Sr. Simone Campbell asks attendees to participate in an exercise to demonstrate the changes in Americans’ income from 1980 to 2009 by creating a human graph. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Sister Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the Bus” told an audience of about 300 people at Chestnut Hill College that Americans today face the challenge of “reclaiming our democracy.”

Speaking in the college’s Gruber Theater on Sept. 27, Campbell, who is executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby in Washington, D.C., recently toured nine states this summer to protest Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget, which gives tax breaks to the wealthy while cutting funds to social programs that benefit the poor.

The lecture was sponsored by the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, the women’s studies major, and the history program. In her introduction, Sister Catherine Nerney, S.S.J., described Campbell as an advocate who “cares about the needs of 100 percent of the people.”

An animated presenter, Campbell asked seven attendees to participate in an exercise to demonstrate the changes in Americans’ income from 1980 to 2009 by creating a human graph. Participants were divided up into seven different income groups: the top 1 percent, top 5 percent, top 20 percent, second 20 percent, middle 20 percent, fourth 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent. She said the income gap between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent is so great it’s almost as if they were on different planets.

“The problem is the folks up there have no interaction with the folks down here,” Campbell said. “So, they don’t know what the story is.”

She said the institution of credit cards has allowed the middle 20 percent to maintain a standard of living without their income growing. Campbell said people who are in the top income bracket live in gated communities, in isolation and are afraid they are going to lose what they have.

“When you’re afraid and fearful, the instinct is to protect what’s mine,” Campbell said. “But, what we need in our country is not isolates who are protecting themselves in fear. What we need in our country is to return to our basic constitutional orientation, which is also our faith orientation, which is about community … but, it’s gonna require sharing and changing policies that have gone to foster this huge disparity.”

But changing those policies will require us to talk to one another, she said.

“We cannot let ourselves be bamboozled by some half-truth ads on television,” Campbell said, pointing out that Americans now face the challenge of reclaiming their democracy.

“ I really think our democracy is at risk at this point because we don’t talk to each other about real issues,” Campbell said. “In Congress, it’s all about stalemate.”

She recalled how right after the 2008 election, Sen.Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said his sworn duty was to make sure Barack Obama is a one-term president.

“Isn’t your sworn duty to govern and solve some of our problems,” Campbell said. “Why did you run for Senate if you thought it was just to be a roadblock. How can you care so little about our nation?”

Campbell noted that in the United States there is a smaller chance of moving out of poverty than in England where they have nobility.

Campbell referred to a book titled “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better,” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, that studied the correlation between the income gap and the quality of life in 23 countries. The British authors examined issues such as mental health, infant mortality, incarceration, alcohol and drug dependence and education, and then related the variables to how income is distributed in each society.

According to the data, the authors found that there is a one-to-one correlation between quality of life and the income gap. Countries that had a large disparity between income levels had a lower quality of life for that society.
The authors found that “reducing inequality is the best way of improving the quality of the social environment.”

Campbell said the only way Americans can move past the idea of class warfare is by talking to people who think differently than them.

“The only place you can go to bridge that gap is by talking about basic values,” Campbell said, adding that Americans can move forward if “ you come at it from values that we all value.”

Campbell said two key issues Americans need to address are healthcare and immigration.

Campbell’s lecture was followed by a Q & A session. One attendee asked Campbell to address vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s interpretation of the subsidiarity principle.

“Ryan just doesn’t get it,” Campbell said.

Campbell said subsidiarity is based on the principle that decisions should be made from the lowest governing social organization possible – first the family, then the community, and then the state.

Campbell said the current pope, Benedict XVI, said “unless you have a strong sense of solidarity you can’t do subsidiarity.”

“Solidarity means I hold your concerns as deeply as I hold my own,” she said. “Can you imagine what our national policy would look like if we did that? We as a nation need to come together and figure this out.

“The Greeks knew the only way you could have a democracy was if you had an educated public and have the capacity for dialogue. If we don’t have that then we’re doomed. So, we better fix it.”