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Minister Leslie Watson Malachi Headshot

Four Years After Citizens United: A Faith Perspective

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Growing up, when I was taught that all people have inherent dignity, that all people were created in God's image, and that all people should have equal rights and opportunities, "all people" did not include corporations like ExxonMobil. "All people" in the past century meant real, hardworking, living and breathing human beings. But apparently "all people" in the 21st century, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, means something radically different.

Four years ago this week, ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, the high court infamously gave corporations the distinction, the same constitutional right as real people -- as you and me -- to spend unlimited amounts of money influencing elections. Four years later we are still advocating a point that should be obvious: Corporations are not people.

On the anniversary of a decision that has caused immeasurable harm to our democratic system, I take heart in knowing that faith leaders across the country are continuing to push for a more just democracy.

Yes, faith leaders across faith traditions. When many people think about the movement to get big money out of politics, they think about good government groups and activists poring over spreadsheets to "follow the money" and track political donations. But I know for a fact that faith leaders are also activists, advocates, and as noted in a new Auburn Seminary report, uniquely positioned to connect values that are vital to so many Americans with one of the most pressing issues of our day: making sure our democracy works for everyone.

Many religious traditions focus on economic inequality and injustice. When wealthy special interests are able to buy political influence and overpower the voices of everyday Americans, they can set an agenda that doesn't serve the needs of the poor or the vulnerable. Because many clergy and ministry leaders are often intimately connected with the struggles their congregation members face daily, they see firsthand the ramifications of big money in politics on almost every issue from a livable wage to the right to vote to the right to full citizenship. When moneyed interests can spend without limit to influence the elections of our policymakers, it only follows that our policies will be skewed and favorably follow the money. From the skyrocketing cost of education to environmental degradation to the expansion of the prison industrial complex, money in politics takes voters -- living, breathing human beings -- out of the mix, and in the end, the country and its people suffer.

As faith leaders we have a weekly platform within our communities to speak up about these issues. Many of the women and men I work with each day in my capacity as director of a national ecumenical alliance of African American clergy have been influential in leading the charge for the passage of local and state-level reforms to check the influence of big money in politics. They are using every opportunity to inform and expand access to our democracy and push for a government that is truly of, by, and for the people.

In the words of civil rights leader and theologian Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose 85th birthday was celebrated nationally on January 20, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Citizens United matters, and it is a moral imperative that we address it. What our country doesn't need is more "rights" for corporations or more political influence for the wealthy minority among us. What we need is to follow the lead of courageous faith and secular leaders alike in finding real solutions, such as a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United and related decisions, to address the billions of dollars that have been pouring into our elections, distorting our democracy, and hurting you and I -- real, living and breathing women, men, people, human beings.