One of the first speakers of the morning opened with a booming, Southern, “Shabbat Shalom, y’all.” An imam spoke eloquently of civil rights. An astute 11-year-old friend observed that when so many religious leaders can agree so much about moral truths, “The speeches can be much shorter.” And when Barber spoke, he toggled almost imperceptibly between quoting the Constitution and the Bible. “Kicking hardworking people when they are down is not just bad policy. It is against the common good,” he preached, pleading, “Lord, Lord, plant our minds on higher ground.”
Progressives are not used to so much religion in their politics. I met someone who planned to avoid Saturday’s protest because of the God talk, and it’s clear that for many liberals, it’s easier to speak openly about one’s relationship with a sexual partner than a relationship with God or spirituality. But there are a lot of liberals who live on the seam between faith and politics. And one of the core messages of Moral Mondays is that ceding all talk of faith and morality to the political right in this country has been disastrous for the left. Or as Barber put it when he spoke, those who dismiss these protesters as “violent, and losers, and leftists, and socialists” fail to understand that the great prophets of the Bible and the founders of American constitutional democracy were “violent, and losers, and leftists, and socialists,” too.
As discomfiting as it may be to hear the Bible quoted alongside the Federalist Papers, the truth remains that for most people of most faiths, kicking the poorest and most vulnerable citizens when they are down is sinful. Stealing food and medical care from the weakest Americans is ethically corrupt. And the decadeslong political wisdom that only Republicans get to define sin and morality is not just tactically wrong for Democrats. It’s also just wrong. This is a lesson progressives are slowly learning from nuns and the new pope. When we talk of cutting food stamps or gutting education for our poorest citizens, we shouldn’t just call it greed. We should call it what it is: a sin.
The other exciting component of Moral Mondays is that its leadership has worked to forge “fusion” politics that strive to undo the atomized nature of liberal activism, where climate change issues have no bearing on reproductive rights and reinstating voting rights must come at the expense of immigration reform. Barber and the Moral Mondays protests have broken down single-issue-based divisions on the left by focusing each Monday protest on one issue while enabling protesters to understand that they are all ultimately connected. Instead of fighting dozens of separate battles, Moral Mondays have made those battles everyone’s battles. As a result, at Saturday’s protest, teachers spoke of budget cuts and of women’s health; doctors spoke of insuring the poor and of the right to vote. People who arrived angry about LGBT rights in the state left angry about organized labor. Working across constituencies means that injustice for any one group becomes injustice for all.
So what does this all accomplish? The Moral Mondays’ short-term demands are to reinstate the lost health care, LGBT rights, voting rights, reproductive rights, and rights of prisoners. But the real effort is to get out the vote, to organize and mobilize state voters to demand change. “We are the voters, and there will be elections in 2014, and there will be elections in 2016,” explained a Raleigh physician who was arrested protesting last year.” Don’t forget, if the 2012 elections showed us anything, it’s that attempts at vote suppression usually end badly for the GOP.
On Saturday, the protest was long, the weather was chilly, and when Barber started to really preach at the end of his speech, my 8-year-old kid found it all too loud and too much. So we took him to a nearby science museum, where he handled stuffed squirrels for a few hours until he was cheerful again. As we were leaving the museum, he mused that it was a good day for combining history with science. I asked him what part of the day had involved history. “The protest was history,” he said, deploying the silent “duhhh” of a slightly older child. I thought about this for a minute and then told him it may indeed have been history—and that it will be his generation, not ours, that makes it so.