A coalition of the Usual Suspects has sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi, declaring that the “religious community” is against free speech if it involves groups of people (other than themselves, of course). Organized by Common’s Cause’s Bob Edgar–the former National Council of Churches head and congressman who just can’t get away from mixing the two–they speak with the usual divine faith about a issue of prudential politics:
As religious leaders, we believe in equality and justice for all people and in building the common good. In a democracy, these ideals cannot be realized, however, if the rules governing the electoral process actively or passively favor one segment of the population over another.
Silliness, right from the start. They are apparently unaware that there are already elements of the electoral process that favor certain segments of the population. For instance, residents of small states have greater power in the Senate because every state has two, giving, for instance, Wyomingites vastly greater say, proportionally speaking, than Californians. Members of the two major parties also have a built-in edge over, say, Libertarians, by virtue of their automatic place at the top of ballots in most jurisdictions. But civics is not these people’s strong suit.
We believe existing campaign finance laws already permit the unfair influence of persons and groups with extraordinary wealth over the political process by providing them with special access to elected officials. This special access ultimately results in legislative outcomes that reflect the needs of those with the financial means to make political contributions, and not the needs of the poor or disenfranchised.
Actually, campaign finance laws don’t give any kind of access to politicians. Politicians do that. And speaking of access, who has had the most access to the White House this year? Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), partner with the NCC in health care reform lobbying, whose power derives from the collective weight of his membership, who’s dues have contributed to SEIU being able to spend $85 million on political campaigns in 2008. But Edgar’s friends don’t care about unions’ involvement in politics; it’s corporations, including small groups of Americans such as Citizens United, that get their goat.
We believe Congress must address both the Citizens United decision and the problems of the current campaign finance system by passing the Fair Elections Now Act (S. 752 and H.R. 1826). This measure would empower average people to participate in politics with small donations, and would return the gaze of our elected officials solely to the needs of their districts and the nation as a whole, rather than the interests of those with significant financial resources for campaigns.
The legislation they mention–hereby dubbed the Incumbent Protection Act–would be public financing for Congress. It would require thousands of small contributions for eligibility, and provide equal amounts to incumbent and challenger (thus providing a built-in advantage to the former). It would give the same amount to House candidates ($900,00) regardless of where the district is (giving an even bigger advantage to incumbents in large–and therefore expensive–media markets). It would give Senate candidates $1.25 million, plus $250,000 per congressional district. They would be given media vouchers ($100,000 fro House races, $100,000 per congressional district for Senate races–drops in the bucket of what’s needed to overcome an incumbent’s advantages). As for “empowering average people” to make small contributions, last time I checked that was already allowed, and several million people did in 2008. And because such a requirement would be unconstitutional, there is no mandate that all candidates participate, so that if one (think Barack Obama) decided that he could raise a lot more by refusing public financing, there would be nothing to stop him from outspending his opponent by whatever margin he could raise.
With a strong Fair Elections system in place, candidates will spend less time courting the narrow slice of Americans who currently fund campaigns and engage a larger, more active citizenry.
No, they won’t. If incumbents can fool their opponents into signing on to this, they’ll do so too, and rub their hands together in glee. If their opponents won’t, they won’t, and we’re back in the same place. In any case, let’s get real. What this is about is that these religious leaders–to whom no one pays attention when it comes to their political opinions–can’t stand the idea that there are others with the means to get their message out and heard by the citizenry, so they want to put a stop to it. But if there’s anything America should be standing for, it’s the maximization, not the curtailment, of speech.
PS: Among the signers of this soon-to-be-forgotten letter:
Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary National Council of Churches
Bishop Gabino Zavala, Bishop President, Pax Christi USA
Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, past president of the National Council of Churches
Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun; Chair, The Network of Spiritual Progressives
Jim Winkler, General Secretary, United Methodist General Board of Church and Society
Dr. Ronald J. Sider, President, Evangelicals for Social Action
The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, former Senior Pastor, Riverside Church in New York
The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President, Interfaith Alliance
The Rev. Peter Morales, President, Unitarian Universalist Association
Marie Dennis, Director, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Mary Ellen McNish, General Secretary, American Friends Service Committee
The Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, Professor of Theology, Chicago Theological Seminary
Dr. Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary
The Rev. Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock, Director, Faith Voices for the Common Good
The Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, Emeritus Professor of Christian Ethics, Wesley Theological Seminary
Like I said, the Usual Suspects. I do wonder where Katharine Jefforts-Schori, Gradye Parsons, and Mark Hanson were, though.
UPDATE: This is where Gradye Parsons (PCUSA) is:
The January 21, 2010, decision of the Supreme Court to reject 35 years of legislation to limit campaign spending by corporations challenges the democratic ethos of the United States and threatens to magnify the already-powerful role of special interests in US politics. In light of historic Presbyterian wisdom about the dangers of corruption by special interests, I am concerned about the pressures this decision puts on individual candidates and office holders and on the integrity of the election system as a whole.
Without addressing the legal status of corporations, now determined to be legal persons with “free speech,” able to use unlimited corporate (or union) funds for political purposes, this decision shows an innocence about human power and sin that Reformed Christians must question. Because this decision is likely to reshape the political process in profound ways, and to reduce the voice of citizens, churches and other groups without unlimited money, it is important to re-state the position of many General Assemblies.
It’s a funny thing about that “innocence about human power and sin.” To listen to the leadership of the mainline churches, the one institution that seemingly never has a problem with “human power and sin” is the government (except when it tries to regulate abortion or use the military, of course). Despite the fact that the First Amendment (the whole original Constitution and Bill of Rights, in fact) was designed specifically by people who understood that government power needed to be curbed, and that speech–especially political speech–needed to be as free as possible, Mr. “Innocence About Human Power and Sin” wants to increase the government’s authority to regulate political speech. I’d say that’s about as strong a challenge to the democratic ethos of the United States as you’re ever going to see.