Jesus Said Punch Up, Not Down: Why William Barber’s Attack on the Religious Right May Not Be What It Seems

William Barber, rising face of the religious left, managed to kick up some dust last week by going on the Joy Reid show to denounce a photo that’s been making the rounds, depicting white evangelical leaders praying for Pres. Trump in the Oval Office. (I had my own issues with the image.)

“It is a form of theological malpractice that borders on heresy when you can p-r-a-y for a president and others when they are p-r-e-y, preying on the most vulnerable,” said Barber, who has spoken up for the poor and against GOP policies as leader of the “Moral Monday” movement. “You’re violating the most sacred principles of religion.”

The responses of Religious Right leaders in Barber’s crosshairs, like the Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, conveniently focus only on the first half of Barber’s critique—that the leaders were praying for the powerful—while omitting the second part, that they should have taken the cause of the poor up with POTUS.

Barber expanded in an “open letter” at ThinkProgress, noting, among other things, that “The teachings of Jesus are clear about caring for the poor and the sick, and we are called to share His message; we cannot simply serve as chaplains to imperial power.”

Barber wants Christians to decide which side they’re on: that of the rich and powerful, or the poor, in whose corner God stands. This sort of appeal to the authority of scripture is well-used by both the religious left and right. It’s what Christians think they should do when sorting through options: Come, let us reason together by interpreting the word of God.

It doesn’t work.

Barber’s charge depends on two things: a shared understanding of the Christian responsibility to the poor, and underlying that, a shared identity as Christians. We can see from the responses that neither of those holds up in this case. Some ministers in North Carolina responded that they, in fact, were concerned for the poor, with the Rev. Mark Harris of First Baptist Church of Charlotte arguing that “what churches are doing is the most effective means of truly helping the poor, not government programs where the money … never seems to reach those who need it the most.”

This is pretty much the same thing I hear whenever I cite scripture in support of the social safety net: God never says government should provide for the poor! (Which is true, though she never says the opposite, either.) Like Harris, many conservative Christians believe—truly, almost as an article of faith—that government programs are an ineffective means of poverty relief at best, and at worst, a counter-productive or even predatory response to the poor.

When I say “an article of faith” here, I am not being critical: there are many American Christians who believe that taxes are theft, government hurts more than it helps, and that the right way to address poverty is through religious charity only, not public policy. People like Rev. Barber and I might think they’re wrong (they are), but that’s not the point.

Conservative believers can’t be talked out of their positions simply by referencing shared beliefs about the poor as articulated in scripture, because they don’t actually share those beliefs; or at the very least, they hold radically different interpretations of how to implement the values. William Barber says people who pray for the president have to care for the poor as well. Mark Harris says, “We do!”

It gets worse. Some of the conservative ministers, like the Rev. Leon Threatt of Christian Faith Assembly, have their own questions for Barber: “I would say to the Mr. Barbers of our society that if you really want to make a difference in the communities of color, you need to address the egregious acts of abortion in America.”

After a while, these differences add up, to the point where people begin to question whether even the faith is shared. It’s subtle, but you can see it in Tony Perkins’ huffy response to Barber at the Christian Post:

I can’t speak to Donald Trump’s personal faith walk. But I can say that he shares some of evangelicals’ deepest concerns. And although we don’t agree on everything, I fail to see what’s lost by exposing the president to the same God [religious historian John] Fea and Barber claim to worship? Isn’t it good for him to be exposed to faith? Obviously, Fea, Barber, and others on the Religious Left have one goal: pushing Christians away from political engagement.

In Perkins’ telling, the real Christians are those with conservative principles and “traditional” sexual mores, and any attempt to redirect their political positions is an attempt to force them out of politics altogether. It’s a garbage argument, and clearly not responsive to what Barber said at all. But what’s important about it is Perkins’ implication: we conservatives are the real Christians. You are not.

