A young man wears a dollar bill taped over his mouth.

COMMENTARY: Free speech just got more expensive

(RNS) Dear Supreme Court justices: When I heard about the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling, it made me plotz.

I’m a rabbi, so I know much more about the Talmud than about torts. But if there’s any group that can compete with scholars of constitutional law, it’s rabbis.

Your recent decision was all about the First Amendment and free speech.

A young man wears a dollar bill taped over his mouth.

A young man wears a dollar bill taped over his mouth.

As I understand it, legal scholars have interpreted that word “speech” to include “political expression.” So far, I’m with you. I think the freedom of being able to talk politics without fear of reprisal, whether you are a mighty politician or a lowly voter, is A-OK.

But when you said that political expression is the same as a campaign contribution, you lost me. The First Amendment protects the right of every citizen to speak freely. It does not protect the right to give money to politics. Money is not the same as speech. If you want to equate money with something, consider equating it with influence, not speech.

I read the whole decision, and I still don’t see how you get from “freedom of speech” to saying that every rich person has a protected right to put so much money into political campaigns.

One thing you made clear in your decision is that there is “only one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.” I can think of one more big concern to consider, which I’ll mention in a moment, but let’s take corruption.

Long before America's founders were debating the Bill of Rights, people struggled with corruption that comes from mixing money with politics. The prophet Isaiah put it this way:

"Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right" (Isaiah 33:15).

Isaiah knew what we seem to have forgotten: Money blunts our capacity to navigate the complexity of a given issue. Money turns our ears toward the well-articulated pleas of the well-financed and makes it really hard to hear other voices from the community -- many of whom have legitimate grievances.

Which brings me to the other concern I wanted to raise as a rabbi. I believe our approach to money in politics must strive to listen to the voices of the weakest and most disenfranchised Americans.

There are literally hundreds of verses in the Hebrew Bible that emphasize God’s special concern for the poor. My Roman Catholic colleague William Cavanaugh put it this way: "The fact that the voice of the wealthy is the voice that is most clearly and forcefully heard is an upside-down state of affairs.” If wealthy Americans are able to pursue influence with our elected officials with few limits, it is almost guaranteed that the voices of the wealthy are the only voices the officials will hear.

This may be what Jesus meant when he challenged his followers to invite the poor to their banquets:

"When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14:12-14)

I make it a habit to not speak on behalf of other religions, but it seems that Christians of all stripes will have serious concerns with a system that privileges the voices of the wealthy over the poor.

The First Amendment tells us that speech is supposed to be free, not expensive.

By equating political speech with money, McCutcheon defines speech as “what people with lots of cash say.” McCutcheon and its sister ruling, Citizens United, virtually guarantee that wealthy donors will drown the voices of the poor. It will be a rare elected official who will be able to hear and heed the neediest Americans and survive the political process.

Rabbi Justus Baird is dean of Auburn Theological Seminary and author of the recent report “Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy.” Photo courtesy of Rabbi Justus Baird

Rabbi Justus Baird is dean of Auburn Theological Seminary and author of the recent report “Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy.” Photo courtesy of Rabbi Justus Baird

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Finally, although the First Amendment does not protect the right to give truckloads of money to politics, it does protect our right to bring a grievance to the government. I hope Americans who feel like Justice Stephen Breyer does, that McCutcheon “eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve,” will speak up!

To sum up: You don’t have to be a legal scholar or a rabbi to understand how checks to political campaigns from wealthy Americans will distort justice. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether McCutcheon is a good legal decision. But as a man of faith, I already know it is a bad moral decision.

(Rabbi Justus Baird is dean of Auburn Theological Seminary and author of the recent report “Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy.”)