The Megaphone of Money in American Politics

This post was commissioned by Auburn Seminary as part of a theological grounding project on the topic of  “money in politics.”

The belief that the human being is created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and therefore has inherent worth and value is foundational to Judaism (Genesis 1:27). Not only does the human being reflect the likeness of the Divine, but Judaism teaches that every person is descended from the same Adam ha Rishon, the first human. As we read in the Mishnah, one person [Adam] was created as the common ancestor of all people (Sanhedrin 4:5). Each and every person is a reflection of both the Divine and of one another. In this way all people are intertwined, interrelated and interdependent.

These attributes of equality and interconnection can easily get lost as we create and participate in the systems that govern our society. If every human being is valuable, then every person should have a voice in the political process. However, in a society where one’s value or influence is often determined by the amount of money one gives, voices get lost. Systems are needed to level out the playing field to ensure that all are represented.

In Judaism we see this principle demonstrated in the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the primary center of life and community of the biblical Israelites. Every person was required to give a half-shekel to provide for the maintenance of the Mishkan, “the rich could not give more and the poor could not give less” (Exodus 30:15). The half-shekel ensured that everyone in the community participated, and that no one person could claim ownership more than any other.

By contrast, such regulations are not in place in our political system. While the development of the Internet has spawned efforts to provide fundraising opportunities to small donors, so far at least, these attempts raise a small portion of what is needed to gain elected office. Consequently we suffer from a competitive process wherein vast sums of money are exchanged for voice and influence. As Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote for a recent federal court case dealing with campaign contribution limits:  “The constitutional line between political speech and political contributions grows increasingly difficult to discern.” Brown raises the question: Is money speech, and, if so, what happens to the voice of those without money?

Money has become an increasingly influential factor in American politics. For many politicians, fundraising can take anywhere from twenty-five to fifty percent of their day, leaving little time or energy for the work of listening to constituents and creating policy. Because so much time is spent raising money, in order to maximize their effort, politicians focus on higher-level donors who can give more to their campaigns. While all of us may have free speech, only some of us are being heard.

The relationship between politician and constituent relies on the communication of issues to the politician who then acts on behalf of the constituent. When money becomes the language of communication, it amplifies the concerns of those giving the money over the voices of those without money to give. Given this system, the politician responds to the megaphone of money.

Within the struggle to establish stricter campaign finance reform is the question of when donations to a campaign become a bribe. In 1991 the Supreme Court ruled that a bribe is when a contribution is, “made in return for an explicit promise or undertaking by the official to perform or not perform an official act.”

Whether or not the large sums of money donated by wealthy individuals or corporations are technically in the category of bribery, they certainly hold sway over those in or aspiring to office. In one way or another politicians must bend to the will of these large donors in order to secure their support. This creates a system whereby politicians become beholden to the will of the few and the voice of the many is seldom heard.

While the sums are larger and the stakes are higher in recent times, the fear that money corrupts those in power is an age-old issue. As far back as the Hebrew Bible those concerned with justice warned against the powerful and dangerous effects of money in politics. In Isaiah we read, “Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right (Isaiah 33:15).” According to Isaiah, money blunts the capacity to navigate the complexity of a given issue, and instead turns the ear towards the well-articulated pleas of the well financed without regard for other voices in the community and their just concerns.

Isaiah’s command is immediately followed by an explanation, the content of which has become a central tenet of Judaism, “you shall not oppress a stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (ibid). The injunction to remember that we were once strangers is one of the most frequently recurring tropes in the Torah. Not only are we to recognize the stranger in our midst, but we are to remember that we too were once strangers ourselves.

Because prodigious energy is required to cultivate constituent relationships, the average person becomes a stranger to those within the halls of power. In our own day we see how easy it is for a politician to become estranged from those without large sums to give.

Eschewing bribes and remembering our experience as strangers in Egypt are two facets of the central Jewish teaching: “Justice justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Judaism not only focuses on lofty principles but also their enactment in daily life. So we must ask, how, exactly, does one pursue justice?

In his explanation of this biblical verse, the famous medieval commentator Rashi references a discussion in the Talmud in which the rabbis themselves offer multiple interpretations. Commenting on the double use of the word “justice,” the rabbis contend that the first mention of justice refers to a decision based on law, the second to a need for compromise (Sanhederin 32b). In order to create a just society, they believe, we not only have to follow the letter of law, but also must embody the more flexible spirit of the law in our interactions as well.

The story the rabbis give to illustrate the spirit of the law is one of two camels that meet on their ascent up the mountain. If they try to ascend at the same time, both will fall. Instead, the rabbis say, they should ascend one after the other. If one is laden and the other unladen, the latter should make way for the former.

The fact that this story is given as an illustration of “Justice, justice shall you pursue” makes clear that foundational to creating a just society is the institutionalization of measures that attempt to even out inequality. Implicit in this passage is the belief that justice requires both camels making it up the hill.

In our political system today money serves to exacerbate inequality, giving the unburdened camel the ability to hire a first class ride to the top while the other camel struggles in the dust below. Money can blind those in power to the fact that every individual is of inherent worth and is therefore deserving of equal representation in the political processes that govern society. Looking to our sacred texts can refresh our ethical vision and help us to hold our leaders—and ourselves—accountable.

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2 thoughts on “The Megaphone of Money in American Politics

  1. Three posts in succession – you must all have been at the Rabbis without Borders conference last week as were two of my friends. Good to see – we need this focus, I believe, expertly focused by the Psalms as well as Isaiah. (See a related comment here.)

    As I noted on a related post, I see the Psalter as a book for the formation of a people who know how to act in mercy because they have known such covenant kindness (חסד) applied to them.

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