In the 1960s, many people of faith hit the streets to promote civil rights for all. There was no question that the broadly shared teachings in many faith traditions, recognizing each person as a gift of the Creator, called for action to guarantee basic rights, including voting rights, for all.
Roll forward a few decades, and we see a murky picture where the political and voting rights of all are diluted by the role of money in elections. Much of the money is hidden, and the real agenda of its sources is obfuscated behind names like “Americans for this” and “Patriots for that.” Four years after the closely split Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, Congress feels the restrictions on its power to regulate spending, and perhaps even transparency, in election seasons.
In 2012, the next cycle after Citizens United, “independent spending” soared upward as individuals and groups found ways to maximize their well-financed influence on elections. This month, the Supreme Court is expected to release its decision in a follow-on case, McCutcheon v. FEC, very likely lifting the overall limits on how much a contributor may give to candidates and political parties in a single election cycle. Money is about to be allowed an even louder voice.
As money in politics begins to weigh more than their own voices and views, people in the pews see the country losing its hold on democracy and look to Congress for course corrections. In a recent poll, 80 percent of registered voters, across party affiliations, said they believe that our political system needs reform.
Faith groups agree. This is why 18 national faith organizations are now urging Congress to step up and take charge of the rules that govern campaign spending. 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.
Duly elected representatives should be able to serve in government according to their own honest concerns and the views of the people they represent. The day-to-day work of members of Congress should not be influenced by a disproportionate concern for the views of corporations and individuals who are capable of contributing large sums of money to election campaigns, whether their own campaigns or someone else’s.
More often than should be true in a democracy, money appears to speak more loudly than the voices of the electorate on these and other values-based issues. The wealthiest .01 percent of the voting age population now account for 40 percent of all campaign contributions. When money talks, it almost inevitably makes a difference in the decisions elected officials make. If money is doing the talking, it is unlikely to fairly represent needs for housing, healthcare and decent wages for people who cannot take those things for granted.
The fix, then, is for members of Congress to put their names on at least one bill calling for a constitutional amendment to let Congress take back the power to regulate campaign spending. There are handfuls of bills in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Members who don’t see a bill that they like can introduce another or simply make a statement calling for an amendment. Other measures to provide transparency, corporate responsibility or matching funds are positive steps. If adopted, these measures would give us all a clearer picture of the role of money in politics, and would help to level the playing field a bit.
There is no question that the Citizens United decision did a lot of damage. It will take this country a long time to repair and rebuild.
But until Congress has authority to regulate the amount of money affecting elections and uses that authority to prop up our shaky democracy, our elections will be tainted by the role of money. The right time for the first step is now.
Randall is executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Carolan is executive director of the Franciscan Action Network.