WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Corporate influence, through money and lobbying, is a given in setting public policy.
But faith leaders and public interest groups are wondering how much corporate influence is too much.
Organizations such as the Franciscan Action Network and Common Cause
have banded together to organize around the issue. Their message:
Unlimited political spending by corporations undermines democracy.
For Patrick Carolan, the network's executive director, it's a moral and
religious issue that deserves the attention of people of faith. He told
Catholic News Service that unlimited spending mutes the voices of the
poor and marginalized in favor of those with the largest bankroll.
He outlined the organization's concerns in opening a conference Oct. 1
sponsored by the Franciscan Action Network and the Institute for Policy
Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.
"As faith leaders we care because we are all intimately connected with
the troubles people face daily," Carolan said. "Faith leaders experience
firsthand the results unlimited money in politics has on almost every
issue. No matter what issue we work on, issues like immigration reform,
climate change, gun safety, one of the things we've discovered is every
one of those issues is connected to money one way or another."
Through a coalition called Faithful Democracy, the Franciscan network
also has worked with organizations such as Public Citizen, Common Cause
and American Friends Service Committee to confront corporate spending
practices in the political arena.
The grass-roots campaign stems from two U.S. Supreme Court decisions
that lifted limits on campaign spending. In Citizens United vs. Federal
Election Commission in 2010, a 5-4 court majority held that the First
Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political spending
by unions and corporations. In McCutcheon vs. Federal Election
Commission, the court in another 5-4 decision last April struck down
overall campaign spending limits to candidates, political parties and
political action committees for individual donors.
Organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for
Prosperity have defended their political spending practices as necessary
to limit growing government, reduce taxes and promote free-market
The issue of growing corporate power and influence has reached as far as
the Vatican. Pope Francis has said that the ideology of money has
become a new golden calf. He has challenged people to find ways to use
political power, influence and financial resources to aid poor people.
Auburn Theological Seminary in New York published a theological critique
of the role of money in American politics: "Losing Faith in Our
Democracy," written by Rabbi Justus Baird, the school's dean. It
concluded that a "multiplicity of voices," particularly that of poor
people, is needed to preserve democracy.
Rabbi Baird drew from Catholic social teaching and traditional Jewish
teaching from the Old Testament in explaining the critique's conclusions
at the Catholic University conference. He encouraged participants to
find religious language to frame arguments to "move people to connect
the dots" signifying corporate spending.
"Not only is the voice of the poor being silenced, but the voice of
everyone except a really, really small slice of America is being
silenced," he said. "If you take away the voice of the people, you are
taking away the voice of God."
Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research &
Catholic Studies, told CNS the common good is threatened when political
debates and policymaking is dominated by a few voices who are able to
shape outcomes to their liking and to the detriment of society.
"For us Catholics, politics is supposed to be about promotion of the
common good, so we engage the citizens in political life for the common
good of the whole community. There's no way to think about money but to
recognize that money is directly counter to that. It's about the
representation of special interest in politics. It's about private
interest, not the common good," Schneck said during a conference break.
The conference also addressed several strategies underway to reduce
corporate influence. The 50 attendees heard discussions about a pending
constitutional amendment that would remove the personhood designation of
corporations stemming from the Citizens United case to regular
preaching on the issue.
The constitutional amendment has been introduced in both the Senate and
the House as Joint Resolution 119. It needs a two-thirds majority in
both chambers to pass. Congressional observers rate prospects for
passage in both chambers as slim.
Despite the uphill battle, representatives of the public interest groups
said that a groundswell of support for the amendment could sway
Congress to approve it. The amendment would then have to be ratified by
38 state legislatures before it would become part of the Constitution.
The extent of corporate spending in politics prompted conference
participants to begin thinking of ways to raise greater awareness of the
Eli McCarthy, director for justice and peace at the Conference of Major
Superiors of Men, said that progress on the issues he has worked on --
gun violence, immigration reform, Middle East peace, restorative justice
for prison inmates -- seemed to be stymied by corporate money.
"It's about connecting the dots," he said, echoing Rabbi Baird. "It
raised the question for me about including the voices for the poor and
making sure we don't put a Band-Aid on something without really getting
to the structural dilemma of the poor being marginalized in so many
Franciscan Father Jim Gardiner, a member of the Franciscan Action
Network's board of directors, said the workshop served as a reminder
that the Gospel is connected to many issues and that he hoped to work
some of what he learned into homilies at Masses at the Franciscan
Monastery in Washington.
"There's a greater variety of issues we need to be able to talk about,"
he said. "It's Gospel driven. Some people would say it is too specific
(to address), but I don't think it is."