Money Rules
Written by: 
Joe Morris Doss

Americans report a lack of agency; most seem to feel that we have very little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

The problem of the dominant influence of money is an issue on which Republicans and Democrats should agree, a deal-breaking problem that, as the late Senator John Stennis of Mississippi was the first to report, is truly a threat to democracy. Perhaps it will prove helpful to have a committed conservative speak to the problem from a traditionally conservative perspective.

Richard Painter was President George W. Bush’s White House counselor and presently teaches law at the University of Minnesota. No one can challenge his conservative credentials. Mr. Painter has written a recently published book: Taxation Only With Representation: The Conservative Conscience and Campaign Finance Reform. Bill Moyers interviewed him about the book on April 21 of this year; the following is largely Mr. Painter’s voice, offered as clearly as possible and without interpretation.

Citizens United?

“I think the Court was wrong in that decision. I don’t think that reversing the Citizens United decision is going to solve the problem…That decision certainly did a lot of damage, but we need to do a lot more than go back to 2008, before the Citizens United case, to fix this problem. I think it was a cesspool. It’s just that the Supreme Court has made the cesspool that much worse with a string of very problematic decisions including Citizens United and McCutcheon [v. FEC] and some others.”

“The politicians of both political parties have become dependent upon campaign money from vested interests. And that has led to a situation where people, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are adamantly opposed to campaign finance reform even though the vast majority of voters, including voters who support them, want campaign finance reform.”

“The elected officials in both parties are receiving campaign contributions and support through electioneering communications from groups that aren’t technically affiliated with the campaigns, but really are. That’s the off-the-books financing of electioneering communications that’s going on.”

“Having a representative democracy requires the confidence of the voters in the system. And if voters lose confidence in the system they can make some very bad decisions. I think we have a lot of very angry voters. And we need to be cognizant of the fact that if we don’t have public confidence in the system it’s going to be easy for demagoguery to take over and for voters to flock to the type of candidate who promises an authoritarian regime or something like that. And it’s not a good situation. It’s what destroyed the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s — lack of public confidence in the representative democracy — and it’s a problem that we could deal with here in the United States.”

“The American experiment with representative democracy has been a great success, but we need to realize that it needs to be a genuine representative democracy where ordinary people have a vote, have a voice in choosing the candidates who represent them. And if we don’t address this issue we could easily see a situation where oligarchy, as a political system, that oligarchy is (viewed as) a more persuasive system where people will flock to authoritarian government and other alternatives.”

“(Conservatives should be)…worried about national security concerns. Corporate wealth is global in a global economy. We’re going to have money coming into our elections from China, from the Middle East, from all over the world. These are not necessarily countries that are hostile to the United States — sometimes they are, sometimes not — but there’s a fundamental principle at stake here: Should the United States government be chosen by the American people or by well-to-do interests, by moneyed interests, in other countries?”

“That’s why we fought the American Revolution, over that issue. We have preserved our independence for over 200 years. But if we don’t want the United States government carved up into spheres of influence by foreign powers in a global economy, we need to do something about this problem. It’s a very serious problem and I’ve outlined in the book about a dozen ways in which foreign money can get into United States elections.”

“There are about a dozen ways of getting that foreign money into our elections, whether or not Justice Alito, or anyone else, thinks it’s legal. And this I’ve analogized to the twenty-one-year-old drinking age. It’s illegal to drink under the age of twenty-one. But I can assure you it’s a lot easier to get foreign money into a US election than it is to get booze onto the typical college campus in the freshman dormitory.”

“…what do political conservatives lose with our present system of campaign finance? They lose faith in limited government, right?”

“Yes. You’re going to have more government spending for more expensive government contracts. You’re going to have regulation that is designed to appease those who make the largest contributions, but regulation often hinders small business in favor of big businesses. And even with respect to big businesses, many of them are in the situation where they have to pay money to politicians in order to get the regulatory regime they want. So you have lots of regulation, with lots of loopholes; each loophole bought with campaign contributions and then lobbied in by the K Street lobbyists. And that’s not the way our economy should be regulated at all.”


