Can the Left Reclaim the Language of Morality?

The Rev. William Barber II explains how our politics strayed from the core values embedded in the Constitution—that we have a moral obligation to care for one another.

Police stop the Rev. William Barber, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and other clergy and demonstrators attempting to deliver a letter to the Senate on May 21 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Barber is wearing a scarf with the words "Jesus Was a Poor Man" visible.
Police stop the Rev. William Barber, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and other clergy and demonstrators attempting to deliver a letter to the Senate on May 21 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On the June 9 episode of Slate’s Supreme Court podcast Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick spoke with the Rev. William Barber II about how progressives ceded the language of faith, morality, and the Constitution—and how they can reclaim it. Barber is one of the organizers of the new Poor People’s Campaign and an architect of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays.

A transcript of their discussion, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, is below.

Dahlia Lithwick: I wanted to talk about the big stuff that we don’t always talk about. By big stuff, I don’t actually mean 2016 and the election and Donald Trump. I mean the big, big stuff and how religion and faith have shaped our moral understanding of the law and the Constitution. So, to do this, I’ve invited somebody that, I have to confess, I just wanted on the show even if I were the only listener to the show I would have invited him. That is one of my heroes, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. His storied history with North Carolina’s Moral Mondays campaign and then his work as president of Repairers of the Breach have more or less made him somebody who, whenever I can’t quite figure out what I want the Constitution to mean to me, I listen to something he said and I feel a little bit better. I think I want to start exactly where I just began with the introduction, which is that you’re not a lawyer. You’re always at great pains to reassure people that you’re not a lawyer. Despite the fact that you’re not a lawyer, you always try to draw a line between the Bible and natural law and then on to the constitutional guarantees of equality and justice for all. Share what the connection is in your mind between your own work in social justice and faith and their project or their interest in constitutional integrity and repair.

Dr. Barber: When you look at what is happening over the last year and a half and how these movements of today are connecting to the streams of movements yesterday, what people are really saying is something is out of order with our moral narrative in this country. That moral narrative flows from two places for me. One is the deep moral narrative of the Constitution that says when a politician or power broker puts their hand on the Bible and swears to uphold the Constitution, they are in essence saying, No. 1, any policy we pass will be considerate of the “we” not the “I.” It will not be the policy of seclusion, but the policies that will help the whole. It’s the good of the whole, not the good of the few. No. 2, they are saying that their first goal will be to ensure domestic tranquility not domestic division. They also are saying that their policies will establish justice, will provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare.

Well, why we’re seeing so much activism in this moment is because I believe when you look at policies through that moral lens and look at the extremism that’s happening in the state capitals, happening with [Paul] Ryan and [Mitch] McConnell and the Congress, and certainly with Trump, you are seeing actually a violation of the first fundamental moral principles of our Constitution. When you add to that our deepest moral and religious traditions, whether it’s Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or others, all of those traditions basically say that the first goal of faith in the public square and the first goal of public policy should be to care for the poor, the sick, the hurting, the least of these, the immigrant, the undocumented and those on the margin. There is this sense we have that the poor have rights, and certain fundamental human rights.

We are seeing that when you audit this country empirically, look at where we are now, we are in violation, we are violating our deepest constitutional moral values and our deepest religious moral values. That’s why you’re seeing this moral activism, moral dissent beginning to rise and rise and rise. And it’s going to continue because if not, our democracy is in deep trouble.

Lithwick: Why is it that the left has ceded the language? Not, just of faith and the faith that you’ve just described, but also the language of the Constitution. Why did this became so utterly appropriated by one side in the discourse and why does it feel like we’re clawing our way back to saying, no, no, the Constitution actually promises dignity and equality and justice. Those are liberal values. How did we just lose the thread on having this be a progressive notion in the first instance?

Barber: You know, that’s the million-dollar question. I do not know why we would cede, for instance, being afraid of the word “liberal” when liberty is at the core of our country’s character. I don’t know why in the world we would cede words like “welfare” when the general welfare is in the Constitution. What I do know is the language of left versus right is too small and too puny for the moment we’re in now. I truly believe that we’re in a third Reconstruction. You know, the first reconstruction 1868 to the 1890’s, fundamentally changed this country, it brought us voting rights, brought us the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments’ right to vote. It brought us new civil rights laws. Then in the 1950s to the 1960s you had the second Reconstruction. You had the movement of the civil rights movement. You had the antiwar movement. You had black and white and brown people coming together, this fusion coalition fundamentally changing the country beating back Jim Crow. That movement was assassinated and killed. But, then you had the reaction of the Southern strategy by Richard Nixon, Kevin Phillips, that basically said their goal was to hijack the moral arguments, to pit black and white and brown people against each other, particularly in the South and the Rust Belts in the Midwest, in order to undermine the fusion politics that could transform the nation.

I don’t know why. I know it was wrong. I know we shouldn’t. I know that we should never allow this kind of religious nationalism that suggested if you’re anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro–prayer in the school, pro–tax cuts, pro-guns, then somehow you are advocating a moral and religious position. It has to be challenged and people of faith and deep commitment have to challenge it.

