Of Piety and Politics

Going back to UCC Office of Commuication Inc.’s founding, we have focused on holding broadcasters accountable to the communities they serve.  We made more progress this June when the Federal Communications Commission ruled that information about political advertisements, including those placed by the new Super PACs, must be made available online.  These records, which are currently public but housed in filing cabinets at TV broadcast stations, should start to become available in time for the 2012 fall election season.  In April, leaders of OC Inc. and the UCC’s Our Faith, Our Vote initiative celebrated this important victory.  In addition, UCC OC Inc. is collaborating with the Sunlight Foundation and Free Press with a pilot project in Wisconsin to ensure this information is available to everyone.  The Rev. Andrew Warner of Plymouth Church UCC in Milwaukee preached a sermon asking Wisconsin residents to come together across partisan divides to support campaign advertising disclosure and seeking volunteers to help with this endeavor.

Of Piety and Politics

For many of us the evening of the recall election was difficult.   I know many worked on the recall campaign for a long time – protesting in Madison, gathering signatures of friends, volunteering with Get Out the Vote efforts.  A loss can be hard.  For others the push to have a recall election was painful; we were not of one mind as to politics in our congregation.  The passion of some for the recall left others feeling out of sorts.   On both sides the last fifteen months of political debate left many exhausted.  We awoke on Wednesday morning to ask, “how shall Wisconsin go forward?”

A few months ago I heard Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the House, address a crowd.  Speaking of the fall Presidential election she said, “This is the most important election in our lifetime,” and then in a moment of honesty she added, “Of course we politicians always say the next election is the most important; and in fact I may be back here saying the same thing again before another election.”

Tuesday, whether the candidate we personally supported won or lost, was but one election; there will be more, and with each one we may tell ourselves, “this is the most important election.” Each election does matter; and a loss in one election can have decades long effects.  I still grieve the 2006 election, which wrote a prohibition against marriage equality into our state constitution. An election victory or an election loss can shape our state and nation significantly.

But there shall be more elections.  And so while I have an opinion about the outcome of this last  election, I am more reflective about the landscape of our state and our nation after the series of elections past and those coming in the future.  How shall we move forward?

In looking across the landscape of our country, I’m struck by the ways our society is changing. My observations are not unique.  Three trends catch my eye.  First, the gap between the rich and poor grew every year since 1980, so that the wealthiest Americans now control a quarter of the wealth in our country, the same as in 1929.  Second, increasing numbers of Americans opt out of religious communities and instead identify with no religious community; a trend especially apparent among young adults.  Lastly, a broad political consensus that existed between political parties eroded as liberals became more liberal and conservatives became more conservative.

After this election I am particularly mindful of the way the third trend – partisan polarization – affects us all.  On Wednesday the Pew Research Center released its study on American values. Pew surveyed American values, as it has since the 1980’s, on a variety of questions.  It found political differences now divide Americans more than race, income, religion, education, or sex.

Think about that finding: in a country which enslaved people on the basis of race for 200 years, then denied basic rights for another 100, and even now practices an unspoken segregation, we are more divided by politics than by race.  At one time you could predict how someone would feel about welfare programs or immigration or birth control if you knew their religion, or their economic class, or their race.  But now the best way to predict their views comes down to one question: who do you support for president.  Pew found that divisions according to race and class  and religion are now superseded by partisan divisions.

With the recall and of these trends in mind, we turn to our reading from 1 Samuel 8.   The Prophet Samuel spoke against the request of the elders of Israel for a king.  Our tradition often focuses on Samuel’s critique of the accumulation of power in the hands of a king, but the debate between Samuel and the elders is what can best inform our understanding of our political situation today.

As you may recall, the Prophet Samuel lived through the tumultuous transition of the people of Israel from an collection of loosely organized tribes led by occasional charismatic leaders into a nation state governed by a monarchy.  Samuel began as an apprentice to the Prophet Eli.  Eli had several sons he hoped would follow him as prophets to the people of Israel; but God saw the corruption of Eli’s sons, so Samuel took over from Eli.  Now the situation appeared ready to repeat itself: aged Samuel’s sons based their judgments on the bribes they received.

The elders of Israel came to Samuel upset with the situation.  They said to Samuel, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”  The elders wanted justice: the sons of Samuel were corrupt, abused their power, mocked the idea of the impartial judge.  “We want a king to judge us instead of your corrupt sons,” they pleaded.

If Samuel remembered the corruption of Eli’s sons, he didn’t let on to it.  Instead, Samuel complained to God and the elders about the request for king.  At the heart of Samuel’s critique was the charge, spoken by God, that the request for a king displaced God.  Samuel presented himself as someone aggrieved by the elders’ suggestion, as someone whose only interest was in protecting God’s authority.  But Samuel continually overlooked the concern of the elders about the corruption of his sons.  He spoke for God’s dignity but ignored justice.

