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Keeping 'the Faith' in Civil Rights

'Women's rights, civil rights, and the quest for policies that reduce poverty are moral issues.'

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My father, Rev. William Joseph Barber Sr., first set the example for me. Both a minister and a tireless activist who helped to integrate North Carolina's public schools, he showed me that to be a Christian is to be engaged in justice issues. The interconnectedness of faith and civil rights is further reinforced in two critical passages of Scripture: Isaiah 58, which commands us to cry out loudly against injustice; and Luke 4, in which Jesus' first sermon outlines five priority groups of people to serve — the poor, the sick, the blind, the captive, and anyone who's been ostracized by society. I cannot separate my concern for civil rights from my Christianity.

It is this deep moral center that guides North Carolina's Forward Together Movement, in which thousands of determined people gather for Moral Monday at the North Carolina General Assembly every week to protest the extreme, immoral policies of Gov. Pat McCrory and the leadership in our legislature. We are led by a moral calling to speak out against policies that reject federal aid to extend Medicaid to 500,000 poor and uninsured North Carolina families; end the Earned Income Tax Credit for more than 900,000 low-income working families; and cut off 70,000 laid-off workers from critical unemployment benefits. As Isaiah 10:1 says: "Woe unto those that legislate evil and pass laws that rob the poor of their right."

Progressive friends sometimes dismiss having a moral center as something for the far right, and occasionally question why I bring my faith to the work of social activism. I tell them that when you try to have a political conversation without the moral context, you're not only giving away ground that we should never dispense of — you're also contradicting history.

Every movement in America that has made a significant impact has had a deep moral framework. The fight against slavery had a moral center. The fight for labor rights had a deep moral center. In the fight for women's suffrage, one of its leaders, Sojourner Truth, emphasized herself to be in God when she said in her famous speech "Ain't I a Woman?": "Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him." All of these movements drew on the interconnected tenets of faith, righteousness, and justice.

After Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man of God with the principles of morality and justice squarely on his side, the conservative right decided never again to allow a person to get that kind of play and articulation. It worked deliberately to redefine moral issues. It no longer wanted the debate be focused on economic justice, housing, and health care. Instead the conservative right pushed abortion, prayer in schools, and being anti-gay as the new focus for politicians of faith. From television preachers to lawmakers across the country, these became the only "faith-based" issues that were discussed. That's why so many Americans, to this day, associate morality and faith with those matters, while treating civil rights as a secular affair. We can't let this bait-and-switch win.

In North Carolina, the governor and the legislature are similarly trying to convince people that their policies reflect faith-based values, with their attacks on women's reproductive rights and attempts to eliminate early voting on Sundays. But it is the thousands of North Carolinians who demonstrate against them every Monday — including hundreds of ministers, priests, and rabbis — that truly reflect people of conscience. They share my belief that women's rights, civil rights, and the quest for policies that reduce poverty are moral issues as well.

We call it Moral Mondays because we believe that the civil rights community must always work within a deep moral framework. The other side has misused and abused "morality" for too long.

Starting here and now, we boldly take it back.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, is president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and its more than 100 branches and college chapters. Barber is also a member of the National NAACP Board of Directors, chair of its Political Action and Legislative Committee, Convener of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People's Coalition, made up of 147 organizations, and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C.

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