Friday, October 8, 2010

Buying and Selling of American Democracy by Anonymous Donors: More Reflections on Archbishop Nienstedt's Political Anti-Gay Marriage Initiative

More articles coming out in recent days about the way in which donors hiding behind non-profit shields are seeking, in an unprecedented way, to buy American democracy in the coming elections.  Robert Reich writes about this yesterday at HuffPo in an article entitled "The Secret Big-Money Takeover of America." As Reich notes, not only do we see obscenely rich interest groups attempting to buy American democracy today, but these groups are accomplishing this behind closed doors.

We don't see the faces of those funding this takeover.  We don't know their identities.  They are not accountable to the public at large, or in any way responsible to the democracy they are buying.

Reich sees this behavior creating the conditions for a perfect storm in American democracy, on whose outcome the future of our democracy itself depends:

Right now we're headed for a perfect storm: An unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top, a record amount of secret money flooding our democracy, and a public in the aftershock of the Great Recession becoming increasingly angry and cynical about government. The three are obviously related.

We must act. We need a movement to take back our democracy. (If tea partiers were true to their principles, they'd join it.) As Martin Luther King once said, the greatest tragedy is "not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

Michael Luo also reports on this phenomenon in a New York Times article yesterday entitled "Money Talks Louder Than Ever in Midterms."  As Luo notes, the flood of torrents of anonymous money into the American political process, most of it promoting Republican candidates, is the "dominant story line" of the midterm elections.  As he also observes, emboldened by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision earlier this year, which struck down restrictions on corporate spending in political campaigns, ". . . several Republican-leaning nonprofit advocacy organizations, in particular, have begun over the last month to be more aggressive in their approach, explicitly asking for voters to cast their ballots for or against candidates."

And this is precisely what is happening now in the state of Minnesota, with the overtly political decision of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota to play the anti-gay marriage card on the eve of an election in which only the Republican candidate for governor holds the position the bishops are anointing as "the" Catholic position on same-sex marriage.  And in which the powerful, wealthy Catholic non-profit group, the Knights of Columbus, now headed by a Republican activist, Carl Anderson, is assisting the Minnesota bishops in this campaign.  The Knights of Columbus have spent millions of dollars in recent years to attack the rights of their gay brothers and sisters.

As I've noted over and over, one of the most troubling aspects of the decision of the Catholic bishops and the Knights of Columbus to play the anti-gay marriage card in Minnesota now is that it is coupled with a decision to shield the identity of the donor who is funding this political initiative.  The bishops of Minnesota have, in short, sold the church they lead to a particular political party--and to a wealthy activist or activists working to promote that party, whose face the public cannot see, and whose motives and agenda the public cannot critique or question.

Because he is hiding behind the non-profit status of the Catholic church and the Knights of Columbus.

This is a dangerous precedent for our democracy, and for the Catholic church itself.  It endangers our democratic institutions by permitting them to be bought and sold by anonymous political donors using the shield of religious and non-profit groups to hide their identity.  The church itself becomes part of the process by which our democracy is eroded, when it permits this behavior on the part of a hidden donor.

And the corruption extends to the church itself.  When church leaders behave as the Catholic bishops and Knights of Columbus are now behaving in Minnesota, they undercut the moral credibility and teaching authority of the Catholic church.  They do so by placing the church at the beck and call of one political party--and of an anonymous donor acting on behalf of that party, at that--and thereby giving the public the impression that the Catholic church is not a religious organization dedicated to teaching moral principles, but a political organization acting on behalf of a particular political party.  Which is willing to prostitute itself for partisan reasons to a well-heeled donor or donors whose identity it refuses to disclose to the public . . . . 

Many of those now monitoring the behavior of Archbishop John Nienstedt in Minnesota are asking how he could be so naive as to talk into this political trap, which runs the risk of spectacularly corrupting the teaching authority and moral witness of the church he leads.  In my view, the answer to that question is obvious, though shocking: as with quite a few other pastoral leaders of American Catholicism, he has made a deliberate choice to listen to only a portion of his flock, to the wealthy members of the flock whose political loyalties lie primarily with one political party.

And since polls show the governor's race in Minnesota so tight, and when it is obvious that a few thousand votes of Catholics energized by the anti-gay marriage initiative can determine the outcome of this election, Archbishop Nienstedt and his advisers have made a calculated political decision to do what is politically promising, if ethically dubious.

Unfortunately, the flock Archbishop Nienstedt leads will end up paying the price for this lapse in moral judgment, as what it means to be Catholic in this state is reduced to partisan politics.  And as the moral credibility of the church to which they belong becomes tainted by cynical political calculations that may being one party immediate gain, but which bring long-term damage to the church's reputation along with that gain.

The graphic shows Supreme Knight Carl Anderson with President George W. Bush at the 2004 Knights of Columbus national convention.

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