Reverend William Barber Is on a Mission from God: Change the Country’s Moral Narrative

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Reverend William Barber speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Thursday, July 28, 2016. 

Reverend Dr. William Barber II is the architect and leader of the “Moral Mondays” movement who recently rallied a broad coalition of North Carolinians to protest outside the state capital building in Raleigh and demand that the legislature restore full voting rights. Since then, he’s become one of the most influential progressive religious figures in the country. Barber delivered a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention about the need for a “moral defibrillator” in American democracy. Now he’s launching a nationwide “Moral Revival” project that seeks to inject morality into politics. Barber recently helped lead a Fight for 15 march down Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, that culminated in a rousing address in the shadow of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The American Prospect caught up with him after that speech. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Justin Miller: What do you think the Fight for 15 can learn from the Moral Mondays movement?

Reverend Barber: That when you frame [fair wages] not as left versus right or Democrat versus Republican, but as a moral issue, you can bring together people of different political persuasions, different races, colors, sexualities—then you even transform the consciousness of the voter.

Right now in this country, the real battle is over the South, because the extremists who want to take us backwards, they still play their dog-whistle politics in the South. What Moral Mondays and these other movements are doing—look at the number of white people that march with Black Lives Matter, look at the diversity of the crowds at Moral Mondays, people coming together to recognize their common identity, their common reality and recognize that, as Dr. King told us in the ‘60s, if black people and white working people and Latinos came together, they could be a transformative coalition.

In the South right now, if you register 30 percent of African-Americans in the 11 former Confederate states and they connect with progressive whites and Latinos, it’s a new [electoral] map. If it’s a new map, it’s a new America. If it’s a new America in terms of who sits in the Senate, the House of Representatives, the governor’s mansions, and the legislatures, then you have new public policy.

The last thing about this movement is it’s bottom up; it’s not top down. You’re not going to get rescued by some national leader coming in and saving you. We nationalize state movements because it’s the state legislatures that are blocking health care across the South, trying to roll back voting rights. They’re they ones who won’t allow a referendum on living wages—if you put that on the ballot in North Carolina or any of the Southern states, it would win, and they know that.

We’re challenging the consciousness in these Southern states, bringing people together. When you have a moral consciousness change, you have a moral political change, you’ll have a moral demographic change in the voting booth, and that can be fundamental in helping America move to what I believe we’re in the adolescent stages of, which is a third Reconstruction.

Can you talk about the goals and strategies of the Moral Revival movement that’s been ramping up in the South?

What it gets at is that we are challenging right up front the misguided theological appropriation done by the so-called religious right—I don’t like to call them that because I think so much is wrong with the way they do theology. Basically their only issues are prayer in schools, abortion, anti-homosexuality, and maybe where you stand on guns, property rights, and saying “freedom.”

It’s amazing that you never hear them advocate for health care for all. Never talking about living wages and equality for all and justice for everybody regardless of who they are. For too long, they’ve tricked the media by saying “this is the evangelical vote.” There are thousands of evangelicals, like me, that don’t agree with that.

So what we’re doing with the Moral Revival is saying it’s time for a reset. There are five critical areas we should lifting up and dealing with as moral issues. And if people say they aren’t moral issues, they should be willing to say they’re immoral and why. Economic sustainability—a living wage and labor rights; education equality—every child should have receive a high-quality, well-financed, diverse public education. Health care for all; protecting the environment and women’s health; criminal justice reform—the way we have disparities with black, brown, and poor white people. And then protecting and expanding voting rights, immigrant rights, LGBT rights, and never giving up on equal protection under the law.

What we’re doing is going to 25 states before November and we’re going to states after November. We’ve got over 1,500 clergy that have signed on to the declaration, thousands of other people. Every city we go into, we’re training clergy of all different faiths, and even people who may not be people of faith but they believe in a moral arc or the moral values of a constitution.

We’re holding services and calling on people to be engaged in the public square. We can no longer sit in our sanctuaries while this theological malpractice is going on by the so-called white evangelicals.

I hope that never again when CNN or ABC talks about evangelical issues they will only invite so-called evangelicals like James Dobson or Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell—we don’t have any hatred against them, we love them as brothers of the kingdom, but they’re terribly flawed. They say things like they’re supporting Trump. We’re asking, well where is he on health care, on a living wage, on the poor, on voting rights? He’s the antithesis to those things. He promotes hate, xenophobia, and racism. How do you say, just because he’s against abortion and pro-business, that somehow he fits the real values of Christianity?