Distinguishing Duke and Trump From Other Politicians

Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Author’s Note: The church should be non-partisan in elective politics. This includes organizations like At the Threshold that are not official but purport to speak to issues theologically and on behalf of concerns of the church. It is extremely rare for the church to find itself having to speak out against a serious candidate for office, much less a nominee of one of the two major parties of the United States, much less a nominee for President. But there are examples in history – too important to ignore – in which it is clear that the obligation of the church demands, or should have demanded, that it take a stand against certain leaders and forms of leadership. Without identifying reasons in the abstract, At the Threshold has been offering a series of statements about the candidacy of Donald Trump that should reveal why we think just such an exceptional case has arisen. Please be aware that these statements are not written due to political opinion, but are based on careful employment of well-honed moral theology.

Recently I asserted on behalf of At the Threshold that the voter who supports Donald Trump on certain selected matters, and thus chooses to support his election, is supporting all of what will happen if he becomes President. The point was that Trump has promised to take actions and positions as President so toxic that voters should balk at supporting some of his positions unless willing to take responsibility for all. An analogy was drawn to the White Supremacy position of David Duke.

Someone I dearly respect asked: “What is the precise distinguishing factor(s) between applying this ‘if support some, then support all’ principle to Trump and Duke but not to all candidates?”

The difference is that there are some candidates who take certain defining positions that are “out of bounds” of what is tolerable and become personifications of actions and ideas that must be rejected unconditionally by the electorate. Their leadership is to be categorically rejected. David Duke has been recognized as one such politician; Donald Trump should be another.

David Duke could not be supported on ordinary matters, like tax reform, because standing by him on anything would have conferred on him more power and standing to use in his fight for white supremacy, hyper-nationalism, and thuggish authoritarianism. In the story that was previously used, for the State Treasurer to support him on an issue such as tax reform would have been taken to mean that the official was supportive, or at least open to, his stand on race.

Normally it is appropriate to support candidates without agreeing with them across the board. To support Bernie Sanders on equalizing pay for women does not mean one must oppose the international trade agreements he criticizes. Nor is it clear that a majority agrees with him on either issue; they are matters currently being debated and not yet settled. But to support Trump on his stated plan for tax reform, and thus to vote for him on that basis, is as well a vote to endanger the world, to exclude people of certain religious beliefs and affiliations, to denigrate and discriminate against women, to elect someone who will say and do anything without regard to truth or even to personal belief in what he himself is saying, etc., etc., etc. He cannot be supported in one or more parts deemed desirable without bringing about proposals that must be avoided. It is an either/or vote. That indeed is unusual, but in this case it is very real.

The distinction we are talking about has to do with how absolutely positions taken by a candidate must be avoided. In something like nuclear proliferation it is damningly close to absolute. Throughout my adulthood, the greatest fear has always been that some crazy person, some greedy maniac, or some terrorist group might get their hands on nuclear power and use it against a city or region. If the nuclear power is available, “the market” will find it. Do we no longer fear that rogue leaders and/or nation states will gain the use of nuclear bombs and use them?

A policy like excluding Muslims may not be absolute — eventually the policy could be corrected — except in how real flesh and blood human beings and families will suffer the consequences in the meantime, and especially except for the great violence done to our values, traditions, and identity as a nation. Then, there are the issues that were once in conflict, but finally have become settled. Often a minority of citizens may continue to hold to a position after the controversy over right and wrong has been clarified and decided, and even when it would be unacceptable to go back on that settled resolution. For example, we have decided that slavery is wrong and being the United States of America is good. Yet, 38 percent of those who voted for Donald Trump in South Carolina acknowledged that they wish the South had won the Civil War; another 38 percent say they aren’t sure which side they wish had won, while just 24 percent say they are glad the Union won. Thirty-five percent of Cruz supporters said they thought the U.S. would be better under the Confederacy.

There must be a line drawn between disagreement and political “debate” over a controversial issue, such as when the south largely refused to allow most black citizens to vote, and when that issue has been settled, as after the civil rights movement and voting act. To revive the previous controversy is unacceptable and must be avoided. Trump’s candidacy has raised several of these kinds of issues.

