A few years back, a grassroots Catholic organization called the Franciscan Action Network started examining the issue of money in politics and how it affects American life. At the time -- this was in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. government could not restrict "independent" political spending by corporations and unions -- public ire over the issue was nothing new. But Franciscan Action Network was looking at it in a different way.
Operating from a faith perspective and focusing on how political spending stymies movement on issues like immigration reform, climate change and gun safety, FAN formed an interfaith coalition devoted to undoing the influence of money in politics. The coalition, Faithful Democracy, has been up and running for about a year and a half now. In early October, it helped sponsor a conference at The Catholic University of America called "Money & Politics: Is Washington for Sale?"
NCR spoke with Franciscan Action Network's executive director, Patrick Carolan, to learn more.
NCR: When we say "money in politics," what exactly are we referring to?
Carolan: The issue stems from the unlimited amount of money that is being used to influence policy decisions and political elections. It is a result of the Citizens United ruling. We're coming up on the fifth anniversary of that ruling next year. It opened up the floodgates for unlimited and unaccounted-for money. Folks have been able to set up shadow organizations and have found ways to put as much money as they want into politics. It really has turned our political process into a question of whoever has the most money. That's not what our country was founded on. We're founded on one person, one vote. And it's really naive to think that people aren't influenced by how much money that they receive from the political action community and wealthy people.
How does faith fit in?
For people of faith, this is a moral issue. It goes back to, "You can't worship both God and money." And what we've seen lately is a huge shift over to worshipping money in our country. [Our policy and legislation] is focused on taking care of the wealthy. And so what happens is the poor have no voice. The middle class have no voice. The only people who have influence are wealthy people.
Some see this as a politically charged issue, but you're trying to find a middle way. Please explain.
This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. This is a bipartisan issue. We need to have moral debates on these issues. And we can't have them because of the influence of money.
If the purpose of politics is to secure the common good, then what does money in politics do to the common good?
It takes the common good away. It's no longer about the common good. It's about the good of the people who have the money. And so that really clogs the whole political process. You see cuts for food stamps occurring at the same time that the wealthy and corporations are being given tax cuts and other benefits. I mean, that's not what the common good tells us to do.
Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell over at NETWORK is focusing on the same issue, money in politics, with her latest Nuns on the Bus campaign. Is it just a coincidence that you're both taking the lead on this?
It's not a coincidence. We put this coalition together last year. We've been working on it a couple years now. We were one of the first faith groups to get involved in this. We worked very closely with NETWORK and Simone, and we were one of the national partners of their effort. So it's certainly not a coincidence. But besides working closely with NETWORK and other faith-based groups, there's also a third party who's taken the lead on this, and that would be Pope Francis and how he has spoken out about the whole issue of inequality.
Given the pope's calls for structural change, how would you define the issue of money in politics? What does it lead to? An inequality of voice in American life, in American politics?
It's more than just inequality of voice. It translates into policy decisions. Look at what's happened with the distribution of wealth. Since the 1980s, the middle class has shrunk, has gotten smaller and smaller, and [the] wealthy have gotten wealthier and wealthier. And we have people continuing to call for more tax cuts for wealthy people and corporations at the expense of programs for the poor and middle class. That goes against Christian teaching. It goes against Catholic teaching. If you're going to be a good Catholic, a good Christian, you can't support these inequities of wealth.
Are the U.S. bishops doing enough to address this issue?
The U.S. Conference of [Catholic] Bishops and the Catholic church as a whole do a tremendous amount of work in helping to alleviate poverty, probably more than any other organization. But from a policy point of view, I don't think [the bishops] hold the people who are in favor of cutting programs for the poor and giving tax cuts to the wealthy to the same standard that they do folks who are in favor of abortion rights. And I think that they should. If you're going to deny Communion to one group, you need to deny Communion to the other. And I don't believe you should be denying Communion to anybody.
I think Republicans feel strongly that as long as they're opposed to gay marriage and opposed to abortion that they can say anything they want on any of these other issues. And the bishops will support them. Not all the bishops, of course, that's a generalization.
But a lot of bishops will support them and will urge the folks in their diocese to vote for these people.
How does undue political spending affect our environment?
Well, there is the whole issue of climate change, the destruction of the environment. That causes many people to die. And then there was a whole issue last year about the effort to relax standards for mercury. One of the side effects of mercury is premature birth, what we called "unintended abortions." If you relax these standards and allow chemical companies to increase the amount of mercury, then you're going to see more and more of these unintended abortions. And how can you be [supporting the] right to life and support that?
Again, getting back to the issue of money in politics, there were large corporations pushing to relax these standards so they could make more money. We can go through almost any issue and see how money has affected policy decisions in this way. I have lots of discussions about climate change. I have discussions with my Republican friends about this issue. I have discussions with Republican Congress people about it. Privately, they'll say, "Climate change, yes, we understand it's a serious issue, but we can't say anything about it publicly." Well, what kind of moral leadership is that? And that reason they can't say anything publicly is because of the campaign contributions that they get. We've lost the ability to have good, moral leaders because of the influence of money.
If the system is rigged, how can we effect real change?
One thing that folks can do is not vote for a candidate who won't support change to the system. Whatever other issues you might have, this has to be right up there: "I will not vote for you unless you agree to support legislation to get money out of politics." Because otherwise, no other issue will matter. You're not going to see change on any other issue, on any side of the aisle, until we agree to get rid of the money and the corruption that exists.
[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is email@example.com.]