Seminary president: Faith leaders, it’s time to overturn Citizens United

BLOOMBERG An elderly man is helped to a voting booth at a makeshift polling location at P.S. 52 in the … Continued


An elderly man is helped to a voting booth at a makeshift polling location at P.S. 52 in the Midland Beach neighborhood of the Staten Island borough of New York on Nov. 6, 2012.

I recently read the heartbreaking, moving story of Tracy Abruzzo, who, like thousands of other families, lost her home in the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. Following the storm, she and her husband sifted through the rubble Sandy left behind, fitting all they owned into a single blue bucket.

Reading about her struggle to rebuild, I began to think about the incredible cost of this election and the wasted $6 billion that were poured into it. That money could completely rebuild the lives of more than 13,000 families who, like Abruzzo, now face ruins rather than homes. It’s clear to me that there’s a fundamental flaw in our approach to election spending when money that could help thousands of hurricane victims pays for misleading advertisements designed to tear the electorate apart.

As a woman of faith, I’m deeply troubled both by the colossal sums spent to influence the recent elections and the hundreds of millions of dollars that are already being collected in an effort to sway the midterm elections in two years. Super PACs are already holding planning meetings for the 2014 elections and considering how to engage directly with lawmakers on Capitol Hill during the Congressional session. We’re undeniably seeing the negative effects of the Citizens United court decision, which granted corporations the same rights as people and opened the doors for a flood of special interest election spending from a privileged few. As leaders of faith, we must sound the alarm.

This election cycle Super PACs alone spent more than $500 million on campaign propaganda, from voter suppression tactics and fear mongering to outright fabrications. This spending was a perfectly legal effort to tilt local, state and federal elections and to buy special access at every level of our government. When people make large gifts of money to influence the behavior of a leader, the Bible calls that a bribe. 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)

As the president of a theological seminary, I am well versed in the religious ideals recognizing the sanctity and inherent value of the individual. Humankind was, after all, created in God’s image. This is the sacred prism through which I now view the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which gives corporations the same rights as individuals. What, I must ask, would God think? From a theological point of view, the idea of corporate personhood is a farce.

The time for hand wringing and anxious complaints is long past. Just as the prophets cried out, it is time for us to support campaign finance overhaul. To that end, ministers, rabbis and nuns, priests, imams, and theologians across the U.S. are joining forces, calling out the dangers of unchecked money in our elections and advocating for large-scale reform.

Faith leaders were important to the passage of state-level ballots calling for campaign finance reform in Colorado and Montana and efforts are already gearing up in North Carolina and Washington in support of a state-by-state movement to reverse Citizens United and end corporate “personhood.” So far, nine states are backing a constitutional amendment to that end and faith leaders are providing critical support in all of them.

Looking back on this election, people of faith must ask ourselves what our priorities are moving forward. Will we continue to allow a select few to overwhelm the voices of the many, or will we follow Biblical precedent and rally against abuses of economic wealth and power that sow injustice for the people? Will we settle for leaders who spend billions to divide us, or will we tell them that money would be much better spent to rebuild the communities and homes of thousands like Tracy? I know where I stand. I hope you’ll join me in the groundswell.

The Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson is president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City and author of “God’s Troublemakers: How Women of Faith are Changing the World.”

  • DavidJ9

    Would the money spent by the overtly selfish who were trying to get even more tax cuts for their millions and billions ever go to help those in need? Do the Koch Brothers care about anyone else?

  • indyguy3

    Political “leaders” fight over which states vote early in the primaries. This is in an attempt to get the biggest share of this money they can get. I am sure they would disagree with your description of this money as a waste. It boosts the economy in their state.

    Also, wasn’t it obvious that people don’t sell their vote to the candidate that spends the most?

  • wa16

    Spending money independently to support politicians who you or your association of like-minded individuals agrees with is not bribery. Citizens United did not give corporations the same rights as individuals. This is a confused and incorrect understanding. Citizens United allowed corporations and unions to spend money independently on political communications. This column supports the censorship of independent political speech. I wonder whether the author would support the censoring of political speech by for-profit corporations that run the Washington Post and the New York Times. Beyond that, this election showed that all of the advertising purchased by 501(c)(4)s and Super PACs didn’t have the deleterious effect that the anti-speech crowd expected.

  • mqpham

    The last election showed that the effect of Citizens United had been way overblown!

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