A group of Catholic nuns gathered outside the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa on Wednesday to kick off a nationwide “We the People. We the Voters” bus tour, seeking to use their moral weight to highlight the evils of “dark money” in politics and encourage disenfranchised people to register to vote and show up on election day.
The nuns, who stood before an assembled crowd of hundreds, were joined by Vice President Joseph Biden, a Roman Catholic, and led by Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic nun and Executive Director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby. Campbell and the Vice President both spoke briefly to the crowd, with Campbell citing the pitfalls of money in politics and Biden singing the praises of the nuns’ activism.
“I know no group of people who bring a greater sense of justice and passion to what they do,” Biden said of the nuns, according to the New York Times.
After their initial stop in Iowa, Campbell and NETWORK plan to hold 75 more events in 36 cities over the next five weeks, most of which will focus on voter registration and voter mobilization. The effort, Campbell told ThinkProgress, is about empowering poor and disenfranchised voters — people whose voices often go unheard amid the flood of wealthy political action groups that are exacting ever-growing influence over American politics. These organizations are aided in part by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC, which loosened restrictions that had long prohibited corporations from spending large sums money to impact elections. Campbell and her fellow nuns argue that the influence of big money in politics drowns out the concerns of regular Americans.
“Money doesn’t convey truth,” Campbell said. “Everyone should be able to use their voice. Everybody should be able to come to the table. But you can’t buy the table — sorry, it’s wrong.”
Campbell also noted that she and several groups of nuns plan on personally seeking out unlikely voters during the tour, knocking on doors and joining up with local organizations that work to boost turnout within impoverished communities. She said the goal was to advocate for a society that supports “the 100 percent,” and that she was originally inspired to take to the road after she saw a poll earlier this year reporting that the majority of Americans weren’t even aware of the midterm elections in November.
“So many people are so depressed and beaten down by the our society,” Campbell said. “Our [materials] are in English and Spanish. We want to make those who feel most depressed, most isolated, most pushed out … Feel needed in our society.”
The bus tour does not endorse one specific political party, but it does appear to be targeted towards activating voters in states with close Senate races — especially those that are being influenced by massive influxes of outside money, such as Louisiana, Colorado, North Carolina, and Iowa. Simone specifically criticized the role the Koch brothers have played in Iowa’s Senate battle, where the two conservative billionaires have used a combination of personal donations and political organizations such as Americans for Prosperity to spend around $7 million in support of Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst. Unlike her opponent Bruce Braley — who has proposed raising Iowa’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour — Ernst has endorsed a shockingly low $7.25 minimum wage for the state and has been accused of opposing a federal minimum wage.
“Here in Iowa…One of the candidates wants to raise the minimum wage. The other thinks the minimum wage should be done away with altogether,” Campbell said, referencing Ernst. “These choices are important.”
Campbell and her fellow nuns are part of a long history of Catholics advocating for social justice within the United States. Their particular concern for the impoverished, for instance, is an ancient Christian belief that has seen something of a resurgence in recent years, aided in part by the rise of Pope Francis, who has made caring for the poor a central element of his papacy. Francis, the nuns, and many other Catholics are guided by Catholic Social Teaching, which insists on a preferential “option for the poor” as expressed in Matthew 25:45, where Jesus declares, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
In fact, this isn’t the first time Campbell and NETWORK have sought to advocate for “the least of these” — the new bus tour is actually their third cross-country romp in as many years. The original “Nuns On The Bus” outing occurred in 2012, when Campbell traveled to nine states across the Midwest to raise awareness about income inequality and blast then-Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget plan because it threatened to slash social programs that help the poor. NETWORK went on to launch another bus trip to help galvanize support for immigration reform in 2013, and Campbell’s star has only continued to rise: since the first tour, Simone has delivered an address during primetime at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, testified before Congress on the need to protect government programs such as Head Start, and published a book entitled “A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community.”
But as the influence of NETWORK and Campbell has grown, so too has criticism of their actions — primarily from within the Catholic church. Nuns are actually more popular than bishops or priests in the United States, and their activism played a key role in helping pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops publicly opposed. But their advocacy has rubbed many in the Catholic hierarchy the wrong way: Campbell and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a group that represents most U.S. sisters, were put under investigation by the Vatican in 2012 for supposedly spending to much time on social justice work and not enough time defending church doctrine on abortion and homosexuality. There was some hope that Pope Francis would call off the inquiry when he ascended to the papacy last year, but he reaffirmed the investigation in April 2013.
Still, Campbell insists that the new bus tour is bigger than Catholicism. The dangers of money in politics, she argues, should be understood by all Americans, not just Catholics or other people of faith.
“I do this because of faith, but we don’t all have to do it because of that,” Campbell said. “We do it because of the Constitution.”