Mixed Messages

In my unending quest to make infants laugh, I have discovered a foolproof strategy. Show a bored or itchy child a creative mismatch that is obviously illogical. Feed a toy car to a teddy bear. Have a serious-looking uncle (that is where I usually come in) distort his face, make funny sounds or, if desperate, stand on his head. Silly juxtapositions guarantee laughter.

In the adult world of things more serious, anomalies and mismatches often produce frustration and alarm, not giggles. I have come close to tears in recent months thinking about two instances where incongruous things come to be mixed together far too tightly for comfort.


The first regrettable case study is about money and politics. Although this is by no means the first election cycle in which the influence of huge spending on political advertisements threatened to distort the campaign, we have truly crossed a threshold. The Supreme Court decision in 2010 in the Citizens United case unleashed a torrent of cash from outside contributors to “super PACs,” which tried mightily to buy this past election.

But the biggest spenders had little to show for their investments this time around. Remarkably, most of the candidates who received the strongest support from super PACs went down to defeat. Post-election media coverage marveled at their losing streak. Perhaps the big donors overplayed their hand and sparked a backlash, as the electorate appears to have resented the barrage of negative ads. Exit polls suggest that Americans consulted primarily their own policy preferences, rejecting the influence of money and the attention it buys.

That is the conventional reading of the 2012 election, anyway, and we would do well collectively to hope that this interpretation is accurate. Strong voter backlash would send a signal that might deter or alter objectionable tactics of the super wealthy as they seek to influence the political process. If the strategy of flooding the airwaves turns out to be a waste of money, then maybe a more rational politics lies ahead.

But I am not thoroughly convinced that we have indeed turned the corner. Perhaps political operatives like Karl Rove, bankrollers like George Soros and the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and shadowy organizations like American Crossroads, Priorities USA and the National Rifle Association will merely seek more effective tactics to impose their will through smarter (if not greater) spending.

Stay tuned for the next round of this high-stakes game. Whether or not we have actually reached the limits of money and its influence on politics, this flood of cash is surely corrupting. Any decent society would curb the influence of money on its politics and impose serious regulations on campaign finance, like greater disclosure requirements. Although the Harvard University philosopher Michael Sandel treats more colorful abuses in his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, elections and political influence top the list of items that money must never be able to purchase. The power of big money in politics must be restrained.

A second case study comes from Germany and involves church revenue and taxation, two other things that simply do not belong together. The past few months have witnessed a new controversy regarding the longstanding arrangement of the Kirchensteuer, a tax system whereby most revenue for the support of churches and other religioius groups comes from taxes collected by the state.

Among the problematic aspects of this mixing of church and state is that it creates a perverse incentive for believers to renounce their religious affiliation in order to lower their tax liability. In September the German Bishops’ Con-ference reacted to mass defections from the government’s religious registry by announcing that German Catholics who do not pay the tax will be denied access to participation in the sacraments and other aspects of church life.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of this heartbreaking turn of events. Even experts in church-state relations are unsure what would constitute a just policy. But clearly, nobody should have to pay to pray.

In both these cases—the anomalous juxtaposition of money and politics here and of church and state in Germany—contemporary actors are obliged to clean up complex and messy inherited situations. In each case, it is up to us today to stand up for the highest principles and work out reforms that will correct mistakes of the past.

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John Walton
6 years 1 month ago
"Among the problematic aspects of this mixing of church and state is that it creates a perverse incentive for believers to renounce their religious affiliation in order to lower their tax liability."

Among the problematic aspects of the US Party system is that it creates incentives for politicians to abandon their theological, philosophical or moral beliefs for 30 pieces of silver.  Let's talk of Mitt Romney's "Damascene Conversion" to Pro-Life, and Bob Casey's 100% NARAL approval rating (same with Pascrell D-NJ who was Pro-Life when Mayor of Paterson NJ).
Ernest Martinson
6 years 1 month ago
If some of the candidates receiving the strongest support from Political Action Committees (PAC) went down to defeat, that does not imply voters reject money and politics. The real money in politics is not the pennies poured in resulting from the Citizens United decision. The real money that voters seek is supplied by other taxpayers. Politicians win office by legalizing this theft. Thus the hew and cry for more money from the rich that were enriched by many of the same subsidies going to the middle class. This mixed message of money and politics can be muted by a free society that minimizes the intrusion of government, thus making it more transparent and accountable. Likewise, the Gordian knot of church and state entanglement can be cut by minimalism. For example, the church in Germany should resist temptation and eschew the subsidy obtained by force from taxpayers. Instead, the church could consult the bible about the words of Christ concerning giving to Caesar his coin and to God the things of God. Perhaps a voluntary tithe. Christ was not big on coercion. He left that to Caesar.
Nicholas Clifford
6 years 1 month ago
If I understand correctly the action of the German bishops in refusing the sacraments to those who do not pay the church tax in their country, they are essentially behaving like a trade union, defending the closed shop by saying that if you want the benefits of membership (union or church), you should pay for them. It would be interesting to know what Catholic politicians who support right-to-work laws (let's pick the name of Paul Ryan out of a hat) think about this German action. Are the German bishops right or wrong? It's unfortunate that this whole issue should come up at the moment when much of Germany is preparing for the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's presentation of his 95 theses in 1517. You don't have to be much of a Reformation historian to remember the infamous peddling of indulgences by Johann Tetzel. If indeed "elections and political influence top the list of items that money must never be able to purchase," should we not add access to power in our churches as well?


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