Can corporations walk the aisle?

As the race for the White House heats up with Paul Ryan’s Republican VP nod, questions concerning corporate political involvement remain. Crucial to the debate around corporate political funding are two words: Citizens United. They refer to the landmark, 2010 Supreme Court decision that gave corporations many of the same First Amendment rights as individuals have. Debates quickly surfaced as people asked the question, “are corporations people?”

For Baptists, perhaps the question should be, “can corporations make confessions of faith?” After all, if they’re “people” shouldn’t we be asking them to walk the aisle, join the church, and serve at the soup kitchen?

Arriving at the Citizens United decision did not happen overnight. In fact, the decision was years in the making, at least Adam Skaggs thinks so. Writing in The Atlantic, Skaggs agrees with others on the powerful impact Chief Justice Roberts’ and Justice Alito’s replacement of William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor had. As Skaggs writes,  “Five times in the five years after Alito joined the Court, it [the Court] considered common sense legislation designed to mitigate the distorting effects of big money on our elections and government.” Each time those were struck down ultimately setting the scene for “a vision of the First Amendment that ensures democracy is for sale to the highest bidder.”

Matt Bai, of The New York Times, argues that the influence of money isn’t really the issue, but integrity and independence of the candidate. For Bai, McCain-Feingold started the ball rolling toward Citizens United. Formerly known as the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002,” McCain-Feingold eradicated soft money for good—allowing for money to be raised outside of the campaign rather than giving directly to the campaign with soft money. As Bai sees it, McCain-Feingold, “…[was] a gradual migration of political might from inside the party structure to outside it.”

In my view, both have it right: democracy now receives greater pull by corporate, profit driven interests, and politicians must take corporations and “big” money into account before making a policy speech.

As Christians continue navigating the political world Citizens United provides an opportunity for critical refection. If we support corporations acting as individuals, then why aren’t we acting like that within our congregations? Can corporations make a profession of faith?

Surely, most will say, “No!” After all, arguing matters of faith are individual. Moreover, corporations don’t enter the voting booth. Conversely, an individual can still donate to a campaign and not vote. In short, corporations are granted the same free speech rights as individuals to influence elections.

And yet, they cannot profess their faith in a religion. They can sell all the chicken sandwiches in the world, and yet they cannot walk the aisle and call on Jesus as their “Lord and savior.”

Elemental to the Christian faith, and Jesus’s teachings, is the focus on the human person. In many congregations, people willingly support Citizens United, and yet stand for the invitation hymn. In the pew people will celebrate the beauty of individual choice, but in the public square willingly support corporate political influence. Baptists, historically, have valued freedom of conscience for the individual, but some now seemingly support a ruling, and thereby activities, that make a mockery of that tenet. Professing faith, walking the aisle, or joining a congregation reflects freedom of conscience. Corporations cannot “move their letter,” sit on committees, or volunteer for VBS leadership.

Both sides of the aisle have utilized and benefited from Citizens United. Unfortunately, if someone wants to win a campaign, they must capitulate to the fiscal powers that be.

Can Christians hold the tension of supporting Citizens United, and then call for professions of faith? We cannot call for personal transformation and renewal, and then defend SuperPACs. We can only demonstrate a lackluster faith that conforms to political gains, not the other way around.

Zachary Bailes

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Bailes holds a Master of Divinity from Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is the Editor of Crazy Liberals and Conservatives, a website dedicated to engaging the intersection of faith and public life.

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