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Commentary: Eliminate ‘pay to play’ politics

Bishop Gregory V. Palmer

A UMNS Commentary
By Bishop Gregory Palmer *

Dec. 16, 2008

Our United Methodist Social Principles state, "When churches speak to government, they also bear the responsibility to speak to their own memberships." One of the four focus areas within The United Methodist Church is principle-centered leadership. During this past week, the people of Illinois have seen a collapse of the public trust.

On Dec. 9, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was taken into federal custody on charges of political corruption. It was alleged that he had engaged in a brazen attempt to auction off the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

As the duly elected governor, Blagojevich has the power to appoint anyone, including himself, to the vacated seat — a power given to him by the voters of Illinois. As part of that public trust, the people of Illinois put their faith in the governor to exercise due diligence and act in the public's best interest. If the allegations are true, that trust has been violated.

As United Methodists, we affirm, "Churches have the right and the duty to speak and act corporately on those matters of public policy that involve basic moral or ethical issues and questions." It is this right and duty that strike at the core of religious liberty in our country and our state.

As we are well aware in recent years, the reputation of Illinois politics has been soiled by ethical lapses by officeholders, and by those who serve a season and then are charged and convicted once they leave office. In response, lawmakers have taken a piecemeal approach to ethics reform that has been less than effective because of the loopholes built into the law--loopholes that invite its disregard.

This week very well could be a low point in Illinois politics, but it is also an opportunity to demand real and meaningful reform of our elected officials. I have initiated conversation with my ecumenical colleagues to see what steps we can take as the religious community to speak with one voice for real change in the way officials do the people's business. It is time for all of us to be robust participants in civic life and do all we can to restore the public trust.

I would offer the following first steps as a way in which to start that process:

  • I call upon Gov. Blagojevich to respond in ways that promote a restoration of public trust and moral leadership and the healing of this state.
  • I call upon President-elect Obama to keep U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in place until these proceedings are concluded. As presidential appointees, U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. A disruption in continuity would poorly serve the people of Illinois.
  • I call upon United Methodists to demand from state representatives and senators meaningful reform that eliminates "pay to play" politics with stiff penalties for those who violate the public trust. Several groups have offered comprehensive ideas around the way we fund our political campaigns, which drive much of the perceived need for such schemes.
  • I call upon United Methodists to pray for Gov. Blagojevich, his family and all of our elected leaders as we navigate historically unchartered waters as a state. Take time to stay informed and join in the public debate with the goal of restoring the public trust.

With God's help, even the most difficult times can be times of renewal.

*Palmer is leader of The United Methodist Church’s Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference and president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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