Giving people health care should not be a left issue or a right issue, it’s a right or wrong issue. It’s moral issue. Providing people a living wage, the 62 million people who work every day without a living wage is not left or right, it’s a right or wrong issue, it’s a moral issue. Addressing the 140 million people that are poor and low wealth. The 13 million children, as Marian Wright Edelman says, we know if we just took two to three percent of our federal budget and spent it on programs that work, we could end child poverty tomorrow. That’s not a left or right issue, that’s a moral issue about right versus wrong.

We have to begin to have a new moral imagination in order to have moral implementation. It’s time that we recapture the language of the Constitution and our deepest moral values. But, without any hesitation and without any backing up from it. We cannot let this moral conversation be dismissed. Go back and look at any progressive achievement that we hold true today, right for women to vote, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, any of those, the civil rights movement, you cannot find an achievement over the last 100 years that did not have at its center some deep moral call.

Lithwick: Rev. Barber, I have to confess to you that a couple of years ago I packed my kids up from Charlottesville and drove to hear you preach one of the Moral Mondays. One of the big, big ones at that point. When there were lots and lots of folks coming out. I think you made a point then that you’re making now, and it has to do with getting out of our silo’s. Even as amongst ourselves. We’re very good at organizing around the environment, but nothing else. Around women’s rights, around unions but nothing else. I think this fusion politics that you’re talking about where we stop having these intramural battles and we work in the same direction is something that feels revolutionary to me. Do you find that people are beginning to understand that?

Barber: People are starting to see it the more that we talk about it. It does not mean you do not have your silo, it means you recognize that your silo is not enough. It does not mean that you do not have your march, but it does recognize you have to have a movement and not just a march. We have to recognize that there’s so much energy spent to divide us and if we weren’t powerful together that energy would not be spent. In 1965, the end of the Selma to Montgomery March, many people never read Dr. King’s speech there. He talked about how every time there was the possibility of black and white poor and working poor people coming together in the South for electoral possibility and to change the system. The extremist, he called them the Bourbon class. The extremist and white supremacist always did whatever they had to do to divide that coalition.

He understood then that fusion politics has been the way we’ve always won. People say it’s revolutionary, but, you remember I mentioned the Reconstruction movement? How did that happen? Black and white fusion politics. Former slaves, former freed blacks and poor white people came together in the South and inside of three years after the Civil War they took over every general assembly and legislature in the South. The civil rights movement, fusion coalition. The women suffers movement. People forget that Fredrick Douglas was out there with Sojourner Truth, with Lucretia Mott, who was a Quaker. We have to remember our history. We know how to beat extremism.

Lithwick: Rev. Barber, I get so much mail from people who say, “I’m tired. I’m tired of the tweets. I’m tired of the lying. I’m tired of my job being to track all this craziness, and I think we’re losing.” You have just relaunched, as you said, Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. Folks are getting arrested on the streets again. What do you tell our listeners, who are just beginning to feel that the rule of law has slipped away and that we are on a kind of 24-hour crazy reality show of lawless norm erosion, and they don’t know what to do? What do you tell them? What’s the answer? How do you both keep aware of what’s going on and be educated and engaged and also keep your sanity when it feels as though this program may never, ever end?

Barber: I would say first you need to focus on the faces of the people who’ve not had to fight over the last year, but have had to fight a long time, communities that look like today the civil rights movement never happened, the War on Poverty never happened. Secondly, I would say, “Remember to focus on the history that has brought us here.” Sometimes you’re in a moment, and you forget the moments behind you. Tired? What about the slaves that battled for 250 years. What about the abolitionists who were locked up, like William Lloyd Garrison, who was locked up in Boston for preaching the damnable gospel that all people are equal, or Thoreau, who, when he was asked would he repent for his civil disobedience, he said, “The only thing I will repent of is for not asking sooner what devil possessed me so long to be quiet so long”?

Think about the people who fought against lynching. Ida B. Wells oftentimes went to a challenge lynchings and to speak out with only eight people. Remember that the Selma marches and the civil rights movement didn’t start with a half-million people, but 50 people sometimes, 40 people sometimes. We have to focus on the history of the past in order to face the moment of the present.

Then, lastly, for me, as a person of faith, I have to go deep into my faith that says, “The time to have moral dissent, and moral action, and moral activism is when the moments are the roughest. It is when it looks like the odds are against you that a remnant has to stand up and speak out.”

We lose only when we get quiet. We lose only when we stop fighting. We must declare that somebody’s hurting the people, and we will not be silent anymore. That is why the time to be a movement is when movements are necessary. A deep moral movement … anti-racist, anti-poverty, deeply moral, deeply transformative fusion movement … is necessary right now. There’s nobody else that’s going to do it. All of our heroes and sheroes, they are not getting up out of the grave, but they are cheering us from the balconies of heaven, I believe, and saying it’s time for us to run. It’s time for us to do our part.

I would rather die having tried and seen nothing change than to live, not try, and see nothing change. The reality is, this is the time. We have to get a second wind. We have to gird up our strength, and we have to remember: By focusing on the faces of today that are fighting, focusing on the histories and the battles of the past when people fought, and whatever gives you faith, it’s time to gird it up—not for the Democratic Party, not for the Republican Party, but for the salvation and the soul of this democracy.