Religion at the Moral March

Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, heads a broad and inclusive statewide coalition that responded to a tidal wave of far-right legislation last year with a series of “Moral Mondays” protests that resulted in more than 900 arrests. Since the legislature went out, the coalition has held events around the state. On Saturday they returned to Raleigh in force for the “Moral March” which kicked off this year’s organizing and voter engagement work.

Although Barber’s movement is focused on North Carolina – and he is adamant that change in America must happen from the bottom up – it has drawn hopeful attention from progressive advocates nationwide for the way he has inspired people to action against far-right extremism with a broad, values-based appeal. A speaker at Saturday’s rally from a Muslim social justice group praised Barber for taking the term “moral” away from the right wing, something many progressive religious advocates have been eager to do.

Barber is a gifted speaker and preacher; some of his clergy colleagues in North Carolina consider him a prophet. Like Martin Luther King, he draws on both sacred texts and on the Constitution in his appeals for people to champion the common good and challenge the injustice of public policies that worsen the plight of the poor. He talks about the struggle in North Carolina not in partisan terms or the political language of liberals and conservatives. Instead, he portrays it as a matter of right and wrong, of the common good versus extremism, of policies that reflect a concern for the vulnerable rather than policies that attack the powerless to further advantage the powerful. This language, he believes, embraces people who do not consider themselves political, and leaves space for Republicans opposed to far-right policies to find a place in the movement.

Religious groups make up a visible part of the broad movement. On the eve of the march, hundreds gathered at Abundant Life Christian Center in Raleigh for a rollicking two-hour worship service. Barber spoke about having experienced a “moment of Pentecost” at an interfaith gathering the night before, where he said members of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Native America, Baha’i, Sikh and Christian communities had found common ground on “the principles of love and justice.” Justice, he said, is what love looks like in public.

Barber wants to leave no potential ally unreached. During the worship service and from the rally stage, he and others were careful not only to include people of every faith, but to welcome people who claim no faith but share a moral vision of a just society.

He’s also not afraid to apply a little humor to his scriptural interpretation. He read from Jeremiah 22, where God says to go to the house of the king (a precursor to Moral Mondays protesters confronting those in power) to tell the king to do what is right and just. “Do no wrong or violence to the stranger, to the child or to the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” According to the text, those instructions are backed by a divine threat that if the commands to do justice are ignored, the house will be brought to desolation. God is emphatic, saying “I swear by myself” – at which point Barber drew appreciative laughter with an aside: “it’s one thing for me to swear, but when you make God so mad that God starts swearing….”

Other speakers included Rev. Dr. William Turner from Duke University Theological Center, who decried “fabricated, ontologized differences” and called for abandoning artificial distinctions that divide people. Race, color and class lines are human creations, he said, and economic inequality is rooted in human greed, not divine decree.  

The keynote speaker was Bishop W. Darin Moore, Bishop of Eastern NC Episcopal District of the AME Zion Church, who roundly criticized the “superficial spirituality,” “name it and claim it” materialism, and celebrity culture of the prosperity gospel. “Worship without responsibility is easy,” he said. “Worship is wonderful,” he said, but it’s not meant just to make us feel good. It is meant to lift us up in order to help us do justice. “We live in a self-centered, self-preserving culture,” he said. “When I fail to connect with those around me, I am narrow and superficial, and my life is empty until I make a difference.”

Across town from Abundant Life, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh was telling local UUs to stay away from the church because there was no room in the sanctuary or parking lot. The state’s UU ministers had put out a call for their colleagues to join them, and an estimated 1,500 UUs from 32 states answered the call, including the denomination’s president Peter Morales. All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, D.C. sent about 200 people to the march; James Reeb had been an associate pastor at All Souls before answering a similar call from Martin Luther King and being murdered in Selma. (Full disclosure: I am a member of All Souls.)

On Saturday morning before the march, the North Carolina Council of Churches convened an interfaith prayer gathering in front of the state legislative building. It was attended by dozens of clergy who committed themselves “to be steadfast in our work for a just, compassionate, and inclusive North Carolina.”

Some of those clergy then walked several blocks to the chapel at Shaw University, near the staging area for the march, for a Shabbat service sponsored by Temple Beth Or.  The service, led by Rabbis Lucy Dinner and Ari Margolis, included a special blessing for people who had participated in civil disobedience during last year’s Moral Mondays protests. It also included references to scriptural exhortations not to oppress the stranger, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Dinner’s message was a call for the people of North Carolina not to stand by while oppressive legislation was enacted in their names.  Legislators, she said, have a “sacred task,” and the citizens who democratically elect them have the responsibility to hold their feet to the fire.

Among the national leaders Barber invited to join him at a post-rally press conference were UU President Morales and United Church of Christ President Geoffrey Black. Also present were Sharon Groves, director of the Religion and Faith program at the Human Rights Campaign, and Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, HRC’s Director for Faith Partnerships and Mobilization. Barber and the coalition are intentional about including LGBT people in the movement and its commitment to equal protection under the law. Rev. Nancy Petty, a lesbian who pastors Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, is a close ally of Barber’s and was a master of ceremonies at the rally. HRC’s Groves said years of coalition-building in the state have paid off, saying she had never seen a more diverse gathering. “Rather than fighting for a piece of the pie, progressive groups came together to call for a better North Carolina for all its people.”

Even though the context of the march was a year of devastating attacks on voting rights, public education, and access to health care, the weekend had an optimistic, upbeat tone.  A frequently heard scriptural reference comes from Psalm 30, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Rev. Curtis Gatewood, coordinator of the HK on J coalition that sponsored the event, greeted marchers as they gathered on the cool, gray Saturday morning. “Joy cometh in the morning,” he said. “You are joy!”

Peter Montgomery, a Washington, DC-based writer, is an associate editor for Religion Dispatches and a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way. His work focuses on religion, politics, and LGBT issues. Follow him on twitter @petemont.

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