When liberals appeal to a shared religious identity to guide policy decisions, then, the argument becomes about the faith, not the policy. Jim Wallis has been talking about all the scripture passages concerning the poor for like 40 years, and it hasn’t changed much of anything, because conservatives don’t understand the priorities the same way.

It turns out that if you want someone to change a political position, about the worst thing you can do is accuse them (implicitly or explicitly) of being a bad Christian. It just raises their defenses, and pretty soon you’re parsing sectarian differences, rather than questions of policy. Paradoxically, the harder you push for a shared Christian identity over and against partisan identities, the more you reinforce the partisan divisions. The disturbing truth is that partisan identity seems to be prior to religious identity in our culture, which is to say, we form our religious commitments through the lens of our politics, not the other way around.

Advocates who don’t understand this dynamic can’t be effective, whether left or right. Sure, there will be people agreeing with them up and down, but the key question is: can you get someone who doesn’t agree with you to adopt your frame? I don’t see that happening very often these days, which, among other things, leads me to suspect that religious discourse has lost a lot of its political power. It doesn’t motivate people who weren’t already motivated, and it doesn’t overcome cultural divisions.

In light of yesterday’s Senate vote to proceed on debate on Trumpcare, I should point out that the problem outlined above isn’t limited to William Barber. A “blistering” letter from a Catholic social justice organization claiming to represent nearly 7,000 nuns made the rounds on Twitter yesterday, calling a potential repeal of Obamacare “simply immoral and contrary to the teachings of our Catholic faith.” The nuns’ missive might have helped Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski (both Catholics) remain firm in their “no” votes. But in the end, every other Republican—including the seven other Catholics, eight if you count Mike Pence—went along with Mitch McConnell’s plan to sell a pig in a poke. A last-minute appeal to Christian values wasn’t going to change a thing. If it could have, surely it would have provided an easy off-ramp for the hideously unpopular BHCA.

The ineffectiveness of common values isn’t even a specifically religious problem, to be honest. John Pavlovitz writes crisply and even more powerfully than Barber in service of the argument that John McCain ought to demonstrate real American values by voting to make sure his fellow citizens could get the same kind of top-notch cancer treatment he’s received. McCain, of course, made a dramatic entrance onto the Senate floor, to the bipartisan applause of his colleagues—and promptly voted to screw over vulnerable Americans.

The invocation of a shared concept of America works no better than a shared Christianity. To the extent that the current Congressional GOP has any rationale left for this supposed legislation beyond a naked desire to keep their jobs, it’s all about denying social benefits to those people because that guy came up with it and put his name on it.

America is in the middle of a crisis of legitimacy that masks a crisis of nihilistic cynicism that masks a crisis of creeping authoritarianism, and so far, the best safeguard against all of it is the crisis of incompetence at the top levels of our government. Use whatever patriotic or religious framework you like, it’s not going to do any good until the one party (the Republicans) recognizes that the other has a legitimate interest in the workings of government. Values only work if they’re shared, and they cannot be shared if one side thinks the other doesn’t deserve political representation.

Which leaves us with the question of what William Barber hoped to accomplish with his broadside on the religious right? Whatever else you want to say about him, Barber is no fool. Surely, he must have understood that his criticism was not going to leave a lot of hearts strangely warmed. As I say, if you want to change someone’s politics, calling them a bad Christian is counterproductive.

If, on the other hand, you want to show the people on your side that you’re a good and faithful leader, picking a fight with the leaders of the other side is an excellent strategy. This is what Saul Alinsky used to call “punching up.” In other words, increasing your own stature by forcing your opponents to pay attention to you.

On that score, mission pretty nearly accomplished. Barber didn’t get the biggest fish to bite (most of the people to whom he addressed his open letter), but he sucked in Tony Perkins, which is not bad for a first outing. You can expect Barber to find more than a few more chances to needle, goad, vex, and irritate the leaders of the religious right over the next couple of years. Whether or not he’s able to use those opportunities to create sustained political change remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: calling for the sinners to repent and come to Jesus won’t do it. 51-50 is the new “Jesus said…”