The Common Good

In the Shadow of 'Citizens United'

Last week marked the fourth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled that corporations are entitled to the same free speech rights as individual humans as guaranteed under the First Amendment.

The political repercussions of Citizens United include the rise of “Super PACs” — political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, independent of direct campaign contributions, to influence politics. The power yielded to such corporations, as well as indiscriminate spending allowance, has deleterious effects upon our democracy.

Because money talks, big money will talk a lot louder, drowning out the voices of average Americans trying to exercise their own civic rights. Politicians are undoubtedly more apt to respond to the requests of companies that shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars on supportive campaign politics than to the needs of a college graduate or working family who donated 10 bucks. Doesn’t exactly smack of sound democratic governance.

There is strong public support for limiting the ability of corporations to hold sway over elections. Results of a Gallup poll revealed half of Americans would support changes to federal campaign finance, eliminating private contributions in favor of government funding. And 79 percent of Americans would support laws to limit the amount of money congressional candidates can raise.

If those we elect govern by favoring those who could afford to help put them in the halls of power, the voice of entire voting blocs will be diminished. There will be no incentive to engage the poor. Serving the common good will no longer be politically expedient for our officials.

Several voices in the faith community have spoken out against the influence of money in American politics. As people of faith, we can identify multiple reasons why unlimited corporate political spending should be worrisome.

First, we believe in the equality of each human individual. Voices should not be weighted, tipping the scales in favor of the privileged or those with greater wealth or power. God does not show favoritism, and neither should our government. Conversely, Scripture exhorts leaders to work for the benefit of the poor and marginalized.

Second, it is people who constitute and elect government, not institutions seeking to extract political favors. In treating corporations as human individuals, the law protects them even as they engage in activities that give them a competitive political advantage over the rest of the electorate.

Next, where massive amounts of money lay in wait to be leveraged, almost certainly the potential for bribery exists.

Auburn Seminary’s Lo$ing Faith in Democracy: A Theological Critique of the Role of Money in American Politics also points out that “justice includes fair outcomes, not just fair procedures.” Scripture condemns biased courts and extortion of the weak by the powerful as forms of economic injustice. Equal access to land (at the time the main livelihood and source of well-being) was foundationally important for the survival of society. Applying the principle today, we ought to provide equal access to capital (education, means of production, etc.). Again, the goal is not necessarily equal, but fair outcomes. Instead of beginning at a deficit of opportunity, all people under our democracy ought to have the same chance to become productive, responsible members of society.

How do we prevent our democracy from declining into a plutocracy, ruled by the interests of a minority of wealthy elites? What can be done to ensure your voice counts?

The first step must be mobilizing a broad coalition of those who would like to strengthen and reaffirm our commitment to democracy. While these groups may not politically agree with one another, the intent to redeem our government and give equal voice to every citizen is a solidifying catalyst. The majority of Americans, as well as supporters in Congress and faith communities, can come together to preserve the rights of the public and remove the influence of big money from political processes. Being intentional to maintain the health of our democracy is a responsibility we owe to those who fought for it in the past, for ourselves, and for future generations of Americans.

Anna Hall is campaigns assistant for Sojourners.

Image: Money in politics illustration, Elena Yakusheva / Shutterstock.com

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