The Case for Regulating Campaign Finances: A Religious Perspective

by Franklin I. Gamwell

Franklin I. Gamwell is professor of religious ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 4, 1998, pp. 230-233. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Do inequalities in wealth benefit the wider community? That question should be the subject of political discussion. Is the freedom to contribute money to a political campaign part of our guarantee of freedom of speech?

Money plays an enormous role in selecting and electing our political leaders. Many doubt that any controls can be implemented to blunt the power and influence exercised by people with wealth. Nonetheless, a significant part of the American public thinks the situation has gotten out of hand. The nearly quantum leap in campaign spending over recent decades, propelled especially by the use of television, has provoked a growing sense that something should be done, even if there is little agreement on what this something might be.

Is campaign reform an issue whose time has come? That isn’t yet clear. There are arguments against such legislation, and the Supreme Court itself seems unclear about what the Constitution does and does not permit. But the issue is on the political agenda.

A full inquiry would entail a canvassing of specific legislative possibilities. If campaign financing is regulated, what shape should the controls take? Should there be limits on contributions? On expenditures by candidates? On so-called soft money given to political parties, or on independent expenditures by various organizations? Should there be public financing and, if so, under what conditions?

I want to withdraw provisionally from the practical details to address a larger question: Are there religious reasons why Christians should be concerned with campaign finance reform? I think there are. They are closely tied to our commitment to democratic process and religious freedom.

When the new United States ratified the Bill of Rights and so stipulated that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," it crowned a revolutionary reversal in Western politics. European societies through 14 centuries had assumed that a political community requires religious uniformity, and the logic of that assumption seemed impeccable: Religion involves the most fundamental commitment of people’s lives, their conviction about what makes life ultimately worthwhile; consequently, religious diversity within a political community opens the possibility of serious political conflict. Since religious plurality prevents opposing parties from being united by a deeper commitment, it is a recipe for civil instability. Against the force of that traditional view, the founders of our Republic asserted that the public good not only allowed but demanded religious freedom.

What accounts for this striking departure from the wisdom of the past? Thomas Jefferson best formulated the answer: "Truth is great," he wrote, "and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless . . . disarmed of her natural weapon, free argument and debate." One historian summarized the point this way: "Religious freedom was clearly envisaged as the deliberate creation of a situation where every religious opinion and practice, having the right to free expression, would continually contend with all the others in order that error might be exposed to view and the truth be recognized."

The revolutionary rationale for religious freedom is that democracy cannot exist without it. Democracy means, as Lincoln would later say, government not only of and for the people but also by the people, and this "sovereignty of the people" is real only when government is the consequence of full and free political discourse. Public debate would be arrested if the state could teach a religion or impose on citizens their deepest conviction about the common good. Full debate requires that the argument stretch to the ultimate ideal by which all activities of the state ought to be informed, and this means that citizens should be free to advance and defend any religion they find convincing.

Religious differences need not fracture political peace if religious adherents are concerned above all with the truth and, therefore, are willing to advocate their political convictions in full and free public debate. The only thing required to harmonize religious diversity and civil stability is the commitment of religious adherents to the way of persuasion.

Christians have the best of reasons to endorse religious freedom: Faith in and service to God cannot be coerced and, therefore, cannot be taught by the power of the state. Because religion properly affects political decisions through its own inherent persuasive power, we rejoice that the Constitution creates a body politic committed to the way of persuasion. In other words. Christians are convinced that their God and his purpose are "the great truth" that will prevail if the body politic is truly ruled by argument and debate.

Christians committed to the democratic process established by religious freedom ask: What’s needed for a democratic debate to be not only full, in the sense that the ultimate grounds for political decision are subject to public discussion, but also free? We can look again to the Constitution for at least part of the answer: A free political process requires that all citizens have equal standing. None should be given a privileged position, since the proper outcome depends only on the best argument, and an argument’s worth does not depend on where it comes from.

So a free debate requires certain equal rights that should never be invaded. All citizens must have basic rights to life and liberty, and political rights to the vote and to equal protection under the law. And all the channels of communication must be opened, through freedom of speech, the press, assembly and petition. But does government by the people also require more? Specifically, what is the proper relation between democracy and the distribution of wealth and income?

