Word started filtering out from the South in the fall of 2013. There was a charismatic preacher in North Carolina who was bringing people together in a religiously inspired fusion movement called Moral Mondays. It would be coming soon to a church near us.
Really? Would liberal Protestantism get its groove back? More than thirty years after Jerry Falwell launched the Moral Majority and almost fifty after mainline Protestantism had started losing adherents, was a liberal multi-racial, multi-faith political coalition possible?
Hope centered on the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a second-generation preacher; the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Disciples of Christ; head of the North Carolina NAACP; and architect of Moral Mondays. It’s the weekly protests at the state capitol—against draconian cuts in health, education, unemployment benefits, and other areas—that have earned Barber his current renown, but Barber, following in the footsteps of parents active in the civil rights movement, is no newcomer to movement building. Before Moral Mondays captured media attention, he and the NAACP had spent almost seven years organizing a coalition called Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) that brought together a wide range of social justice organizations. The coalition is now called the Forward Together Moral Movement, sponsor of Moral Mondays, and includes some 200 organizations and thousands of individuals.
When I interviewed Barber in September, an hour before he addressed a multi-faith group at my own ultra-liberal church in Manhattan, Judson Memorial, I thought I could skip questions about coalition building. I was sure he would cover that in his speech. He fixed me with his expressively intense eyes. “I plan to preach tonight,” he said.
And preach he did. Barber spreads a gospel of witness and resistance in the tradition of civil rights and anti-war leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Sloane Coffin, as well as of nineteenth-century abolitionists and women’s rights activists Henry Ward Beecher, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass. His name, though, is not associated with one particular cause, but with a fusion “movement, not a moment.”
In the Judson sanctuary, he took his text from the Book of Ezekiel, telling the story of God’s cry for just one person to “stand in the gap,” to defend the poor, the stranger, the outcast, to speak out against the evil destroying the city. As he enumerated the attacks on food stamps, on immigrants, on the working poor, on LGBTQ people, he urged us to repeat in unison, “It’s wrong!” Barber exhorted us to follow God, not grants; to take stands, after which support would follow; to commit to the long haul, “not just until you get offered a better pulpit.” He railed against elected officials, charging that the “greatest sin is using public power to produce harm in the lives of people.” The “altar call,” when it came, was not to take Jesus as our personal savior but to heed God’s cry to Ezekiel for those who would save us from the “bullies and robbers,” those who “ill-treat the unfortunate and the poor,” and those who “are unjust to the alien.”
In North Carolina, more than 900 people have been arrested in peaceful Moral Mondays demonstrations. The Forward Together coalition takes in groups as diverse as the National Farm Workers Ministry, Teamsters Local 391, AARP-NC, NARAL Pro-Choice NC, Equality NC, and Code Pink. Churches participated in mass voter-registration drives in the lead-up to the November elections, and despite the dismal results, their efforts did not go altogether unrewarded: black voter turnout in North Carolina, at 21 percent, was slightly higher than in the last midterm elections (though lower than in 2012). But, Barber warned, we should not focus on the numbers. The moral campaign is to change hearts and minds. The votes will follow, if not this year, then the next. Already, he claimed, opinion polls in North Carolina were showing major shifts in attitudes toward Medicaid cutoffs and funding for public education.
Although the campaign still has a long way to go, Barber’s big tent offers some shelter from the storm—and what a storm it’s been for progressive Protestants. Until the religious right launched its attack against the cultural and political changes that began in the sixties, U.S. Protestantism had often been associated with progressive causes. In fact, says Sheila Greeve Davaney, author of “The Progressive and Social Justice Faith Movement: Portrait and Prospects,” a 2014 report commissioned by the Ford Foundation, “justice-oriented persons of faith . . . have been central to every movement for social justice in America.” Today, though, the term “religious activist” is more likely to conjure images of anti-abortion terrorists, opponents of gay marriage, slashers of the safety net, and subjugators of women than of those who would feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, or stand with those in prison.