about building power by bringing people together to improve community.
In CLOUT and BUILD's work on payday lending, there is a direct example of the conflict between power as organized people and power as organized money. There is no doubt that the interest rates charged by payday lenders are usury, and that capping them would prevent endless cycles of debt. Power organized by money can be used by a few to take advantage of the many. Power organized by people, because it is jointly held by each of the people who choose to come together to exercise it, is almost certain to only be used for the good of the community.
While the power of story and community are not perfect because they are human institutions, they are nonetheless the best forms of power available to people of faith as we seek the common good. Unlike money, which produces power that is only accountable to those supplying the money, the powers of parables and community are shared powers that are persuasive, not coercive. We must build community to stand against moneyed interests, using our own power, to ensure that a rich few are not able to control our political system and courts.