That there is a dramatic disparity of wealth and income in our nation is not open to dispute. Nor is the fact that money talks in the electoral process, having a significant influence on who is elected and what they do as elected officials. But disagreement sets in over whether the sovereignty of the people implies that this influence should be controlled by law.

Precisely because money talks, some will say that regulating campaign financing is inconsistent with democratic discussion and debate. It violates the right to freedom of speech. The Supreme Court took this view in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) when it struck down limits on campaign expenditures, finding that these involved a direct limitation on free expression. At the same time, however, the court allowed restrictions on contributions to stand, reasoning in part that giving funds to a campaign is only an indirect form of speech.

Many have argued that the court cannot have it both ways—that the distinction is vacuous. Helping to finance a campaign is also a direct form of speech, sometimes the only form in which citizens can express their opinions. If campaign spending cannot be regulated, they argue, then campaign financing must be entirely unregulated.

Every Christian who is committed to democracy must be zealous in protecting freedom of speech. It is a constitutional necessity of government by the people. Speech can be regulated only when it directly conflicts with other constitutional conditions of the democratic process—for instance, freedom of religion and assembly, equal protection under the law, and basic rights to life and liberty. But note that freedom of speech requires equal standing in the democratic process. Nothing in the Constitution prevents the conclusion that sizable differences in financial resources do or may compromise equality of access to the political debate. Consequently, regulation of campaign finances for the purpose of securing equality cannot be unconstitutional. The court in Buckley v. Valeo did not make this clear, and for that reason its decision can he faulted.

To be sure, regulation would transgress the Constitution if equality were achieved through suppressing everyone’s talk. Since equality of access cannot be the equality of silence, mandatory limitations on campaign spending must not be inhibiting. Funding patterns must be designed so that discourse prior to an election is not only open but encouraged.

Assuming that it is possible to control finances without inhibiting speech, it may now seem that the justice of appropriate regulation is obvious. But we should not rush to judgment. If the Constitution does not prevent financial controls, it also does not mandate them. The Constitution says nothing about relating the democratic process to the distribution of wealth and income, and for a good reason: The social and economic prerequisites for equal standing in the democratic process depend on one’s vision of social justice. And precisely because there is religious freedom, the Constitution cannot define social justice for us. The relation of political equality to money is one of the matters that the democratic debate itself must settle.

Despite the dramatic inequality in wealth and income, a substantial number of our fellow citizens do not think that financially unregulated campaigns betray political equality, since they believe that the division of money in our society is socially just. In their view, the Constitution sets the basic structure for a society in which individuals compete for life’s rewards, and the competitive economic market is the mechanism of social justice. Life is a race run according to the rules of the free market. People have a right to whatever their talents and effort command within the economic order. Having a right to their money, they also have a right to whatever part it may give them in the electoral process.

Let’s call this the view of "justice through competition." Those who see things this way allow that concentrated wealth may be unjust if it does not result from a truly free market. But then the economic order, not the funding of political campaigns, needs to be reformed. This belief, sometimes without clear articulation, stands behind much of the opposition to campaign finance regulations. Of course, we can point out that politicians and others who benefit from unregulated financing are loathe to surrender their selfish advantage. They pay lip service to some principled reasons for their opposition as a smokescreen to hide their own self-interest. Still, we should not too readily dismiss the power of ideals. Many sincerely believe that the free market is the mechanism of justice, so that winners in the economic competition have the right to whatever doors their resources may open—including political ones.

But Christianity presents a different vision of justice. In his summary of the divine purpose, Jesus announces two commandments: We are called to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and, therefore, we are also to love one another, our neighbor as ourselves. The second calling flows directly from the first. The God we are to serve without reservation loves all creatures completely, so that loyalty to this God is loyalty to those whom God loves. Since the whole world belongs to God, we belong to each other, and justice requires a social order designed to maximize the contribution that each individual can make to all. Social justice cannot be achieved through competition. Our life together is communal, not competitive, and it requires an economic division that enables each person to make a distinctive contribution to our common life.

