Nearly 100,000 people took to the streets in Raleigh, North Carolina on February 8 in a Moral March to say “NO” to the state’s sharp right-wing political turn and “YES” to a new, truly progressive America.
They weren’t just marching for one issue or another. They were marching for every issue progressives care about: economic justice; a living wage for every worker; support for organized labor; justice in banking and lending; high quality, well-funded, diverse public schools; affordable health care and health insurance for all, especially women; environmental justice and green jobs; affordable housing for every person; abolishing the death penalty and mandatory sentencing; expanded services for released prisoners; comprehensive immigration reform to provide immigrants with health care, education, and workers rights; insuring everyone the right to vote; enhancing LGBT rights; keeping America’s young men and women out of wars on foreign soil; and more.
All this in Raleigh, a metro area of barely more than a million people. It’s as if a million and half turned out in New York or DC, or a million in San Francisco. When was the last time we saw such huge crowds in the streets demanding a total transformation in our way of life? This could be the start of something big.
And it was all led by … God?
Many of the marchers would say so. Many others would doubt it. The march organizers invited “secular and religious progressives alike,” people of every faith and no faith at all. And that’s what they got. “The march brought together a diverse group from Baptists to Muslims and gay marriage supporters,” as USA Today reported.
But no one doubts that it was all started by a man of faith, the Rev. William Barber.
“We will become the ‘trumpet of conscience’ that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called upon us to be, echoing the God of our mothers and fathers in the faith,” the Disciples of Christ minister told the huge crowd, exhorting them to “plant America on higher ground.” Then he prayed: “Lord, Lord plant our minds on higher ground. Plant our hearts on higher ground. Plant our souls on higher ground. Lord, lift us up, lift us up, lift us up and let us stand. Plant our feet on higher ground.”
The night before the march he led what a local TV station called “a spiritual pep rally” the Abundant Life Christian Center, designed (the organizers said) to prepare the marchers “by spiritually invoking … love, peace, and a source of power beyond what can be seen with our eyes or calculated with our minds.”
Those organizers, many of them clergy and religious leaders, are well aware that “some secular progressives object to the use of this kind of language because of its religious overtones. … Sure, Barber prays in public, uses church language and premises many of his beliefs and arguments on his understanding of the teachings of his faith — he’s a preacher for Pete’s sake! But his policy messages, his organization and his objectives are thoroughly secular and open to all, whatever their beliefs or lack thereof when it comes to religion.”
It’s not surprising that his politics would be thoroughly secular. He’s got a BA in political science and a PH.D. in public policy as well as pastoral care. He’s proving himself to be a shrewd, hard-headed organizer and political tactician. 100,000 progressives don’t just appear out of nowhere.
In fact, the Moral March was initiated by the “Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) People’s Assembly Coalition,” started by Barber and other religious leaders back in 2007. It took plenty of hope and faith to believe that within just seven years a small group could swell to such a huge crowd.
But building this mass movement also took political smarts. And HKonJ has shown plenty of smarts, especially at the North Carolina state house. They played an important role in passage of a Racial Justice Act, obtaining Same Day Voting; winning workers the right to unionize; getting a former Democratic governor to veto Voter I.D. Laws, an unfair budget, and repeal of a Racial Justice Act.
In 2013, as a Republican governor and legislature moved their state ever further rightward, Barber and his allies stepped up the action. They began weekly sit-ins at the state capitol on “Moral Mondays,” which eventually saw just short of a thousand people arrested.
“Clergy were especially prominent” in those actions, the Washington Post reported. Local Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Methodist leaders issued a joint statement supporting the action: “It is a matter of faith with respect to our understanding of the biblical teachings and imperatives to protect the poor, respect the stranger, care for widows and children and love our neighbors.”
Now Rev. Barber sees this potent mix of faith and progressive politics as a model for resistance across the country: “We must reduce fear through public education, through the streets, through the courts and through the electoral campaigns.”
“If you are going to change America you have to think states,” he says. “We believe North Carolina is the crucible. If you’re going to change the country, you’ve got to change the South. If you’re going to change the South, you’ve got to focus on these state capitols.” Spin-offs of the Moral Monday movement are already starting up in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
And you’ve got to change state politics at the county level, Barber advises. So he and his group are launching “North Carolina Moral Freedom Summer,” a statewide registration and mobilization effort for voters in all 100 counties of North Carolina.
But that’s just part of a larger program that also includes voter education, a social media strategy, and a legal strategy. “Many of these things, not just the voting rules, are going to be challenged in the courts using our state and federal constitutions,” Barber promises. That’s a lot of smart strategic thinking.
As far as he is concerned, though, there’s no way to separate smart politics from devout faith. He takes his inspiration equally from the Constitution, where he finds deep values to promote “the common good,” and from the Bible, which he sees teaching that love and justice should be at the center of public policy: “Isaiah 10 says, ‘Woe unto those who make unjust laws that rob the right of the poor.’”
“Clergypersons are choosing to move in a prophetic tradition to challenge injustice and wrongs in government and systemic transgressions against our values,” Barber explains. “It’s our Jewish friends, Christian, Universalist, Muslim friends and others who are willing to put their voices and bodies on the line. That is significant when pulpits get on fire for justice.”
And wherever he goes, his “thundery oratory” will be filled “with biblical references to Pharaoh, Goliath, good and evil,” as ReligionNews reports.
“Good and evil.” That’s the key to the power of this new movement. It has gone beyond single-issue politics by find the common thread tying all progressive issue together, the thread spotlighted in the name of their action: The “Moral” March.
In North Carolina they understand what George Lakoff has been telling us for years. The left is losing the political argument by sticking to specific issues and factual evidence. Conservatives are winning because they “speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters’ values.” So progressives “have to go up a level, to the moral level” and start dealing publicly “very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own philosophy and with morality.” Otherwise “they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock of progress in America.”
In North Carolina they are talking very seriously about morality, saying out loud that the same moral foundations undergird all progressive policies.
And they’ve discovered the power of that word “moral” to unite religious progressives with secular progressives, who elsewhere are so often scared off by any talk of God and Jesus and the Bible.
The HKonJ organizers understand this very well. As their website says, they intentionally highlight the word “moral,” even though some secular progressives object to the use of this kind of language because of its religious overtones. It sounds too much like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. But of course by that logic, progressives couldn’t use words like “liberty” or “freedom” either. After all, both of those words have also been monopolized by the far right in recent years. Indeed, there’s a strong argument to be made that progressives have too often shied away from the use of such overarching language — thus ceding it without a fight to the right. Put simply, there is nothing inherently religious in the word “moral”; it is a powerful and important word that’s plenty big enough to be of great use and profound meaning to secular and religious progressives alike.
Those nearly 100,00 Moral Marchers in Raleigh pose crucial questions to progressives across America: Are we ready to move beyond our own issues to join a unified, strategically savvy progressive movement encompassing every issue? And are we willing to do what it takes for that movement to succeed: to drop our suspicion of religion, to lift up the word “moral” as a bridge across the religious-secular divide, to judge religious progressives by the content of their policies and not the color of their vocabulary?
If enough progressives answer “yes,” this could indeed be the start of something big.
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Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Mythic America: Essays and American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.
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