Wednesday, September 24, 2014

PW Horizons: Law and Power

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Horizons, the magazine for Presbyterian Women. To subscribe or learn more, visit

To Change the Power Behind the Law
By Leslie G. Woods

Having served in the ecumenical advocacy community for nearly 10 years, I find that I need ways to keep my spirits up. The work of advocacy (as a good friend of mine says) is a marathon, not a sprint. At times, the long, grinding haul of justice-making seems hopeless. But as the prophet Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

One of my favorite biblical reminders of the power of tenacity is the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. In Luke 18:1–8, Jesus tells the story of a widow seeking justice against her adversary from a judge who does not “fear God or care for people.” The widow keeps coming back, demanding justice, until finally the judge grants her suit—not because she convinces him of the merits of her case, but because her continual advocacy wearies him. She eventually receives justice through her persistence—a potent reminder to all of us who engage in advocacy for justice.

But what if the unjust judge were being paid to deny justice? What if the unjust judge, in order to keep his position of power, needed to refuse the merits of the widow’s case? What if her adversary was not simply the lone judge, but the political or social engine that empowered the judge and benefitted from the judge’s rulings? What then would have happened to the widow and her quest for justice?

In all likelihood, she would have been denied justice. The judge would have continued to ignore her just case and appeased the special interest backing his power. Regardless of what the widow said or did, the judge would have denied her justice.

The Shifting Paradigm of Advocacy

Of course, rewriting Bible stories is not what we do in the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, where I serve as the representative for domestic poverty and environmental issues. We advocate for justice. In the more than nine years that I have been doing faith-based advocacy, I have worked on antipoverty programs, the federal budget and tax code, justice for workers, economic inequality, health care reform, environmental justice, climate disruption, clean energy, food justice, violence against women and children, public education and immigration.

It is a broad portfolio and there have been some true victories for justice during my tenure. But more and more, I find that my workshops include an admonition that sounds something like “If we don’t work to get the special interest money out of politics, we will never achieve a ____ bill.” In the blank space, name your favorite justice issue: comprehensive immigration reform, a national climate justice plan, tax reform, gun violence prevention, prison reform or any other of the myriad fundamental reform concerns. These pressing justice issues have caught the attention of advocates, but have also caught the interest of special interest groups who are willing to spend to bring about particular outcomes. For true justice, we must first reduce the undue influence of special-interest spending in policymaking.

Law and Power

Which comes first: law or power? Certainly, laws need power to be enforced. But for this article, I am more interested in the power at play while a law is being made. When the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) speaks to the creation of laws, our positions are rooted in Christian values and the authority of Presbyterian General Assemblies. Many advocacy groups speak to the creation of laws out of conviction or concern for the welfare of others. Still others speak out of self-interest or special interest. Some special interests—though by no means all—speak to the creation of laws with a goal of furthering profit or currying favor. Even nefarious ends may propel a person or group to speak to the creation, continuation or repeal of a law.

It frequently comes down to what creates power. Is it, as suggested above, morality or conviction, concern or welfare, profit or favor? Each of these motivations may compel some special interest or another; each has the capacity to create power and, hence, law.

Sadly, our system of legislation, justice and executive power has tipped too far to one side. We have allowed our system to move away from a code of laws based on conviction and welfare—as outlined in our Constitution—to one that is unduly influenced by whomever has the deepest pockets.

We have a system in which the cost of running for office requires exorbitant spending, personal wealth and donations from those who can afford to pay. And that financial support usually comes with strings attached, whether expressly stated, implicitly felt or simply created out of a sense of obligation and gratitude.

As the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) said,

Large sums of money, and the time needed to raise it, dominate our electoral and legislative processes. Money buys access to legislators as well as to the details in legislation. If they reject special interest money, candidates fear that their opponents will outspend them—and spending counts: incumbents almost always raise more money than challengers, and the candidate who spends the most money almost always wins. (For House seats, the number is more than 90 percent.) Because the Supreme Court has ruled [that] campaign contributions are a protected form of “speech,” the most important reform to enhance the voice of citizens and reduce the role of powerful special interests and big money in elections is public financing. Under such systems, candidates or parties receive public funds to replace or augment private money. Public funding can curb the appearance of the influence of big money over lawmakers, encourage candidates with limited resources to run for office, and allow politicians to spend less time raising money and more time serving their constituents [emphasis added].

The Money Behind the Power

According to an analysis in Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy: A Theological Critique of the Role of Money in American Politics, published by Auburn Seminary, “more than $6 billion was spent on the 2012 elections. That’s a lot of money in American politics. And that figure only includes election campaigns expenses—it doesn’t include funds spent on lobbying or advocacy” (1). According to the footnote,

“[O]f that figure, $970 million was spent by outside groups, that is, groups supposedly unaffiliated with a political party. . . . The Alaska Dispatch analyzed the presidential election expenses into dollars spent per registered voter, and found that the combined spending of the Obama and Romney campaigns amounted to $11.75 per voter. That figure is more than double, in inflation adjusted dollars, the $5 per voter that the Reagan and Carter campaigns spent in 1980.”

The study notes that the influence of money in human politics is as old as the Bible, and likely as old as human civilization, but this doubling of U.S. presidential campaign spending in just 30 years is astronomical, not to mention unsustainable.

Decreased transparency in campaign and other political spending, as permitted by Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United and McCutcheon, makes it even more difficult for the voting citizen to sift through the propaganda and make an informed decision with his or her vote. And I’m learning that many people feel that their vote is less valuable than it used to be. “It doesn’t matter whom I vote for, it won’t make a difference in Washington anyway,” I hear regularly. Many voters (or those who don’t bother) feel that the voices, opinions and convictions of real people who are engaged in honest debate are drowned out by the volume of special interest money. This development in American politics is not serving people, only profit. This is a true problem in today’s political landscape and the failure of the current system.

In an op-ed published earlier this year, Diane Randall of the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Patrick Carolan of the Franciscan Action Network wrote,

More often than should be true in a democracy, money appears to speak more loudly than the voices of the electorate on these and other values-based issues. The wealthiest 0.01 percent of the voting age population now account for 40 percent of all campaign contributions. When money talks, it almost inevitably makes a difference in the decisions elected officials make. If money is doing the talking, it is unlikely to fairly represent needs for housing, health care and decent wages for people who cannot take those things for granted.1

Indeed, people of faith are beginning to challenge such disproportion in the brokerage of power in our political system. Polls vary, of course, but a recent survey reported by Time magazine showed that

[A] majority of likely voters among Democrats (75%), Independents (64%) and Republicans (54%) see the wave of spending by Super PACs this election cycle as “wrong and leads to our elected officials representing the views of wealthy donors.” So far in the 2014 election cycle, Super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums from donors, have spent $87.5 million and counting to influence election outcomes.2

It will only be through addressing this deficit of the people’s voice in politics that we will affect the choices made by those who hold power and are in a position to create law.

Leslie G. Woods serves as the representative for domestic poverty and environmental issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Horizons, the magazine for Presbyterian Women. To subscribe or learn more, visit

Many thanks to Horizons for permission to reprint. 


1. “Faith groups push back on role of money in politics,”, February 18, 2014.
2. “Poll: Support for Campaign Finance Reform Strong in Key Senate Races,” Time, July 31, 2014.