Faith, Money, Politics, and Citizens United: A way forward
By Isaac Luria
January 30, 2013

Making Money & Politics an Issue of Faith

Authors: Isaac Luria, Auburn Seminary; Alexia Salvatierra, Faith Rooted Organizing; John Bonifaz and Peter Schurman, Free Speech For People

Link to downloadable PDF 

Introduction: Overwhelming majorities of American citizens support meaningful reforms to get money out of politics and to restore a democracy for, of, and by the people.

However, it is less clear how to mobilize more than the usual “progressive” suspects behind reforms, which in most scenarios is the only realistic path to the large majorities needed for reform on Citizens United, public financing of elections, and other measures.  An Auburn case study shows that the faith community can help build the large majorities needed for reform.

Following a pilot project in the fall of 2012, we contend that the faith community, especially emerging and conservative faith communities, holds a key to a broader national coalition critical to the future of this movement. Faith communities are well positioned to make money and politics a non-partisan or bi-partisan issue, and to raise the topic on the terms of right and wrong rather than one of policy or partisanship.

We recommend far greater and sustained investment of resources, time, and energy from national organizations and the funding community, through faith-based organizations with credibility in communities of faith, to build the operational capacity to locate, reach, persuade, and mobilize emerging and conservative faith communities on the issue of money in politics. We also recommend a more direct involvement of faith-based organizations and leaders in this broader fight that has the potential to bend almost every issue towards, or away from, justice.

2012 Campaign: In the fall of 2012, Auburn Seminary began an effort to build an unusually diverse audience of faith leaders to support two state ballot initiatives calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and to begin to grow a national faith constituency to reject the unrestricted flow of big money into political campaigns. We saw a need to intentionally approach faith communities to encourage their leadership on the issue of money and politics and to develop a larger base of faith leaders ready to take action nationally and at the state level on this issue.

Two corporate personhood propositions on the ballot in Montana and Colorado tell an interesting story. Both passed by wide margins: one in a swing state, the other in a state that went largely uncontested for Romney (Montana voted 55%-42% for Romney). This provides hard evidence of what polls have been showing for the past year,[1] namely that Citizens United and its expansion of the corporate personhood doctrine is rejected by Americans of all partisan and ideological stripes. The same was true among the range of faith leaders who joined the Auburn effort.

Auburn’s campaign joined these efforts late, just a couple of months before Election Day. Yet in that short time it made some surprising discoveries in its outreach to faith leaders about the potential for the community’s involvement, despite the challenges of explaining the problem of unlimited money in politics in a way that appeals to the heart as well as the head.

The Auburn-led coalition was also able to mobilize faith leaders in support of these referenda – pulling substantially from moderate evangelical communities, Hispanic communities, the Black Church, and from mainline communities as well.

In Montana, 22 clergy, including Lutheran Bishop Jessica Crist, signed on in support.

In Colorado, 40+ clergy joined in support, including Dr. Gregory G. Fell, Superintendent, Rocky Mountain District, Evangelical Free Church of America, Rev. Dr. Jim Ryan, Colorado Council of Churches, Rev. José F. Morales, Jr., Executive Regional Minister, Central Rocky Mountain Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and Rev. Anne Dunlap, Comunidad Liberación/Liberation Community. [2] [3]

Nationally, the signers include Rev. Jim Wallis, CEO and President, Sojourners, Dr. Walter Brueggeman, Theologian, Rev. Walter Contreras, Director of Outreach and Hispanic Ministries, Pacific Southwest Conference for the Evangelical Covenant Church, Rev. Stephen A. Hayner, President and Prof of Leadership Development, Columbia Theological Seminary, Rev. Juan Francisco Martínez, Ph.D., Associate Provost for Diversity and International Programs, Fuller Theological Seminary, Bishop Dean Nelson, Southwest California Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Dr. Paul Louis Metzger, Professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture, Multnomah University, and many others (see the full list below).

Conversations with these and other clergy provided interesting insight into how best to make the case on this issue. Messages below are ranked in order of efficacy. These messages were tested in one-on-one conversations with key clergy, via statistics in email blasts and recruitment letters, and via consultations with faith-based organizers and theologians.

