On the left, new push to reclaim politics of morality

A North Carolina pastor is leading a movement to recast morality as a liberal issue. The election suggests the shift might already be happening in some ways.   

David Goldman/AP/File
The Rev. William Barber II delivers his keynote address during the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta earlier this year.

The picture might have seemed like something out of a Bernie Sanders rally.

Thousands of people spilling into a city square here on a cold February day, calling for rights for gays and for lesbians and for women. Thundering that minorities were being systematically disenfranchised. Demanding access to affordable health care.

Then out walks the most anticipated speaker of the day. He is a black man, and around his neck is the starched white collar of a pastor. When he speaks, white and black and Latino and Asian heads nod in agreement.

This is no church sermon. Nor is it a rally like any other held this election season. It is a movement that has begun to seize hold here in North Carolina and that, as the state heads to the polls Tuesday for its primary, is trying to reshape how Southerners, in particular, see politics.    

The speaker, the Rev. William Barber II, calls it “fusion” in a nod to the diverse coalition it has brought together. But at its heart, it is an attempt to reframe the politics of morality in America, seizing it from conservative evangelism and arguing that care and compassion for all Americans – whether gay or straight, white or black, man or woman – is the essence of morality.

Especially this election season, its success points to potentially significant changes percolating not only here but across the United States.

Senator Sanders has enjoyed more success than any pundit predicted by promoting a similar message in a more secular way. Taken together, the two movements hint at how visions of morality in America are potentially evolving. Millennials accept same-sex marriage, want big government, and “are no less convinced than their elders that there are absolute standards of right and wrong,” according to a seminal 2010 Pew Research Center study.

It is those views of morality that the fusion coalition has tapped here and Sanders has nationwide – among Millennials and beyond, in the case of Mr. Barber’s movement. He thinks it can grow to other Southern states. There will be challenges. But his eclectic mix of races, religions, and rights groups might provide at least one glimpse of the future of the American left. 

A 'Third Reconstruction'

His message seems perfectly calibrated for the moment.

“We should be concerned … when politics is more a struggle over money and manipulation than a struggle over ideas,” he told the crowd at the February rally, catching the populist mood of this election. “Politicians want us to be slaves to their decisions without citizens having the ability to register their discontent at the ballot box.”

But in many ways, Barber, a Duke University-educated theologian, is simply taking the spirit of sermons preached from the pulpits of black churches since the 1960s and applying it much more broadly, says Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University in South Carolina.

Indeed, as the head of the North Carolina NAACP, Barber says race is a vital first step to addressing other social issues. But his agenda goes beyond traditionally black issues such as education cuts and voting restrictions to embrace rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community as well as the cause of undocumented immigrants.

Underlying it all is the basic idea that framing issues through a moral prism makes them far more powerful and universal than framing them politically.

The goal, he says, is nothing less than a “Third Reconstruction” in the South – following the initial post-Civil War Reconstruction and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“America says that its purpose is to establish justice,” he says in an interview. “We swear on Bibles – there’s 2,000 scriptures in the Bible about justice. It’s not progressive, it’s not all liberal, like that’s a bad word. To be conservative – if conservative means ‘to hold onto the essence of’ – to be a true constitutional conservative means you would be in every fight about establishing justice and promoting the general welfare because you say you believe in the Constitution.”

“So we’ve gotten all messed up whether it’s left or right or whether it’s too risky. What we’re saying is we need a moral movement that said, ‘Here’s this policy, is it morally defensible?’ ” he adds.

His “Moral Monday” events at North Carolina’s state capitol have drawn crowds in the tens of thousands. White chapters of the NAACP are popping up in the conservative Western part of the state. Protesters have been willing to go to jail to further the cause.

Al McSurely, a white, civil rights activist and attorney in his 70s has been involved with civil rights organizing for decades, and he believes Barber’s movement will result in long-term change.

“They killed Malcolm [X], Martin [Luther King],” he says. “They killed the Panthers. The only solution is organizing at a county – at a grass-roots level. I feel very confident they’re going to have a hard time busting this movement.”

Alabama is not North Carolina

The question is how exportable the movement is, and the challenge is that North Carolina is more liberal than the rest of the South.

“North Carolina is a lot more progressive than Alabama,” says Benard Simelton, who leads Alabama’s state NAACP chapter. “So people there, it’s easier for them to see what he’s trying to do and how it benefits everyone, especially the [poor]. People in Alabama, they are still of the opinion that ‘I may be dirt poor, but if a Republican says this is not good for me, then this is not good for me.’ ”

Barber’s often-caustic tone also could turn off moderates who otherwise might be attracted to his message. He famously said of Tim Scott, the first black senator elected in the South since Reconstruction and a Republican: “A ventriloquist can always find a good dummy.”

“He is seen as too radical,” says Paul O’Connor, a long-time North Carolina state politics reporter and columnist. “And of course it’s race-based that he’s seen as radical. You’ve got to get moderate to moderately conservative rural white people to see that what the Republicans are doing. They’re not going to listen to a fiery black man saying that.”

For the movement to gain traction outside North Carolina, Barber and those who help spread the message will have to win over voters who haven’t associated their values with the left in a generation. “The question is can that message come out and get less politically strident Christians to vote Democratic in key elections?” says Professor Huffmon of Winthrop University.

The Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank in the state, called Barber’s protests “Money Mondays” and catalogued the state and federal grants his Goldsboro, N.C., church and affiliated organizations have used to build up the poor community.

Barber smiles at the criticism. His church, Greenleaf Christian Church Disciples of Christ, has poured its money and leveraged state and federal grants to help seniors, former felons, the incarcerated, and the homeless, he says. On a recent Sunday, the pastor proudly showed off homes that the church’s development organization helped build to move people out of poverty.

It’s the message of his movement – allied with leaders taking charge in local communities – that will allow it to expand, Barber says.

The resonance of Sanders’s message shows the appetite for a uniting progressive force, adds Bob Zellner, a longtime civil rights organizer. But Barber’s morality-based argument will resonate even more broadly, he adds with a stridency that could come straight from the Sanders “revolution.”

“We have two forces trying to pull the country in opposite directions: One trying to pull the country toward division and violence, and the other by Dr. Barber… to build bridges and connections rather than moats,” he says. “We’re going to take back the evangelical community, we’re going to take back the moral high ground, we’re going to take back the flag, and we're going to bring it back to real American forces that believed in brotherhood and sisterhood, not division.”

[Editor's note: The original version misquoted Barber on the number of scriptures about justice.]

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