Moral Minority

Moral Minority

Whither the U.S. Protestant left?

Rev. William Barber speaking in June 2014 ( Josh Rushing / Flickr)

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.

In many ways, the decline of the Protestant left since the 1970s parallels what happened to the U.S. left more broadly. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, liberal churches were red-baited along with democratic socialists, civil rights activists, and student organizers. After the threat of godless communism disappeared, secularism, gays, and uppity women became the targets of choice for the moral-breakdown narrative of the religious right.

The right wing isn’t completely wrong about rising “godlessness.” Those who check “none” under “religious affiliation” are the fastest-growing group in surveys of U.S. religion. Last February, the Pew Research Center found that 29 percent of millennials (those between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three) “say they are not affiliated with any religion”—9 percentage points higher than among the overall adult population.

Meanwhile, among the faithful, traditional denominations are breaking down. “I couldn’t tell you what’s going on in liberal Protestantism,” muses a friend who retired several years ago from the staff of a mainline denomination. “People aren’t interested in tradition or denominational loyalty anymore. They shop around. All the talk is of spirituality. The changes have been going on for the last fifty years, and we can’t see yet where we’re going.” One thing we do know is that mainline denominations are running low on funds. “I can’t blame a denomination if it decides to spend money on starting new churches rather than a national office on social justice,” she said ruefully.

After all, unlike a political organization, a church has to combine pastoral and prophetic roles. Barber has claimed a public prophetic role—although his church has many direct-service programs, such as low-income housing for seniors, a day care center, computer classes, and micro-loan facilitation. But in many churches, just tending to the flock can take all the energy. With aging populations, young people mired in debt and wary of institutions, and ever-shrinking budgets, mainline churches tend first to their own sick and impoverished, acting as the “heart in a heartless world,” as Karl Marx once famously said.

If they have any leftover volunteer power, churches may run a toy or coat drive at Christmas time or a soup kitchen once a week. Some might sponsor mission trips to build a playground in another country, while across the tracks children lack safe places to play. Few pastors connect the dots for their members between U.S. agricultural and trade policy, the fight for a living wage, and the scores of hungry people—some of whom have full-time jobs—whom they have to turn away from their churches’ food pantries. Nobody is willing to name capitalism as a major evil. On the contrary, although some black, Hispanic, and white evangelical churches campaign on behalf of better economic and immigration policies, most of them focus on an individualistic religion that promotes a personal relationship with Jesus and an emphasis on personal morality and self-improvement that aligns well with laissez-faire capitalism.

Among mainline churches, many are involved in immigrants’ rights, the fight for a living wage, women’s rights, and gay rights, but can they ever have the collective clout of the religious right? The current divisions within U.S. Protestantism make that hard to imagine. “The six or seven explicitly progressive Protestant groups that emerged over the past twenty-five years have found themselves lacking the bandwidth to create a strong national platform,” laments Rev. Peter Laarman, former executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting. Liberals don’t trust evangelical leftists, in part because evangelicals stop short of advocating for complete gender and reproductive justice. Evangelicals find liberal co-religionists too hesitant in expressing a strong faith or simply wrong on “line in the sand” theological issues.  D.C.-based Faith in Public Life was launched in 2005 in an attempt to bridge this steep Christian divide by focusing on a common-good policy platform and avoiding pelvic issues as much as possible. Such straddling, along with the project’s close ties to the Democratic Party, does not sit well with religious leftists who think gender justice is an urgent matter or who believe that critiquing the party’s subservience to wealth is just as urgent.

And that’s only within predominantly white organizations. Liberal Protestantism itself is a “racialized term,” says Rev. Andrew Wilkes, director of social justice at the 23,000-member Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens, New York. Black and Latino churches are often at odds with the more liberal white churches over gender justice issues and certainly wonder when white churches will stand with them against systemic racism, police brutality, or gun violence.

Not only do clergy hold back from painting the big picture for their congregations (who, truth be told, aren’t usually eager to look at it), but progressive religious activists are at odds over whether and how to express their religious beliefs to secular allies. Macky Alston, vice president for strategy, engagement and media at Auburn Seminary, a leadership institute that “equips leaders of faith and moral courage to work for social change,” comments that the right wing has no problem using religious language to push its agenda, but liberal faith leaders hesitate to use religious language when speaking with secular coalition partners. It is precisely the right’s hijacking not only of religious but of moral language more broadly that has made secular leftists wary and that has led so many progressive faith leaders to shy away from it when they reach outside their congregations.

Still, Wilkes sees hope in “an emerging constellation of black Protestants, Latino and white evangelicals and others who are uniting around a ‘common good’ agenda of economic justice that includes everyone from center-left Democrats to more radical social democrats.”

Barber is perhaps the brightest star in the constellation. He is as adamant about reaching across racial, political, gender, and economic divides as he is about using moral and religious language. He insists on sharing platforms with anyone willing to listen to a moral argument—describing, for instance, one rally where an older white woman spoke of the confusion and pain she experienced growing up in a segregated community. When he talks about the people who will suffer as a result of North Carolina’s refusal to extend Medicaid benefits, he says, “I’m not talking about black people. . . . I’m talking about people.” His willingness to champion LGBT rights sets him apart from many church leaders, even progressive ones. “I’ll put your five [Bible] verses that talk about homosexuality against the 2,500 that talk about how we should treat the poor,” he challenges his audiences. I asked him whether the Moral Mondays model could be transplanted to other states, absent a charismatic leader. “Yes it can, and yes there will be leaders. Rosa sat down and Martin stood up,” he declared, beginning to preach even then.

During the pre-sermon interview, when Barber said his vision was about inclusiveness, I noted that a lot of denominations are wary of multi-faith or even cross-denominational work. His eyes glinted, and his mouth turned up in a sly grin. “They can be redeemed,” he smiled.

Maxine Phillips is editor of Democratic Left, executive editor emeritus at Dissent, and a convener of the Religion and Socialism Commission of Democratic Socialists of America.

Correction: The print version of this article identified Rev. Andrew Wilkes as the “co-minister of social justice at the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral.” Rev. Wilkes is in fact the director of social justice at the cathedral. We regret the error.