Patrick Carolan and other Catholics on the front lines of calls for a fairer system, a voice for the people

April 21, 2016

This last week, thousands of people gathered in Washington DC to take part in the largest civil disobedience action of this 21st century with the goal to rapidly shift the political weather in favor of the sweeping reforms we need to end the corruption of money in politics and to establish political equality for all.  Over 1,300 people were arrested in this massive act of peaceful protest.  

By Nathan Schneider, in America, the Jesuit magazine.

People are getting arrested by the hundreds in Washington, D.C., as they attempt to stem the flow of campaign money into the political system. It began earlier this month with “Democracy Spring,” culminating with this “Democracy Awakening,” which concludes today.  Among those facing arrest today is Patrick Carolan, executive director of Franciscan Action Network (F.A.N.).

Today, I understand, you’re risking arrest. How and why?

My reason for participating in civil disobedience and risking arrest starts with a very simple answer: It is part of how I practice my faith. As it says in James 2:17, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” We are not practicing our Catholic faith if all we are doing is going to Mass on Sunday. If we are truly following in the footsteps of Jesus and saints like St. Francis, we have to be willing to risk everything. Jesus committed acts of nonviolent civil disobedience all the time. As people of faith we experience firsthand the results that unlimited money has on almost every issue we care about. No matter what the issue—whether it be immigration reform, voting rights, climate change or gun safety—we understand how the influence of money has stopped our ability to have an open and honest discussion. Participating in nonviolent civil disobedience and risking arrest for peace and justice is part of the Franciscan tradition.

What is the strategy for Democracy Awakening, and where do religious communities fit in?

The strategy for Democracy Awakening is to mobilize as many people as possible in D.C., from a wide variety of organizations and groups, around the issues of voting rights and money in politics to raise awareness about the importance of each of us having an equal say in our democratic process. Right now over 180 different organizations have endorsed the mobilization, including many faith organizations. The majority of social movements in the United States have had a faith component, and money in politics is no different. F.A.N. has led an interfaith coalition on the issue of money in politics for over two years.

A few years ago, I—and many others—thought that campaign finance was too abstract an issue to capture people’s imaginations. Now two of the leading presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, have turned it into a populist crusade (although in rather different ways). What has made this possible?

You are right that right after Citizens United, campaign finance was considered abstract. While disagreeing with the idea of unlimited money being poured into campaigns, people did not make a connection between that and their daily lives. I believe that as folks began to realize how our corrupt system connected to issues they cared about, they began to care. I think two issues in particular helped motivate people to activism. The first is gun safety. With the constant reports of shootings in particular incidences like Sandy Hook and the Charleston church massacre, an overwhelming majority of people called for common-sense gun regulations and safety. Yet even with polls showing around 90 percent support for gun safety regulations, Congress would not even bring legislation to a vote. People began to connect this to the donations from organizations like the National Rifle Association.

The second issue is climate justice. Again, the majority of people understand and want change around this issue, but because of the overwhelming power due to money of the fossil fuel industry, nothing gets done. As a result, the issue of campaign finance is no longer just an abstract concept but a very real problem that needs to be addressed.

We’re Catholics—as hierarchical as it gets. Why would we want to see democracy awaken?

Pope Francis, in discussing the role of money, said, “The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” Faith communities are uniquely positioned to address money in politics due to their commitment to make sure the voices of those in need are not ignored. As our system of government becomes increasingly beholden to those who can afford to spend the most in elections, the less the voices of the poor and their allies can be heard.

What’s coming up next, and how can people get involved?

If you can’t get to D.C., organize a rally or prayer service in your community around the issue of money in politics. And educate yourself. You can find resources on the F.A.N. website.