Let’s call this the view of "justice for community." From this perspective, the economic inequality in our society—more extensive than in any other Western country and widening further during the past two decades—is clearly wrong. Still, it does not follow that the Christian view prescribes strict equality in the distribution of wealth and income. People have different roles within the social order, some of which require greater access to financial resources. I have in mind especially those roles that require extensive and expensive training and those that entail great risk.

Also, the division of income depends in part on the degree to which individuals choose to make the most of their opportunities. Justice does not prescribe subsidies for those who can but do not help themselves. Moreover, a properly governed free market is indeed an important form of economic organization, at least in a complex society, and reliance on it would be impossible if the resulting differences in distribution were canceled. Some economic inequalities may be required and others tolerated precisely in order to maximize the benefit to all.

But if justice for community does not dictate strict economic equality, it does mean that economic inequalities should not invade the political process. Since inequalities of wealth and income are meant to serve the community as a whole, the democratic process is the larger drama into which the subplot of financial inequality should fit. The decision about which inequalities are beneficial to all belongs to the democratic debate. Therefore, politics should not be biased by those inequalities. Equality of access trumps any strong suits that democratic decision may deal. Since the deal has resulted in extensive financial inequality, Christian justice counsels us to insulate the electoral process from the distortions that disparities in wealth can introduce. Campaign finance reform is necessary to protect the democratic process.

There is a yet deeper theme in the Christian concern for equal democratic access. Those who believe in justice as competition typically also adhere to a larger conviction: The good society maximizes the place of the free market because the overriding purpose of our life together is to make possible the satisfaction of people’s wants. Liberty is both the first and last political principle. The principal task of politics is to maximize voluntary exchanges because liberty means the freedom of all to make of their lives whatever they choose.

This vision of the good society has profoundly influenced American politics, especially during our century and during the past two decades. It has made the pursuit of ever greater economic growth an almost unquestioned social goal, a goal with which all other proposals for social policy must be consistent. And it is a kind of religious vision. In the political life of those who embrace it, it occupies the same place that the vision of God’s purpose occupies in the life of a Christian. Because this religion of the free market is often the sanction for unregulated campaign financing, we have every reason to say that there is something religious at stake in this issue.

Since, according to the Christian ideal, we belong to each other because everything in this world belongs to the love of God, making of ourselves whatever we choose is not what matters. What matters is what we make of our lives together—whether we live in a way that makes each person both a beneficiary and a benefactor of our communities. What really counts is not things that satisfy our wants but our relationships with people, relationships in which each is the greater because she or he both gives to and receives from the creativity of others. Not economic growth but our common humanity needs to be maximized—the humanity we create in our families, our neighborhoods, our diverse associations and our public life. A full and free democratic process is not merely the best way to govern the larger social order; it is also itself the realization of community, itself the creation of our common humanity. Equality of access should be maximized because it makes our political community one in which we truly belong to each other.

This is the deepest reason why Christians are troubled by the apathy and cynicism that has infected our political process. When the number of actual voters is less than half of those registered, and presidents can be elected by one-quarter of the citizens, the power of democracy to create the widest form of our common humanity has been sapped by indifference.

Some of this apathy can also be traced to the ethos of the marketplace. Because our culture has for so long insidiously taught citizens that the good life is measured by their economic success and participation in the consumer society, it is small wonder so many believe that politics is a burden that conflicts with their pursuit of what really matters. But apathy is also the expression of cynicism, especially among those whose material access to the political process is weakest. When money is as unequally available as it is in our society and talks as loudly as it does in our electoral process, it is also small wonder that many see political engagement as an exercise in futility.

Campaign finance reform will not itself make the political process a full and free discussion and debate. But the promise of democracy will not be renewed without it. Christians for whom the divine purpose requires a political community that fashions and draws out our common humanity are summoned to join in the search for appropriate ways to regulate the role of money in political campaigns. Since this goal must be achieved through the very political process that is so much in need of reform, some may say we are dreaming. But ideals have their own power—and, in any event, we are commissioned to seek the divine purpose in the politics of our day.