The election Nov. 8 changed the makeup of the Minnesota Legislature as well as Congress and the White House. Visitor editor Joe Towalski interviewed Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota, Nov. 10 about the opportunities and challenges ahead on issues related to the common good. The interview, below, was edited for length and clarity.
Q: This election revealed a lot of divisions in this country. Donald Trump talked about bringing people together and trying to unite. What should Catholics be doing to try to heal and unite their communities and this nation?
Adkins: The election in many ways represented a rebuke to the establishment in both parties, the culture and the media. Very few people saw this coming. It wasn’t so much about the messenger as it was about the message that there’s deep resentment and anger in this country.
So, in that context, where there are deep divisions and deep resentments among different groups of people, particularly the urban and rural split, in what ways can the Church foster dialogue and be a bridge-builder in that conversation? How can we build bridges between urban and rural people, Republicans and Democrats, people across races, and really start listening to each other?
It starts with presuming good will among our neighbors and then trying to bring people together in conversations and really foster what Pope Francis called the “culture of encounter.” Perhaps if we do that, and do a better job of listening to each other, we might be able to heal some of this deep division in our communities.
Q: The legislative landscape in Minnesota has changed, in so far as Republicans now control the Minnesota Senate as well as the state House. What impact, if any, will this change have on issues Minnesota’s bishops have identified as public policy priorities? What are the opportunities and what are the challenges now?
Adkins: We had a divided government last session and that will stay the same. The difference now is that you’ll have more of a clear divide between the Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, and our Democratic governor. At some point, to get things done, they’re going to have to compromise and try to find some common ground. As we saw last session, that was incredibly difficult to do. It was deeply partisan and, as a result, we didn’t get a bonding bill, we didn’t get a tax bill, we didn’t get a number of other important pieces of legislation. The question is, will that dynamic continue?
As far as specific policy proposals, there are new opportunities and new challenges. We’re grateful that an issue like assisted suicide is really not going to be a hot issue. It’s not going to be on the front burner for at least the next two years. That’s particularly exciting. But it will continue to be very hot issue in other places. On [Election Day], Colorado legalized it. Washington, D.C., legalized it the week before, so it’s going to be part of the national conversation. We need to continue to educate people on this issue.
Conversely, another health care issue, the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is going to be a top priority for Republicans on the state federal and state levels.
Here, historically, the Church has been on the forefront of advocacy for access to affordable health care for all people. So now that we are potentially going to have a conversation about a repeal of Obamacare and its replacement, what will that look like? What principles will guide that discussion? Will making affordable health care access still be a priority? Will those proposals be consistent with conscience protection and not providing immoral services? What’s that going to look like? We really need to be a part of that conversation both at the federal and state levels.
Q: What about the chances this year on the state level of passing school choice-related tax credits?
Adkins: We were very close on education choice and our opportunity scholarship bill last session. It’s going to be a top priority. We feel we have strong leadership on that issue in both the House and Senate. We’re going to continue to encourage the governor to embrace that proposal in the tax bill.
Q: How about the issue of commercial surrogacy, which received some attention last session, including with the appointment of a legislative surrogacy commission?
Adkins: The surrogacy commission is wrapping up its hearings in the coming weeks and then it will issue a report to the Legislature for the new session coming up. Our advocacy will have a lot to do with what that report says and what’s recommended to the Legislature. We’re hoping that it puts strong limitations on the growth of the surrogacy market here in Minnesota and that it protects vulnerable women and prevents the commodification of children. It’s definitely going to be an important issue in Minnesota in 2017 after the commission releases its report and submits it to the new Legislature.
Q: What about support for low-income families and the Minnesota Family Investment Program. Do you think this issue will be addressed in any way?
Adkins: We have made some good ground on a bipartisan level. Last year, there was acknowledgment in both parties that trying to use 1986 dollars to overcome the realities of poverty in 2016 was not feasible. Unfortunately, neither party really made that a priority and so the question now is: To what extent is Gov. Dayton going to make that a priority and to what extent will Republicans embrace that amidst other spending proposals, tax cut proposals, human services delivery reform? That’s going to be a big push among our advocates and with MCC.
Q: On the national level, Republicans now control Congress and the White House. What impact will this have on issues of concern to the Catholic Church nationally? What are the challenges and opportunities?
Adkins: I mentioned the Affordable Care Act. That’s going to be a big issue. A second issue, of course, is immigration. What is that going to look like — whether it’s refugee resettlement or comprehensive reform? Also, to what extent has being anti-immigrant become an electoral strategy for Republicans, and how aggressive will the president and the Republicans be in both enacting border security measures and with deportations of undocumented persons?
That’s definitely something the Church will be deeply engaged in because our advocacy is rooted in providing a pathway to citizenship, comprehensive reform, and ensuring that families are not separated. If it becomes the case that deportations start separating families en masse and leaving communities broken, then the Church will have to be an important voice and be deeply engaged in that question.
Q: Looking ahead at these issues that will come into play the next couple of years on the state and national levels, what should concerned Catholics do now, post-election, to bring about public policies that protect human life and dignity and promote the common good?
Adkins: Undoubtedly, there are some people who are feeling better about the election results than others. But regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, it’s important to realize that we still need advocates for life and dignity because no party has the monopoly on what serves the common good.
So, recognizing that each new legislative cycle presents challenges and opportunities, ask yourself: Where are the opportunities to advance good things, and where are the challenges where something needs to be addressed — whether it’s an opportunity to advance the cause of life and religious liberty in this current legislative and congressional environment, or maybe on the other side of the coin, the potential challenges related to environmental advocacy, immigration, health care and our social safety net. People need to find where their gifts are, where they feel called and what issues they’re passionate about and then become informed and be an engaged advocate.
Fortunately, through the Catholic Advocacy Network [an initiative of the MCC; sign up here], people across the ideological spectrum, but particularly those who embrace the fullness of Catholic social teaching and the consistent ethic of life, will be able to advocate in the context of both the challenges and the opportunities. I really encourage Catholics at the minimum to start informing themselves, and the Catholic Advocacy Network is a great tool to do that.
We’re also going to be creating a dynamic opportunity for people to meet with and talk to their legislators and other Catholics who are concerned about public policy issues. That will be our “Catholics at the Capitol” celebration March 9 at the RiverCentre in St. Paul [Registration and more information about the event is available here].
Q: What about reaching out to legislators personally?
Adkins: There are a lot of new legislators out there. This is a great opportunity to make sure that they know who you are as constituents and to let them know what you care about. Again, local politics is about who shows up. We need to make a difference where God has planted us in our own corner of the vineyard, and people may be surprised, for example, at how effective just five people calling a legislator about an issue can be.
People can make a difference at the local level. The calls, the letters and the visits really do matter. Even if you’re frustrated, there’s no reason to despair. You should always have hope. To overcome this division and polarization, we shouldn’t assume anything about legislators simply because of party affiliation or status. If you open the conversation with a presumption of good will, you may be pretty surprised at the results. We need to encounter one another and get beyond these divisions and this polarization if we hope to really foster a civilization of love rooted in the common good.