Monday, June 18, 2012

Is Democracy for Sale?

Last night I had the privilege of serving on a panel discussing the question "Is Democracy for Sale?" The event was well attended, and I was honored to be given the opportunity to be a participant. My thanks to the organizers of this fine event. Each of the four panelists was asked to comment on the U. S. Supreme Court  Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) decision and its implications for the future of democracy. The Court handed down its verdict in this case on January 21, 2010.

The Citizens United case evolved from an action by the FEC banning a political ad targeting Hilary Clinton, then running for office. The FEC ruling was based on a law forbidding the airing of political ads a certain number of days before an election. The Citizens United group claimed the FEC ruling violated its freedom of speech. The Court found in favor of Citizens United and, going beyond the limits of the case, it also ruled that money is political speech. Moreover, the majority of the Court concluded that the identify of the donor(s) does not matter. Nobody needs to know who is giving the money. The source is unimportant. The donor can remain anonymous.The Citizens United decision overturned a long-standing campaign finance law limiting political expenditures. As a result of this verdict groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose candidates.The Court announced its decision on January 21, 2010. President Barack Obama famously criticized this ruling in his State of the Union on January 27, 2012. Justice Samuel Alito, with equal renown and in an unprecedented act, interrupted the President's speech to register his dissent.

My slightly redacted remarks follow. The talk was given at the Boathouse in Wichita on the evening of June 14, 2012.

I believe that many, perhaps even all, of our most perplexing and vexing problems begin in the realm of the spirit. When our spiritual center gets off-center and our core values become confused, problems are sure to follow. Because I believe that this is the case, I also believe that we cannot solve many of our problems without examining the underlying spiritual issues and finding ways to get our center re-centered and our values restored.

The idea that money is political speech is not a self-evident truth. It is based on certain assumptions and embodies certain values. If we are going to challenge this decision we need to know how it is justified and why this justification is wrong. Then we can propose an alternative. So I want to do three things this evening: 1) examine the justification for the idea that money is political speech, 2) show why I believe this idea is wrong, and 3) propose an alternative.

Let's begin at the beginning. The Bible is my tradition, so I speak from this tradition. I recognize that other faith traditions have their own sacred texts and I mean no disrespect. This is my tradition.The Bible describes the Promised Land as a land flowing with milk and honey. The prophet Micah foretells of a day when nations will study war no more and each one of us will sit beneath our own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. We want to do more than merely survive. We want to live well. This is true for everyone, and it has always been so.

From the days of Abraham and Sarah, Western tradition has taught us that a good society, a society in which people can live a good life, rests on a moral foundation. The most basic moral code involves self-regard and other-regard. "Love your neighbor as yourself." "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Or as my mother taught me, "Let kindness be your guide." For thousands of years people believed that a good society rests on this moral foundation. 

Then in the middle of the 1600s everything suddenly changed. The old world was turned upside down and inside out as a result of the English Civil War. The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who is recognized as the Founder of Modern Political Theory, lived through this war. When the war ended he concluded that life in a state of nature is "mean, brutish, nasty and short." He said that people are motivated by what he called their Appetites (desires) and their Aversions (fears). He went on to say that our greatest fear is to die a violent, degrading, meaningless and humiliating death. What we want, what we desire, he said, is to be able to satisfy all our appetites.
Hobbes gave us a new vision of society. His was a society ruled by competition rather than cooperation. And he separated ethics and economics, or perhaps it would be better to say he reduced ethics to self-interest. In his world, what is ethical is what satisfies my desires. My self-interest is defined by my appetites and my goal is to do what it takes to satisfy them.What is good and right for me is now defined by what I want. Life is an endless competition between people trying to satisfy their appetites.

The idea of a society governed by the self-interest of individuals eventually leads to the development of a market economy and to the idea of progress. The idea of economic progress did not exist in any meaningful way before the rise of the market economy. One economist famously called this churning of society, this push for progress, this life of endless competition, the process of "Creative Destruction." Out with the old and in with the new. Some call it progress and others call it planned obsolescence. In truth it is both.

Now fast forward to 1987 and the Oliver Stone's movie Wall Street. As we all remember the main character in that movie famously declares "Greed is good!" The reason that greed is good is because it allows me to satisfy my appetite. It is a totally Hobbesean world. This is not the goodness of creation. This is the goodness of endless consumption.

We do not have to leave the set of the movie to conclude that money is the measure of success. Successful people are those who have the most money. They have earned it. They are able to satisfy their hungers. Making money validates the system and confirms the worth of those who have it. In the world of Thomas Hobbes successful people satisfy their appetites; unsuccessful people are left to cope with their fears.

Now we come to the Citizens United decision and to the personification of money. Money is the measure of value. Those who have it, have value.Those who have it are literally worth more. People who do not have money are literally worth-less. It is not only that money measures the value of other things; money is now the embodiment of value. Money is good. Money is political speech.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a 90 page dissent in the Citizens United case. His dissent had two parts, as I understand it. In part one, he said that the First Amendment does not guarantee the right of political free speech. He said that it prevents the suppression of political speech based on the identity of the speaker. That is a very different interpretation. The majority of the Court said, without explanation, that the identity of the speaker does not matter. It is unimportant. This interpretation is the personification of money and the subordination or suppression of the person--the human being. Justice Stephens argued that if there is no way to identify the speaker, then there can be no accountability. Nobody is responsible. All we are left with is a society governed by the appetites of those anonymous people who have money and can speak. Even Hobbes knew that this is a receipt for a culture of despair. Such a society can not survive; at least not democratically.

What, then, shall we do? I think we need to change the story. I think we need to reconnect ethics and economics.We need to leave the world of Thomas Hobbes and return to the world of Micah, who calls us to seek justice, love mercy and walk with kindness. Let me elaborate briefly.

Justice is found in the law. The law serves three functions: to teach us what is right, to restrain us when we are temped to do wrong, and to punish those who violate the social norms. To seek justice means that in the eyes of the law everyone is the same. Equality is the first principle of justice. Due process is the second principle. Everyone is equal and everyone is entitled to the same treatment; the same standard applies to all. Some people are not favored over others. Without equality and due process, there can be no justice.

Mercy, in this context, means that the goal of justice is the restoration of the community. The aim of justice is the healing of the community; restoring the community to health. Restorative justice is another name for mercy.

Kindness in this context means lifting up the bottom line. The measure of a successful economy is not the wealth of a few but the health of the whole. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself. Let kindness be your guide.

We need a new creation. Not the world of Thomas Hobbes but the world of Micah.We need a society that values justice, mercy and kindness. We need an economy that is in the service of life.  

Rev. David Hansen

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