God told Samuel to listen to what the people said.  Instead, Samuel tried to dissuade them by cataloguing all the ways a king would abuse them, suggesting in this way that his own corrupt sons would be better than a king.  The king would conscript their sons into battles, redistribute wealth, and tax the people.  His words reverberated with the word take.  “The king,” Samuel warned, “will take and take and take and take until you are all slaves.”

Samuel’s strong warning fell on deaf ears.  The elders remained adamant, “we want a king to fight our battles.”  And perhaps the people were so insistent because of the corruption of first Eli’s sons and then Samuel’s sons.  The people already knew what it was like to have their property taken and taken; that was what it was like to live with the prophets’ sons.

It strikes me that Samuel and the elders were locked into a partisan battle.  Samuel claimed to speak for God and tradition, but ignored his own sons’ corrupt ways.  The elders denounced corruption but were blind to the dangers of their own solution.  Both seemed to talk past each other.

Samuel and the elders do not line up with our political parties today.  But there debate feels familiar.   We’re increasingly locked in partisan debates in our country; but do we miss some truth in what the other is saying just as Samuel and the elders missed what was true because of the intensity of their argument?

Lost in their debate was the real question of justice.  Who would protect the poor from corrupt judges?   Who would protect people from the seizure of their property?   Who would protect workers from mistreatment?  Who would keep the sons and daughters from conscription in foreign wars?

Our tradition commonly takes the point of view of Samuel – kings are bad – but I wonder if we ought to pay more attention to the odd role God plays in the story.  God seemed to share Samuel’s analysis of kings – “they have rejected me” – but doesn’t seem perturbed by it – “listen to the people.”  Perhaps God saw what Samuel didn’t – the corruption of the prophets’ sons, the corruptions of the kings.  What mattered to God was not who would rule but who would speak for justice.

This concern for justice reminded me of a favorite line in one of James Madison’s Federalist Papers.  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”  And by that Madison meant to remind us that neither people nor governments were angels.

Madison devised several solutions.  Most famously, Madison drafted the Bill of Rights in order to protect people from the abuse of power.  But he also remained focused on justice.  In the Federalist papers he wrote, “Justice is the [purpose] of government.  It is the [purpose] of civil society.  It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”  One of Madison’s clearest measures of a just government was the extent to which a minority was guarded against oppression by the majority.   I think James Madison might have a definition of justice we could agree on regardless of party.

Every election matters.  It mattered for the people of Israel that the elders convinced Samuel to appoint Saul king.  It matters who wins.  But regardless of who rules, we need people who will speak up for justice.

Over the last few decades our Christian movement, the United Church of Christ, raised its voice for justice regardless of who ruled.   Many of the ways we’ve done so remain unknown even in our movement.   One of those stories concerns the Office of Communication.   The Office of Communication was formed during the civil rights era to deal with discrimination against African-Americans in the news media.  At that time southern television stations would drop the national news feed whenever it turned to the civil rights movement.  One would see the briefest clip of Martin Luther King speaking and then a sign would appear, “Sorry, Cable Trouble.”

The situation was particularly bad in Jackson, Mississippi, where the local television station maintained a KKK bookstore on its property.  Needless to say, their only stories about African- Americans involved crime.

The  Office  of  Communication  trained  monitors  to  record  exactly  what  happened  on  the television station, documenting all of its coverage to prove discrimination.  The study became the heart of a landmark legal challenge in which the United Church of Christ sued to take away the television licence of the station.  And we won.  The shock of this victory altered the media landscape because no other stations wanted to lose their licence.

The Office of Communication continues to speak up for justice today.  This April it achieved another victory.  As we’ve all seen in the recall election, millions of dollars poured into our state, flooding our airwaves with advertisements from unknown super pacs like “Wisconsin Citizens for a Better Tomorrow” and “A Better Tomorrow for Wisconsin” and a hundred other previously unknown groups of mysterious origin.  The FCC only required television stations to make information on advertizers available in file cabinets at the station.  The Office of Communication successfully changed the rule.  The FCC will require stations to make the information available electronically, which will allow us to begin to gain transparency to the advertising.

But  the  FCC  plans  to  delay  the  implementation  of  this  rule.     So  now  the  Office  of Communication needs volunteers to help monitor, much as it needed them decades ago.  In this case it involves taking a couple of hours to visit a television station, photocopy their files, and turn them in to the UCC.  Its a small, practical way to raise a voice for justice, transparency, and fairness.

We’re often divided along partisan lines – could we come together around issues of transparency and fair debate?  Could we find a common voice for justice?  There will be another election; may ours always be a voice for justice.  Because what will move our state forward, regardless of who rules, is people united in raising a voice for justice.  Alleluia and Amen.

Contact Cheryl Leanza of OC Inc. if you live in Wisconsin and want to help with this effort.