Big money in politics sells out democracy

For people of faith, the topic of money in politics doesn’t often make it to the pulpit or even into the temple or church basement over a community meal. That is, until lately. Recent Supreme Court decisions, along with a growing awareness among our congregations that the unbalanced role of money in politics has ballooned significantly in the past few years, have turned a once-forbidden topic into a central tenor of our concern and a subject of our conversations as communities of faith.

No doubt money plays a role in electoral politics. However, the role that money plays should be proportionate only to what is required for the government to live out its responsibility to seek justice for all people and to build the common good. Justice and the common good, in a democratic society, means that equal access for all to the political system is essential. In other words, good government cannot exist when the powers of money and social class are disproportionately favored at the expense of the general public.

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Sadly, our democracy is in danger because the role of money in politics is no longer balanced toward the common good and certainly not toward justice for all.

So, what is it, exactly, that people of faith are saying about money in politics?

The balance of power no longer mirrors the ideals upon which our country was founded. When the marketplace of ideas, so essential for a healthy democracy, is controlled by the whims of a few, as money in politics begins to tilt the scale to special interests of a few, people in the pews see the country losing its hold on democracy and begin to worry that the country is ignoring their voices and their wisdom.  

We long and hope for Congress to lead a course correction so that the voice of every American can be heard and so that our government can work toward the common good in earnest.  In a recent poll, 80 percent of registered voters, across party affiliations, said they believe that there is too much money in politics. This is a staggering statistic,  communities of faith see and speak of government.

For a specific example of this imbalance of money in politics, one needs to look no further than climate change and its causes.  The scientific community has proven irrefutably that climate change is a fact and that  fossil fuel emissions are a major cause. Few other scientific facts  enjoy the level of consensus that  this does.  A recent study notes that 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change real and that it is caused by fossil fuel emissions.  

Yet, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the fossil fuel industry and the organizations representing fossil fuel interests appear to work to mislead the American public about climate change. Fossil fuel interests spent more than $296 million on advertising between September 1 and Election Day in 2012.  Even though most oil companies issue public statements that state that climate change is a real phenomenon, they continue to contribute to the political system in ways that undermine clean energy initiatives and protect their corporate tax breaks.  In addition, chemical, mining, oil and gas, and related manufacturing donors make large donations to American Crossroads which spent $28 million in the 2010 election cycle. With that money, American Crossroads ran ads criticizing EPA regulations on mercury emissions from coal and oil-fired power plants.

This is but one example of the way in which the money of a few, in our current state of American democracy, trumps the common good and justice for all. Faith communities are uniquely positioned to address this problem of disproportionate money in politics. This is, in part, due to our commitment to ensuring that all voices, especially marginalized voices, are not ignored. As our system of government becomes more and more beholden to those who can afford to spend the most, the more the voices of poor people and their allies are drowned out. As Pope Francis so eloquently put it:  “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.” 

Pope Francis has spoken out against the idolatry of money and the need to care for creation. We would do well to follow his lead, regardless our religious ilk. To do so would help ensure that in our democracy the voices of the 1 percent don’t outweigh the other 99 percent. Money should not trump ideas, voices or votes. Money should not control our democracy.  Together, as one faithful voice, we can work together to ensure that we have a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Carolan is executive director of the Franciscan Action Network and Martin is irector of National Policy and Advocacy at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.