Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

On the Left, New Push to Reclaim Politics of Morality

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

On the Left, New Push to Reclaim Politics of Morality

Article excerpt

The picture might have seemed like something out of a Bernie Sanders rally.

Thousands of people spilling into a city square here on a cold February day, calling for rights for gays and for lesbians and for women. Thundering that minorities were being systematically disenfranchised. Demanding access to affordable health care.

Then out walks the most anticipated speaker of the day. He is a black man, and around his neck is the starched white collar of a pastor. When he speaks, white and black and Latino and Asian heads nod in agreement.

This is no church sermon. Nor is it a rally like any other held this election season. It is a movement that has begun to seize hold here in North Carolina and that, as the state heads to the polls Tuesday for its primary, is trying to reshape how Southerners, in particular, see politics.

The speaker, the Rev. William Barber II, calls it "fusion" in a nod to the diverse coalition it has brought together. But at its heart, it is an attempt to reframe the politics of morality in America, seizing it from conservative evangelism and arguing that care and compassion for all Americans - whether gay or straight, white or black, man or woman - is the essence of morality.

Especially this election season, its success points to potentially significant changes percolating not only here but across the United States.

Senator Sanders has enjoyed more success than any pundit predicted by promoting a similar message in a more secular way. Taken together, the two movements hint at how visions of morality in America are potentially evolving. Millennials accept same-sex marriage, want big government, and "are no less convinced than their elders that there are absolute standards of right and wrong," according to a seminal 2010 Pew Research Center study.

It is those views of morality that the fusion coalition has tapped here and Sanders has nationwide - among Millennials and beyond, in the case of Mr. Barber's movement. He thinks it can grow to other Southern states. There will be challenges. But his eclectic mix of races, religions, and rights groups might provide at least one glimpse of the future of the American left.

A 'Third Reconstruction'His message seems perfectly calibrated for the moment.

"We should be concerned ... when politics is more a struggle over money and manipulation than a struggle over ideas," he told the crowd at the February rally, catching the populist mood of this election. "Politicians want us to be slaves to their decisions without citizens having the ability to register their discontent at the ballot box."

But in many ways, Barber, a Duke University-educated theologian, is simply taking the spirit of sermons preached from the pulpits of black churches since the 1960s and applying it much more broadly, says Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University in South Carolina.

Indeed, as the head of the North Carolina NAACP, Barber says race is a vital first step to addressing other social issues. But his agenda goes beyond traditionally black issues such as education cuts and voting restrictions to embrace rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community as well as the cause of undocumented immigrants.

Underlying it all is the basic idea that framing issues through a moral prism makes them far more powerful and universal than framing them politically.

The goal, he says, is nothing less than a "Third Reconstruction" in the South - following the initial post-Civil War Reconstruction and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"America says that its purpose is to establish justice," he says in an interview. "We swear on Bibles - there's two hundred scriptures in the Bible about justice. It's not progressive, it's not all liberal, like that's a bad word. To be conservative - if conservative means 'to hold onto the essence of' - to be a true constitutional conservative means you would be in every fight about establishing justice and promoting the general welfare because you say you believe in the Constitution. …

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