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Jennifer Butler
Jennifer is the founding CEO of Faith in Public Life. Before leading FPL Jennifer spent ten years working in the field of international human rights representing the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the United Nations and is an ordained minister.

Looking ahead to economic justice

May 1, 2014, 1:23 pm | By Jennifer Butler

I had the honor of speaking at the Brookings Institute last week with scholars and faith leaders about economic justice and the future of the progressive faith community. We heard from many perspectives and communities, but one message was clear – building a moral economy will be a central unifying cause in the years ahead. And in an age of rigid political polarization, a new moral narrative will be critical.

One part of remedying economic injustice is lifting up  working families who are trapped in poverty. Sadly, many politicians just don’t get it. Yesterday 41 Republican Senators voted to block a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, permanently index the minimum wage to inflation, and increase the tipped wage to 70% of the minimum wage. While this measure is just one step in a long journey, it would give a badly needed raise to 25 million workers.

A day before the vote, FPL and Interfaith Worker Justice released a letter signed by more than 350 clergy from diverse traditions calling on Congress to increase the minimum wage, which said in part “Driven by Scripture’s repeated admonitions against exploiting and oppressing workers, we believe that every job must enable those who work to support a family.”

The press teleconference announcing the letter featured leaders from Catholic Charities USA, the Progressive National Baptist Convention and Interfaith Worker Justice, as well as U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and Senator Cory Booker. They not only emphasized the moral consequences of this issue, but also rebuked of those who voted to keep working families in poverty. Rev. Dr. James Perkins of the Progressive National Convention captured the essential truth of the matter, saying ““People who are opposed to raising the minimum wage are more interested in their economic ideology than they are in providing struggling people with the dignity of work.”

Overcoming this obstacle might take a while, but justice will be done.

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A Passover Tragedy

April 16, 2014, 10:56 am | By Jennifer Butler

On Sunday, a former Ku Klux Klan leader attacked two Jewish centers in Kansas City, taking the lives of the three people just before the beginning of Passover. Such horrors are difficult to comprehend at any place and time, but especially so in religious communities around holy days. It is a time for grief and prayer.

This Holy Week was already filled with somber remembrances of senseless violence in our nation, from last year’s Boston Marathon bombing to the anniversaries of the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings. But as our friends at Faiths United to End Gun Violence have noted, we must also remember another anniversary: one year ago this week the U.S. Senate failed to stand up to the NRA and pass commonsense background check legislation.

Such legislation might have stopped Sunday’s killing spree. The shooter in Kansas City purchased his gun through a so-called “straw buyer” – someone with a clean background who buys guns for others – a practice that the Senate bill would have cracked down on.

While scripture reminds us there is a time for everything, clearly this is a time to act to end this needless destruction of innocent life. Faith in Public Life stands with groups like Faiths United to End Gun Violence and PICO National Network’s Lifelines to Healing campaign in calling on Congress to act now to prevent gun violence. As we enter the 2014 election season, we must keep these life and death issues close to our hearts and lift up our voices until they echo in the halls of power.

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Mass mobilizing against mass incarceration

April 3, 2014, 3:03 pm | By Jennifer Butler

In a nation that keeps 2.2 million people behind bars — the majority for nonviolent drug offenses — the moral urgency of criminal justice reform is crystal clear.

And even though the scale of the problem is daunting, faith leaders are powering a movement that can overturn this deep institutional injustice.

Consider Louisiana, the state with America’s highest incarceration rate.

On Monday, diverse clergy leaders peacefully rallied at the state capitol to call legislation that ends unnecessary employment discrimination against ex-offenders, as well as sentencing reforms for nonviolent drug crimes.

This agenda is no pipe dream. Next door in deeply conservative Mississippi, Governor Phil Bryant just signed a new law that eases mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses and gives judges more sentencing options besides prison, earning praise from across the ideological spectrum. This is an issue that transcends left and right.

Mass incarceration not only wastes billions of tax dollars, but also divides families and needlessly undermines the God-given potential of millions of human beings. And it’s disproportionately devastating in African-American and Latino communities.

It is all too often a “justice system” in name only. As people of faith, we must right this wrong. Together, this is one mountain we can move.

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President Obama Meets Pope Francis

March 26, 2014, 6:05 pm | By Jennifer Butler

Today at the Vatican, President Obama and Pope Francis met for the first time.

While detailed reports of the meeting aren’t out yet, there certainly wasn’t enough time to cover all the issues on which they share common concern. Climate change, staggering economic inequality, poverty, the plight of immigrants and refugees, and international conflict resolution all need focus from the world’s most powerful political leader and most recognizable faith leader. Given Pope Francis’s condemnation of “an economy of exclusion” and President Obama’s recent reference to those warnings, I think and hope that addressing the staggering gap between the wealthiest few and those left behind figured prominently.

Still fighting for affordable healthcare

Four years and several days ago, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. Now, after seemingly endless repeal attempts and obstruction, along with a very rocky rollout, the law is getting a chance to work for millions of American families.

While there are many challenges ahead, I’m proud to say that faith groups are playing a crucial role in making the law work.

But right now the biggest obstacle is the unconscionable decision by politicians in 25 states to reject the federally funded expansion of Medicaid. Fortunately this has become a rallying cry for the Moral Mondays movement in several key states. This movement will only grow stronger as conservative politicians’ immoral obstruction continues.

Faith groups such as NETWORK, Catholics United and PICO National Network were instrumental in the healthcare reform legislative debate in Washington. It’s only fitting that clergy and congregations are carrying on the fight in state capitals where politicians are making the lethal and immoral choice to deny their citizens the care they need.

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“An empty soul”?

March 13, 2014, 1:11 pm | By Jennifer Butler

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) always provides a useful window into what’s resonating with the movement’s activist base. One moment from this year’s conference, held last week in Washington, struck me as particularly important.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who has a history of using faith to justify an agenda that takes food and health care away from struggling families and seniors, accused proponents of a strong safety net of offering “a full stomach – and an empty soul.”

He went on to tell a false story about a child in poverty to attack the free school lunch program that keeps students from going hungry.

After years of receiving powerful rebukes from faith leaders over his immoral federal budget proposals, his misuse of Catholic teaching and his allegiance to Ayn Rand, it seems that Ryan is trying to rehabilitate his image while clinging to his ideology. It’s no surprise that Ryan, a Catholic, would make a moral argument, but it’s shocking that he’d characterize safety net provisions supported by Catholic nuns and bishops as offering “an empty soul.”

This is more than just Ryan’s personal crusade. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of this kind of rhetoric from conservative politicians in the months ahead, but they still strongly oppose effective anti-poverty measures like raising the minimum wage and tax fairness policies like closing massive loopholes for big corporations that don’t pay any taxes.

What they’re left with, then, are empty moral platitudes in service of the same old extremist agenda. We have to counter that with a vision for an economy that honors the dignity of work and enables all families to flourish.

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