Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Democracy for Sale: Minnesota Catholic Bishops Play Partisan Politics as Front for Unnamed Donor

One of the most disturbing aspects of the decision of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota to mail a video attacking gay marriage to the state's Catholics right before the fall elections, about which I've been blogging, is this: the leader of Minnesota Catholics, Archbishop Nienstedt of Minneapolis-St. Paul, has noted that the funding for this political venture comes from an unidentified donor.  Who intends to remain anonymous.

As my previous postings about this decision of the Catholic church in Minnesota to play politics to boost Republican voter turnout this fall note, the use of religious organizations as fronts for partisan political activity by hidden donors is an ominous indicator of democracy in peril.  Since religious groups like the Catholic church or the Knights of Columbus--which produced the video in question--are non-profits and enjoy immunity from laws requiring political action groups to disclose their sources of income and how they are using money donated to them, what the Catholic church in Minnesota is doing with this anti-gay marriage video sets a dangerous precedent for American political life.

The willingness of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota and the Knights of Columbus to permit an unnamed donor or donors to fund the production and mailing of an overtly political video, which plays partisan politics behind the screen of religious freedom and tax-exempt protections, opens the door for any religious group to front as a political advocacy group channeling donations from powerful hidden donors.  From powerful hidden donors whose ultimate intent is to buy and sell democracy, with religion as their mask.

This is a trend that is likely to grow in American political life after the Supreme Court opened the door to such buying and selling of political influence with its decision last January to roll back campaign finance laws that designed to place strong barriers between corporate donations and the political sphere.  As critics of that decision have been noting, it opens the door to the buying and selling of American democracy--and in the partisan political intrusion of a religious group into the public sphere that we now see underway in Minnesota, we're seeing what can happen when that door is opened.

An unnamed donor or donors can contribute large amounts of money (Nienstedt claims he does not know how much his video and its mailing have cost, but local commentators are estimating the cost at over one million dollars) to a religious group that can then use its tax-exempt status to hide the identity of that donor, while playing partisan politics.  In the undisclosed name of that donor and of God.

The seriousness of the Minnesota bishops' decision to permit an unnamed, hidden donor or donors to use the Catholic church in Minnesota as a screen for partisan political action is compounded by the fact that the rhetoric of the video the Minnesota bishops are circulating echoes--in some cases word for word--the language of ads now being aired in Minnesota by the right-wing anti-gay activist group National Organization for Marriage.  As I've noted in a number of previous postings (e.g., here, here, and here), NOM has brazenly and repeatedly defied financial disclosure laws in a number of states in which it has played politics in the name of God.  NOM is fighting hard right now to avoid making its donor list public in Maine, where the organization played a key role last fall in a battle against same-sex marriage.

The identity of at least one of NOM's heavy funders has recently come to light: it's the same Knights of Columbus who produced the anti-gay marriage video now being circulated by the Minnesota to the state's Catholics in the hope that Catholic voters will give an edge to Republican candidate Tom Emmer in the state's gubernatorial race.  In the view of Fred Karger, who has carefully monitored funding sources for the proposition 8 battle to remove the right of civil marriage from gay couples of California, NOM also fronts as a political action group for the LDS church, which, in Karger's view, is funneling large sums of hidden money into movements to roll back gay rights around the money through "religious" non-profits like NOM.

NOM is overtly campaigning for Tom Emmer, the Republican candidate for governor in Minnesota.  And beating the anti-gay marriage drum as it campaigns.  If Archbishop Nienstedt expects to be believed when he claims (I've discussed this claim in previous postings) that the decision of the Minnesota Catholic bishops to release an anti-gay marriage video echoing pro-Republican gubernatorial ads by NOM is not political, then the bishops of Minnesota have picked a curious time, indeed, to release their video.

Meanwhile, the trend to buying and selling of American elections by hidden donors is not likely to abate anytime soon--and it will in all likelihood accelerate when powerful religious groups like the Catholic church are spurring the trend on by permitting unnamed donors to use them as political front groups.  As former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie has just informed a Google/Politico conference on the midterm elections, big-moneyed conservative donors funding vaguely named political groups intend to keep hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.  Because, they maintain, they will be attacked if their identity is known.

But most of all because they can do so.  And when folks like the Catholic bishops of Minnesota permit them to do so while claiming quasi-religious goals, they can do so in the name of God.  No matter how ungodly their objectives and the means they use to attain their goals.

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