Then, there are issues on which we have been moving rapidly toward political resolution, but on which Trump would reverse course. We could decide that women are just less worthy as workers and deserve less pay, but women are about done with that kind of suppression. We can rely on fear for our basic motivations, but that is doomed to become exhausting, oppressive, and counter-productive. The United States can try to become a modern empire on a model like the old Roman Empire – but that is fantasy and immoral. We could try to maintain a white majority in the US, but that will prove a simple denial of reality. We could raise established and fundamental issues of civil rights again, but that is just asking for pervasive pain. Racism in many of its manifestations is definitely at stake in this election, but we must move forward instead of backwards. Keeping Muslims out of the US and many of Trump’s other promises comes pretty close to the sort of ridiculously negative standard exemplified in slavery. But there are other proposals that are even closer to an absolute “NO”: like a proposal to proliferate nuclear weapons! 

Another valued friend that I deeply respect opined that change is needed and that it is Trump who would bring it about. I can appreciate the way most of us are sick and tired of all politicians seeming to play the same game in which “the fix” is on and “we the people” are not in on it; I share the yearning for some genuine political reform. But going where Trump would take us is only to jump from the frying pan into the fire.


At the Threshold’s series on interpreting scripture continues. Our method is to examine the theories of how lawyers, judges, legal scholars, and politicians interpret laws, with a special eye to constitutional law, and then use that understanding to cast light on how scripture is interpreted by biblical scholars and theologians. We have discussed the first of the two basic schools for interpretation, the “objectivist” methodology that Americans usually refer to as “strict constructionist.” We will now turn our attention to the “subjectivist” mode of interpretation. 

Part 7 of a 10- part series

A General Review

The subjectivist method considers itself more sensitive to the actual effect it has on the moral order it seeks to uphold, to restore when violated, and to reconcile when differences arise between states and parties. Instead of standing above what is going on in order to judge objectively, subjectivists are willing to go behind, or deeper within, what is seen on the surface of a disputation into the realities as they are and as they will be affected.

Judges and other interpreters of constitutional law often consider each of the three primary schools within it to be reliant on variations of some sort of “natural law” (although not in the sense that scholastic theology defined the term.) That is, instead of limiting their consideration to that which has already been agreed upon and instituted as law, subjectivist are prepared to rely on something outside of the existing and formulated body of law that “naturally” validates the law in question, something that at once transcends concrete instances of law yet remains so fundamental that it must be allowed to govern. Adherents of these forms of interpretation do not believe it is necessary that everyone agree on what that something is or the relation that something must have to law in order to make a rule legitimate.

Even the most ardent objectivist interpreter acknowledges the existence of unwritten and pre-existing equities within the law, an understanding that there are certain inherent protections of the justice and fairness for which the law as a whole stands and which it seeks. The law cannot allow a law to be “inequitable.” If a court recognizes that this is happening in particular cases it will look to where equity is to be identified, even in the face of clearly written statues and precedents. The courts look to the foundational purposes of law itself and of the law in question. The great English jurist Francis Bacon defined equity as the set of maxims that “reign over all the law” and “from which flow all civil laws.” The equities always exist and always must be satisfied; otherwise the law would be forced to contradict its own purposes. Read More…


Here, we continue to examine the objectivist, or strict constructionist, school of interpretation by turning our attention to interpreters who are openly, and without apology, committed to conservative social, cultural, and political views. We refer to those whose political and cultural views drive their interpretations of law and scripture for ideological and strategic purposes.

Part 6 of a 10-part series

Certain 20th-century forms of legal jurisprudence that are usually grouped together under the term “structuralists” were engendered out of the dramatic struggles of the era with vastly different and even contradictory purposes. In the United States it was represented by the “legal realism” of the 1930s (incubated especially at Yale Law School) and the “neo-realism” of the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam War era. Of these movements within jurisprudence there has emerged today’s version of “structuralists” whose primary concern is to impart particular values and protect certain conservative structures and institutions that they believe are crucial for “the American way of life” and democracy. “Structuralists” tend to subordinate all issues to strategic concerns. Read More…