You’ve said that the moment in time we’re in right now resembles the beginnings of a third Reconstruction. Why?

The time is upon us. I think all of these movements are growing pains—Moral Mondays, Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, climate battles, public education. We are yet a growing nation. Well, when you grow, you have growing pains. There’s such a push among young people, among the fight for voting rights and the fight for a living wage, there’s a real energy and ethic. In Moral Monday, when we first went in, there were only 17 people that got arrested. By the time it was over, there almost 1,200 people—more than any time in history in any state capitol. Something is happening.

Secondly, when you have such an aggressive extremism that literally gets up in the public square and says to people, “If you vote for me, this is how I’m gonna make this country great.” And I’m not just talking about Trump, I’m talking about extremism, because in many ways [Republican House Speaker Paul] Ryan, [Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, they may not have the same tone as Trump but they have the same trajectory of his policies.

So when they say, “Elect me and I’m going to attack teachers and public education, I’m going to deny living wages, deny health care and overturn the Affordable Care Act, I’m going to deny immigrant rights, I’m going to label all Muslims as radical, I’m going to be xenophobic, stand against the LGBT community, try to stifle voting rights,” and then say, “If you elect me, this is how I’m going to make the country great: I’m going to make sure everyone can get a gun easier than they can vote”—that kind of extreme agenda forces a reaction. It forces a counter moral critique.

So in some ways the extremists have done more, like they always do. There comes a time, as Dr. King said, that people just get tired. But they don’t get tired and quit; they get tired and they decide to stand up and work on change in the country—and that’s what I believe is happening right now.

[At this point during the interview, a Richmond police officer tapped on the window of the van where we were talking. Reverend Barber rolled down the window and the officer said, “Reverend Barber? I just wanted to tell you, I saw you at the DNC convention. I was a national delegate. Your speech was very moving. Thank you very much for what you do.”]

Now you see what I’m saying? Here’s an officer of the law. You heard me—I didn’t say all officers [while talking about police brutality in the speech at the Fight for 15 march]. I said rogue officers, because good cops don’t like bad cops. And here he is, an officer of the law at the convention saying my speech was moving.

Now I don’t know him. I’ve never met him. He’s not black. But this moral framework is powerful. It was powerful that brought us the abolition movement. It was powerful that brought us the Reconstruction. It was powerful that brought us the New Deal. It was powerful that brought us the civil rights movement.

That’s why so much money has been spent by corporate America to change the moral narrative from the kind of theological framework I’m talking about to a narrow framework because they know that that kind of framework literally has no power to bring people together in ways that they will not come together just talking about left and right.

Your DNC speech was a very big introduction of yourself and your message to the nation. As someone who is trying to build a nonpartisan movement, why did you agree to do the speech?

That was not something I sought to do. It was not something I readily did as I said that in the speech. Particularly with the kind of campaign that Trump is running—for him to be suggesting that we ought to use Second Amendment solutions to problems, calling the president the founder of ISIS.

Now that language is particularly dangerous when I think through Southern history and American history. What do we do to terrorists? We kill them. What do we do to their founders, like Osama bin Laden? We go kill them. So when you say we need Second Amendment solutions in one sitting and the president is a founder of ISIS in the other, you’re using coded language that can be turned violent by someone who’s a nut. It’s irresponsible.

But for me, I was willing to speak after I heard him say “I and I alone.” That’s political idolatry to suggest that “I and I alone” can fix this. That’s not the language of a president of a democracy; that’s the language of somebody who is some kind of tyrant. It’s just so counter to our religious values and constitutional values that call us to be we—we the people, not I the person.

What was the main message you wanted people to take away from your speech?

You know, a preacher always has three points, sometimes maybe four. First, I wanted to come as a clergy person, not as a pastor representing my church, and to reframe that history. Because if you look down through history, if it had not been for clerics involved in the public square, the public square often would not have done the things we’ve seen happen toward justice. Secondly, I wanted to frame the issues as moral issues and to challenge the use of religion in the service of hate and meanness and ugliness.

And lastly, I wanted to say that, in fact, in every age there has to be this moral defibrillator. We have to come together and keep the heart of democracy alive when we vote, when we stand up for justice, when we do what’s right. The heart of democracy doesn’t work just by itself. Every now and then, there are those who want to make it hard and who want to just close in with isolationism and only care about a few, and at that moment, all of us—not just a messiah candidate—must be a part of shocking the heart of our democracy.

This story has been updated. 

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