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.
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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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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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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For me, Lent is always a powerful time of reflection and prayer on self-sacrifice. Those who strive to build the beloved Community bring new life out of the ashes of sin and brokenness.
Last winter the “Fast for Families” movement put immigration reform back on Congress’ agenda. This month faith, immigration and labor leaders launched “Fast for Families Across America, a seven week bus tour that will visit 75 Congressional districts to help change the hearts and minds of members of Congress who continue to oppose long overdue immigration reform. Twenty-eight Catholic college and university presidents who fasted on Ash Wednesday reflected: “As we begin this sacred season and remember Christ’s journey of suffering the desert wilderness we pray for immigrants who hunger and thirst for justice.” You can sign up to join the fast here.
Fighting for family wages
Yesterday as I stood with faith leaders and U.S Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) to call for raising the minimum wage, I met a mom who reminded me of the sacrifices mothers and families are making in an economy that fails to honor their work with living wages. The prophet Isaiah said, “My chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands,” yet today millions of workers cannot enjoy the fruit of their labor by seeing their families thrive.
A bold rebuke in Arizona
Last week evangelical leaders issued a statement boldly calling on their own communities to oppose legislation like Arizona’s SB 1062, which would have discriminated against gay people in the name of religious freedom. Their statementsaid in part: “We believe that the current position that many Evangelical leaders are taking on issues of discrimination toward the gay community directly contradict that posture of radical love and grace that Jesus so powerfully embodied in his life and teachings.” As other states consider similar bills, they will have to contend with strong opposition across the religious spectrum.
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Saturday’s Moral March to the North Carolina state capitol was a watershed moment in the faith community’s long movement to build a more perfect union in the face of injustice. More than 80,000 people cheered in joy as Rev. William Barber II invoked the Gospel and the prophets in a message far more bold and profound than any stump speech you’ll ever hear. This was no political rally, it was a faithful call to higher ground.
In an era of political paralysis, it takes a deep moral critique such as this to change the terms of debate in the halls of power and in the media.
For example, until very recently politicians could dismiss the discussion of economic inequality – one of the defining issues of our time — as class warfare. Now, thanks in part to the witness of faith leaders like Rev. Barber, the Nuns on the Bus, and most recently Pope Francis, it’s a debate that cannot be silenced.
Instead of stale arguments about the size of government and overwrought rhetoric about austerity, political leaders must now confront a much more important issue: the soulless way our economy excludes families while showering an elite few with near boundless wealth.
The conviction that a moral economy must strengthen families and allow all people to live with dignity has taken hold, and it will only grow stronger as we continue to preach and march.
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