Dan Nejfelt, Faith in Public Life’s Messaging and Trainings Manager, worked at Sojourners magazine as part of his graduate study of journalism at the University of Missouri before coming to FPL. Prior to that, he taught remedial reading and writing to 7th and 8th graders in rural Arkansas as a Teach For America corps member. Dan blogs about health care, the Religious Right and budget issues.
As Nick highlighted, President Obama’s remarks at today’s National Prayer Breakfast included, among many important points, a thoughtful explanation of how his faith informs his political beliefs about budget and tax policy. Unfortunately, these remarks have already been misinterpreted in the media. Ed Kilgore has the scoop:
So President Obama spoke at this morning’s National Prayer Breakfast, and it’s not just conservative gabbers who are mocking him for allegedly claiming direct divine sanction for his policy proposals. Here’s Politico’s stupid headline: “Obama: Jesus Would Tax the Rich.”
…But matter of fact, Obama did not claim Jesus as co-author of his policies: He merely suggested that they are influenced by the values taught by Jesus, as he understands them. He went far out of his way to try to make that clear, saying: “Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us.”
Connecting authentic faith to contentious political issues is an inherently difficult but worthy endeavor. Perhaps more political leaders would try to do so if their words wouldn’t be so grossly taken out of context.
The results of this week’s Florida primary raise serious questions about the political influence of Religious Right leaders. As Amy Sullivan has pointed out, conservative Christian elites – men like James Dobson, Tony Perkins, the late Jerry Falwell – have rarely seen their favorite candidate win the GOP presidential nomination. I’m sure they’re used to settling for second best by now, but this year’s contest must be particularly frustrating.
As we’ve noted before a who’s-who of the religious right had an emergency summit in Texas just two weeks ago for the expressed purpose of coalescing around a conservative candidate, and the implicit purpose of stopping Mitt Romney. Nonetheless, Romney cruised to a crushing victory in Florida. Rick Santorum, the group’s favorite, finished a distant third, and Newt Gingrich, their second choice, finished 14 points behind Romney and outperformed him among white evangelicals by a mere two percentage points.
In other words, it would be tough to argue that these religious right leaders had any effect in Florida. But before we go declaring them dead, it’s important to note that while their influence over the outcome of the primary was negligible, the fact that every candidate espouses social conservative positions indicates that they’re still agenda setters in the GOP.
State of the Union addresses err toward the formulaic. The laundry lists of policy proposals, the obligatory proclamations that we’re the greatest nation ever, the media gossip about who sits next to whom, and the endless applause always strike me as rather trite. But once in a while a speech includes simple yet substantive moral arguments about the ideas driving our political debates. Among several important points last night, President Obama’s unapologetic rebuke of “class warfare” rhetoric stood out as one of those moments:
Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.
We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference – like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know it’s not right. They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to their country’s future, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility.
For years, conservative cries of “class warfare” have shut down the crucial debate about building a just, moral economy that ensures opportunity and basic security for all. As long as I’ve been paying attention to politics, faith leaders have never been deterred by this, but too many politicians have. The President’s direct confrontation of those who stifle the debate with cheap (but effective) rhetorical tools marks a turning point that has been years in the making.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported yesterday that Goldman Sachs drastically cut its contributions to charity in 2011:
Goldman Sachs cut its charitable giving by more than three-quarters to $78-million last year while reducing compensation at a far lower rate, the Daily Mail and The Independent write.
The banking giant, announcing its annual results Wednesday, said its total compensation bill, including salaries and bonuses, declined 21 percent in 2011. Goldman reported profits of $4.4-billion, a 4.4 percent drop, and planned to hand out $12.2-billion in bonuses, down by 26 percent from 2010.
The company gave $320-million to charity in 2010 and $500-million in 2009, according to the Mail.
While this is certainly emblematic of the moral shortcomings of our 1%-centric economic system, there’s another important point here.
Opponents of a robust, government-funded safety net often say caring for the poor and vulnerable should be left to charity, churches and the private sector, but this report about Goldman’s drop in donations shows just how inadequate of a solution that is. Lots of bad things happened last year. The global economy stalled, poverty increased, the Horn of Africa suffered a famine of Biblical proportions, and let’s not forget the Fukushima catastrophe. But donations fell as needs rose.
This dynamic is inevitable. Expecting private charity to pick up the slack fails to account for the fact that economic forces that harm the poor can also affect the bottom line (and thus the contributions) of the donor class. Gutting a safety net that responds to rapid economic fluctuations and catastrophes with increased spending thus guarantees disaster. If Goldman Sachs responds to a 4% drop in profits with a 75% cut in charitable giving, we cannot take it on faith that the private sector is equipped to handle the needs of the poor in times of crisis.
In an important story that hasn’t gained much national attention yet, New York state is in the middle of a heated debate about whether to open up vast western areas of the state to hydrofracking for natural gas. Last week, the state Department of Environmental Conservation closed the public comment period on a study of the environmental impact of this destructive form of drilling, pushing the issue into local headlines.
A coalition of faith leaders from MICAH (Moving in Congregations Acting in Hope) and antipollution advocates affiliated with GDACC (Gas Drilling Awareness of Cortland County) contributed an important perspective by holding a press conference that lifted up the moral dimension of the issue and released a new poll showing a majority of residents oppose hydrofracking. Here’s some local coverage:
I spoke extensively last week with leaders of the movement to protect their communities from the soil, air and water contamination that hydrofracking causes. They were dedicated and well-informed, pointing out that the DEC’s study ignored many key aspects of hydrofracking’s impact (for example, it didn’t even explore public health impacts). These clergy and activists were also motivated by faith to insert a needed moral voice to the debate on an issue with serious health, environmental and economic consequences.