The Holy War on Corporate Politicking

By Robert Sirico

The religious left's long-running campaign to silence those with different views has moved aggressively into corporate boardrooms. CEOs and directors of public companies are being hectored by social justice activists to abandon lobbying and other political activities.

Let's hope they don't succeed. Our political life would be impoverished and unbalanced by muzzling corporations whose interests go far beyond the boardroom to number millions of employees, shareholders, and community members. The cravenly political ploy of dressing up a progressive campaign to silence dissent with religious sentiment and Scripture proof texts brings honest religious witness into disrepute.

A newly issued critique of the role of money in politics titled "Losing Faith in Our Democracy" by the New York-based Auburn Theological Seminary is a case in point. The report ostensibly presents Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish viewpoints on money and politics. Yet the 10 essays in the critique -- with one notable exception -- simply rehash the religious left's talking points about corporate spending and the alleged harm it does to American democracy.

Every annual meeting season, we watch as a small group of activist groups on the left such as As You Sow and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility submit proxy resolutions that demand disclosures of corporate public policy expenditures. This is done, these groups claim, in furtherance of a more "just and sustainable world." In fact, such resolutions are designed to first bully corporations into disclosing lobbying activities and then promptly turn the tables by conducting aggressive campaigns in the press to shame them.

But the religious underpinnings for such arguments are spurious. The argument always goes that corporations have money and the poor and disadvantaged (always "disenfranchised" from the political process) do not. Therefore, according to this logic, it follows that it's unfair that corporations are allowed to make public policy expenditures to unduly influence the political process. Curiously, opponents of such spending are often themselves corporate entities (albeit non-profit entities) that spend large sums of money to voice their own opinions.

The religious left should heed the counsel of William Cavanaugh, a senior research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. In his white paper for Auburn Seminary's very own critique of corporate political spending, Cavanaugh identifies Biblical precedents for corporate personhood. Adam and Christ, he points out, incorporate the whole human race. This, he says, shows that personhood properly understood cannot be limited to the individual. Likewise, writes Cavanaugh, "Paul's image of the Church as the body of Christ (e.g. I Corinthians 12) is so powerful; our salvation is our reunification into the corporate person of Christ."

Civil society, says Cavanaugh, requires us all to speak "with united voices. Unions, families, churches, and other organizations of people must remain strong in order to resist the reduction of public life to a binary of the state on the one hand and individuals on the other." And the same holds for businesses, especially as the power of government regulatory agencies grows exponentially and leftist billionaires like the Steyer brothers increasingly exercise their own First Amendment rights. (I searched in vain for them in the Auburn report.)

Another report, this one from the Center for Competitive Politics, a Virginia-based First Amendment advocacy group, deftly reveals the activists' questionable strategies, funding and end game. The Center notes that many of these social justice activists couch their resolutions in language advocating the best interests of the company's shareholders. Not surprisingly, CCP concludes, these arguments for political disclosure are "in actuality pursuing an ideological agenda unrelated to the profit-maximizing interest of most shareholders." CCP identifies these gadflies as a "cadre of unions, public pension funds, and activist investors...pursuing actions that would selectively burden American public companies from exercising their First Amendment rights to participate in public dialogue."

The political process only works when all sides are allowed to freely express themselves, a right guaranteed by our Constitution. This is an argument that must be made from secular and spiritual perspectives. Targeting the free speech of political adversaries, under a smoke screen of pious outrage, is not only unjust but immoral.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute.

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