  1. Waste. In an election that saw $6 billion dollars spent, including hundreds of millions into Super PACs and secretive c4 organizations, many clergy spoke of what a difference that money could make if spent on disaster relief, social services, education, or other pressing needs. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, this message resonated even more strongly. [4] Our diverse faiths compel us to steward limited resources wisely and to spend in ways that help the most people have dignity and freedom.
  2. Divisive Advertising and Politics. People of faith generally dislike DC-style partisanship. They respect passion and commitment, but do not generally like or understand the nastiness of electoral politics. This is even more truee among faith leaders and clergy. The media picked up on a similar sentiment among voters in general, with their frustration more focused on the incessant advertising, almost all of which was negative. There is clearly a constituency, especially among church folk, that would support efforts to reduce the volume of ads, much of which came courtesy of Super PACs.
  3. Bribes: Large gifts of money aimed at influencing the behavior of leaders are called bribes in the Bible. The Bible reserves its strongest words for anonymous bribes, saying in Proverbs that “a wicked man accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the ways of justice.” (Proverbs 17:23) This language calls upon scripture that points to the moral problem of excessive money in politics and lends religious credibility to the argument.
  4. Theological Farce of Corporate Personhood. People of faith reacted also positively to arguments centered on the theological problem with the idea of corporate personhood and constitutional rights. People, not corporations, were made in the image of God. This is, however, on the level of theology – and does not resonate in the heartfelt manner that previous messages do. It is a message of the head, not the heart.
  5. Linking to Corporate Power and Gap between Rich and Poor. Jesus said more about money and the poor than any other topic. Accordingly, religious leaders are drawn to language that lifts up the inherent dignity of all people and is foundational to their faiths. As Jim Wallis has said, there is no “SuperPAC for the poor. “

The Wide Coalition: The coalition’s signers were about evenly split between the Black Church, Moderate Evangelicals, Hispanic Communities, Mainstream Progressives (where we place most of our Jewish signers), proving that this movement has supporters and relevance across faiths and provides us an opportunity to strengthen multifaith relationships and social justice movements. 

The Future: Campaign finance reform – specifically, the issue of Super PAC spending – is likely to be another issue with some bi-partisan momentum. Memories are short, but at least for now elected officials and the voting public are aware of the damage caused by unlimited campaign spending. Yet, overall the story of this election as told by the media was not corporate capture of government; the public is more likely to have seen wealthy individuals – not corporations - making huge contributions. [5]

There is some good reason for optimism about the future of reform efforts. First, the two ballot initiatives did very well, even among non-Democrats. Second, the President expressed his support for an amendment. Third, the public and its representatives are unhappy with the massive campaign spending. Fourth, Gov. Cuomo’s pledge to prioritize campaign finance reform provides a new and potent opportunity to make New York State the “tip of the spear” on campaign finance reform and to spark new, innovative organizing tactics in faith communities alongside the state-wide effort. But regardless of the immediate term possibility of reform, it is far more likely that this movement will need to be committed to a fight lasting a decade or longer before meaningful progress will be made.

We recommend that the broader Money and Politics movement invest in the following:

  1. Develop theological resources – sermon guides, Sunday school curricula, adult education curricula – that clergy and congregations can use to teach the people in the pews about this critical issue, and to frame this as an issue of faith and society, rather than simply a secular issue. 
  2. Create action opportunities for clergy and congregants to make their voices heard on various campaign finance fights, at the national level and state level. The more local the fight, the more likely we’ll get the support of these congregations.
  3. Identify, train, book, and place prominent faith-based voices within mainstream media outlets speaking about the connection between faith and money and politics. Keep up the drumbeat nationally and inspire people in the pews to understand this issue as one of faith.
  4. Convene secular organizations and faith leaders in order to come up with language that appeals to moral character of people and mines the depths of our religious traditions to bring out messages that appeal to the heart, not just the head.
  5. Poll and focus-group test new and interesting messages that might appeal to a broader set of people than the usual suspects within the progressive camp.

[1] Polling commissioned by Free Speech for People, executed by Hart Research and Associates. December 2010 to January 2011: http://freespeechforpeople.org/sites/default/files/FSFP%20Nationwide%20Voter%20Survey-1.pdf    

[5] “Incumbents hit hard by attack ads considering tightening campaign finance laws,” New York Times. October 12, 2012.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/24/us/politics/incumbents-hit-hard-by-attack-ads-considering-tightening-campaign-finance-laws.html?pagewanted=all