Most Americans have heard of North Carolina’s Reverend William Barber, whose passion and activism were recently profiled in the Washington Post. Barber founded “Moral Mondays” at the North Carolina State Capitol to protest what he labeled “immoral” legislation that would further disadvantage the poor; his movement aims to give voice to the previously voiceless, and to effect change.
I was particularly struck by the following two paragraphs in the article, because they illuminate two diametrically opposed understandings of morality.
Barber’s admirers say his sermons and speeches, which have intertwined the religious tenets of love, justice and mercy that exist in all faiths with an American vision of morality baked into the Constitution, steal the moral high ground long claimed by political conservatives.
After all, the Bible says little about abortion, prayer in schools and same-sex marriage. Yet there are hundreds of scriptures that deal with how people treat “the least of these,” which in modern times could be interpreted to mean denying them the right to vote or health-care coverage. Last, week, Barber joined a health-care protest at a Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s office (R-Pa.) and said a Republican repeal of Obamacare would be the nation’s greatest moral failing since slavery.
Barber is reclaiming the meaning of morality and moral behavior from the religious zealots whose definition of morality is limited to activities that occur below the waist.
Self-identified “Christians” like Mike Pence, who want government to enforce morality as they define it, focus entirely upon sex. They are evidently obsessed by it. Think about their top priorities: denying women access to abortion and birth control and punishing LGBTQ citizens for loving people of the wrong gender.
They want government to enforce their own, rigid beliefs by denying other citizens the moral autonomy they claim for themselves.
Increasingly, religious figures like Reverend Barber are fighting back by reclaiming a more expansive and humane understanding of what constitutes truly moral behavior. In their eyes, lawmakers who want to deprive millions of poor Americans of access to health care in order to further enrich the wealthy are immoral, no matter what their sexual behavior.
Tim Tyson is a historian and author who has followed Barber’s efforts to build an inclusive movement focused on social justice and the belief that moral behavior is defined by how one treats others. He thinks that message resonates.
“He sees that when you boil it right down, Judaism and Islam and Christianity and all the other major faiths really are rooted in that same vision and same social ethos that’s rooted in love,” said Tyson. “Then this ethos also speaks to people who are of a more activist orientation. Who are not church people. That makes that church a lot bigger — and makes a place for everybody.”
Barber had a prime-time slot at the Democratic National Convention, and he got a standing ovation when he called for an “army of moral defibrillators” to “shock the heart of the nation.”
In addition to his ability to speak with eloquence and conviction about the nature of justice and morality, Barber clearly understands what is necessary for effective political activism.
“We can’t keep fighting in our silos,” he told a group of Union Leaders at SEIU 1199 during a gathering of health-care workers in Atlantic City. “No more separating issues — labor over here, voting rights over here. The same people fighting against one should have to fight against all of us together.”
Barber’s message is enough to make me respect religion again.