Religious liberals fighting for their faith

The Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, at Riverside Church in New York, April 2, 2017. Barber, the pastor of a small Disciples of Christ church in Goldsboro, began staging “Moral Monday” marches to protest voting-rights restrictions and other elements of the Republican-led state government’s agenda.
The Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, at Riverside Church in New York, April 2, 2017. Barber, the pastor of a small Disciples of Christ church in Goldsboro, began staging “Moral Monday” marches to protest voting-rights restrictions and other elements of the Republican-led state government’s agenda. NYT

In Nashville, a crowd of ministers carrying palm fronds occupied the governor’s office during Holy Week, demanding the expansion of Medicaid to cover more of the uninsured.

In California and 16 other states, an interfaith network has organized thousands of volunteers to swoop into action when immigrants are arrested or houses of worship are vandalized.

Across the country, religious leaders whose politics fall to the left of center, and who used to shun the political arena, are getting involved – and even recruiting political candidates – to fight back against President Donald Trump’s policies on immigration, health care, poverty and the environment.

Some are calling the holy ruckus a “religious resistance.” Others, mindful that periodic attempts at a resurgence on the religious left have all failed, point to an even loftier ambition than taking on the current White House: After 40 years in which the Christian right has dominated the influence of organized religion on U.S. politics – souring some people on religion altogether, studies show – left-leaning faith leaders are hungry to break the right’s grip on setting the nation’s moral agenda.

Frustrated by Christian conservatives’ focus on reversing liberal successes in legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage, those on the religious left want to turn instead to what they see as truly fundamental biblical imperatives – caring for the poor, welcoming strangers and protecting the earth – and maybe even change some minds about what it means to be a believer.

“We’re in a real battle for the soul of faith, of Christianity, of this nation,” said the Rev. Troy Jackson, executive director of the Amos Project, a multifaith social-justice coalition in Cincinnati.

The last time the religious left made this much noise was in protesting the Vietnam War, when the members of the clergy were mostly white men. Now, those in the forefront include blacks and Latinos, women and gays, along with a new wave of activist Catholics inspired by Pope Francis. And they include large contingents of Jews, Muslims and also Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists in some cities – a reflection of the country’s religious diversity.

Most surprising of all, perhaps, is that religious progressives are being joined at the ramparts by a noticeable number of energized young evangelicals.

Vying for the ‘Moral Center’

Late on a Friday three weeks into the Trump administration, the Rev. William J. Barber II was in a Raleigh hotel room, talking through his speech for the next day with advisers, including fellow ministers, a Muslim activist and a couple who had marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. All confessed they remained demoralized since the election. But they also marveled at the surge in political protests, fueled in part by Christian, Jewish and Muslim activists working together.

Barber, fighting a flu, smiled broadly. “Rosa Parks didn’t just decide to sit down one day,” he said. “We can’t choose the moment that the flame bursts out, but we can be the kindling.”

He has been piling up sticks for years.

As president of the North Carolina NAACP and pastor of a small Disciples of Christ church in Goldsboro, Barber began staging Moral Monday protests in Raleigh in 2013 to oppose voting-rights restrictions and other policies of the Republican-led state government. The demonstrations attracted thousands of participants and helped defeat the governor in 2016.

Last year, he branched out. Along with the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a well-known supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, and other clergy members, Barber trained thousands of activists in 32 states, an effort that continues.

“If we’re going to change the country,” he says, “we’ve got to nationalize state movements. It’s not from D.C. down. It’s from the states up.”

To his admirers, Barber, a gifted preacher with a big-tent vision, is the strongest contender for King’s mantle. And he invites the comparison. In April, to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark sermon at Riverside Church in Manhattan in which King denounced the Vietnam War, saying, “I cannot be silent,” Barber preached against Trump from the same pulpit and denounced what he saw as pervasive racism across the political right.

“When we see signs of a rising fascism,” he said, “we know that we cannot be silent.” In May, he announced he would be stepping down from his NAACP post to announce a latter-day version of King’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.

“If you think this is just a left-versus-right movement, you’re missing the point,” Barber said in Raleigh. “This is about the moral center. This is about our humanity.”

Tense ties to Democrats

Just how much ground the religious left must cover before it amounts to a meaningful counterweight to the Christian right was evident in November, when, despite deep concerns, white evangelical conservatives rallied behind Trump in overwhelming numbers.

Muscle memory alone could have played a part: For nearly four decades, Christian conservatives have coalesced around the Republican presidential nominee, reaching right into the pews to mobilize voters.

Relations between Democrats and religious progressives have been more difficult since 1980, when evangelicals deserted Jimmy Carter – one of their own, whom they had supported in 1976 – for Ronald Reagan.

As Republicans cemented the Christian right as a cornerstone of the party’s base, Democrats moved in the opposite direction, so intent on separating church and state that they recoiled from courting religious blocs of voters, recalled Gary Hart, the former senator, who grew up in the Church of the Nazarene and graduated from divinity school.

During his ill-fated 1988 presidential campaign, Hart said, he was often asked, “’Why don’t you talk about your religious background more?’ And the answer was, ‘I don’t want to be seen as pandering for votes.’”

Issues on which the religious left is at odds with Democratic doctrine include military spending and the death penalty, though the most polarizing is abortion – the main barrier, for many liberal evangelicals and Catholics, to voting as Democrats – as could be seen when the party split recently over whether to endorse an anti-abortion Democrat running for mayor of Omaha.

Setting abortion aside, political appeals based on religious beliefs continue to carry risk for Democrats, given the growing numbers of Americans who claim no religion: Secular voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and younger voters are far more secular than older voters.

Still, Hillary Clinton’s snub of even moderate evangelicals in the 2016 presidential race squandered many opportunities to cut into Trump’s support. Where Barack Obama had worked hard in 2008 to show he would at least listen to evangelicals, Clinton rebuffed interview requests from evangelical media outlets and signaled leftward moves on abortion rights that helped many conservative voters overcome their doubts about Trump.

Responding to a threat

Religious conservatives have taken notice of the stirrings among liberals.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, a Trump supporter, has told audiences in North Carolina to beware of preachers like Barber who “call themselves progressive,” warning: “It’s just another word for ‘I’m an atheist.’” And Gary L. Bauer, the social conservative leader, said he worried more about nonbelievers than about the religious left, citing what he called its affinity for government solutions to social problems.

Yet opposition to Trump is plainly catalyzing new alliances of religious progressives – and no other cause has united them more than protecting immigrants and refugees, especially those in their flocks.

In Cincinnati alone, 21 churches have joined a sanctuary coalition, forming teams to respond when immigrants are detained, as one group of ministers did recently when a Guatemalan man seeking asylum was held at a nearby jail.

“I think a big part of why this is happening now is every group feels threatened,” said the Rev. Alan Dicken, a young coalition organizer.