I’m from Texas, more specifically Houston. After college, I tried to put my new degree in civil/environmental engineering to good use by working to improve the air and water quality of the Gulf Coast where I lived.
Some of you may know that Houston is home to the largest group of chemical refining companies in the world. It took me a few years to fully realize how much influence those companies had on the policies that govern air and water quality where I lived. Over time, I – and those I worked with – came to feel completely unable to improve the quality of life in our community, because of the influence of industry spending on campaigns and lobbying. The game felt rigged. It just seemed wrong.
Today I’m a rabbi and dean of Auburn Seminary in New York City.
In 2012, Auburn was asked to train faith leaders who were working on money in politics campaigns in Montana and Colorado – because both states had ballot initiatives calling for a constitutional amendment. In particular, we were working with white evangelicals, and we learned that the talking points that secular organizers offered were not working for faith communities. Evangelicals in particular needed a deeper, faith-rooted message. So we decided to do the deeper work.
We commissioned ten theologians from Evangelical, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish traditions (who represent 80 percent of Americans). We challenged them to offer up moral and religious teachings from their traditions that could help us improve the way money is used in American politics.
The result is a report called Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy, which, to our recent surprise, is making extensive rounds on Capitol Hill and brought me before an overflowing crowd for a Hill Briefing sponsored by Republican Rep. Thoms Petri (Wis.) and Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.).
It was clear by the packed room that people of faith not only have a stake in this national debate, we can provide compelling, and much-needed, framing on this issue. So let me give you a taste of the moral, ethical, and religious guidance that this report contains.
To anyone who might think that money in politics is primarily a political issue, I would remind you that buying influence is a very, very old game. The Bible and many other sacred texts rail against it. It is a deeply moral and spiritual issue.
One consensus among all the theologians in this report is that today’s practice fails the moral test of paying attention to the poor. Catholics cited the foundational principle of the preferential option for the poor. To defend the cause of the poor, one must know their concerns, and to know their concerns, their voice must be heard. Pope Francis puts it this way: Authentic power is service. Leaders exercising power must be inspired by the lowly, and embrace the poorest and weakest. Only those who serve with love are able to protect.
One theologian asked, ‘How often do the poor and disenfranchised get invited to dinner parties, to get a chance to meet a candidate and talk about the issues affecting their lives?’
Evangelicals turned to Luke 14 (12-14), where Jesus challenges his wealthy followers to do just that:
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The Jewish theologians lifted up rabbinic texts that taught, simply, that contributions generate influence, even if both the donor and the candidate can say sincerely that the money involved neither an explicit nor a tacit quid pro quo. Any system that presumes otherwise is dangerously naive. The rabbis argue that any system that provides opportunities for major contributions by the wealthy must also construct a mechanism by which the non-wealthy can counterbalance the disproportionate influence of such contributions. If there is an influential role for money in politics, there must be an influential role for the non-moneyed in politics.
It is not only the voices of the poor who are being silenced in America today, it is the voices of all Americans, except for the wealthiest few, who are being silenced.
As a dean of a seminary, I do a lot of fundraising. Over the years I’ve learned a thing or two about raising money and about relationships with donors. I know that we all cannot do our work without money or without donors who give generously to our causes.
But in a democracy, the size of your wallet should not determine the strength of your voice. Today’s practice of money in politics drowns out the voice of “we the people.” When that voice is drowned out by the well-articulated pleas of a few – when the money spent by chemical refining companies completely overshadows the voices of citizens along the Gulf Coast trying to improve their health and quality of life – when that happens, judgment is skewed. Bad policy proliferates. Democracy suffers. When the SuperPACs and megadonors defeat Americans by convincing them that elections are bought and paid for, there will be grave consequences for our great country.
American faith-based morals and ethics have a critical role to play in framing the national debate about the role of money in politics. As an American, and as a rabbi, I believe we can achieve an approach to money in politics where the voices of the poor and the voices of the middle class can be heard alongside the voices of the wealthy. It is my prayer that some of you sitting in seats of power, whether on The Hill or on the pulpit, can make that happen.
Which brings me to one final religious teaching from Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy: Vox populi, vox Dei. “The voice of God can be found in the voice of the people.” Political theorists would argue that the entire democratic project is based on the free and robust exchange of ideas between people. Some people of faith would add that when you quash the deliberation of the people, you are actually silencing the voice of the divine.
Baird is dean of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York and oversees Auburn's Education programs which equip people of all faiths, from senior religious leaders to teens in conflict-torn countries, to reach across lines of religious difference and build a more just and peaceful world.