Keep the lights on


By Frank Wessling

Living in the light is not easy. It’s the rare child who is not told that some things are forbidden, and who then comes to realize that the way to the cookie jar is open when Mom’s back is turned. Adam and Eve led the way in this. Despite the bother of shame, and sometimes embarrassment when we’re caught, that example seems hardwired in the human system.

We might call it Original Sin, the tendency to become so dazzled by things that feed our appetites that we sneak around or turn out the lights to get them. Full disclosure, open meetings, open records and “transparency” are fine policy positions, but we always carve out exceptions for a little secrecy – or a lot.

“Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:20-21). The recent Supreme Court ruling on corporation and union money in electoral politics contained an interesting difference of opinion on this point.

The majority in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission said the First Amendment protection of free speech allows business corporations and unions to pour money directly from their treasuries into campaigns. The “speech” of corporations may not be impeded, the court said, but the identity of sources must be disclosed. In other words, big money can speak but it must speak in the light, says the majority opinion – with one strong exception. Justice Clarence Thomas here disagrees with his conservative colleagues. He believes the First Amendment is so absolute in its free speech guarantee that even voices from the darkness are protected.


The Constitution, he says, gives us “the right to anonymous speech.”

The Citizens United decision will have an impact on our politics, but just how much is in dispute. On its face it seems to put a thumb on the scale of justice that favors the haves over the have-nots, something that ought to worry anyone who takes seriously the biblical option for the poor. At the very least, corporate and union money should be identified in political campaigns so that we voters understand who is trying to buy a place at the table of influence.

Justice Thomas is thought of as a highly principled jurist. He is also a Catholic. His view of the First Amendment would make it a commandment destructive of healthy political life. Adam and Eve would love it. Fortunately, no one else on the Supreme Court follows his absolutist trail.

The last thing our politics needs is encouragement toward more activity and money flowing in the dark. Thomas Jefferson, no enemy of liberty, understood the importance of light shining on the public business. He thought a free and open press even more valuable than government itself, writing in 1787: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to choose the latter.”

If more big money is to be given a place at the political table, we must be sure the bags are well labeled.

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