“We cannot afford to interpret this moment as a difference of opinion. We are in a battle for civilization itself.” ~ Rev. William Barber II
As I strolled the streets of Pittsboro on a sweltering ‘SummerFest’ Sunday in my reenactor’s garb, inviting folks to visit the Historical Museum in the old Chatham County Courthouse, I encountered a person who didn’t feel at all ‘festive’ on this sultry summer’s day. In the midst of all the hoopla and hullabaloo generated as a prelude to the annual birthday party celebrating our nation’s independence she was much too aware of the moral crisis threatening to turn the Founding Fathers’ dream of a representative democracy into a noxious nightmare.
Each time I don my Colonial era costume and mingle with the public, I become a symbol of America’s history and a reminder of the noble aspirations the colonists held as they began the great democratic experiment. Perhaps that is why I was quick to respond that I, too, was in no mood to celebrate this Independence Day, especially in light of the brutal decisions of the prior week laid down by corrupt partisan extremist judges who patently ply their prestigious power to the detriment of justice and the rule of law. (According to the General Social Survey, the widely respected survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, in 2022 just 18% of Americans said they have a great deal of confidence in the court, down from 26% in 2021, and 36% said they had hardly any, up from 21%. Another 46% said they have “only some” confidence.)
At the end of the day as I peeled off my sweat drenched costume, I was in dire need of not only a shower, but also a cleansing prophetic word to redirect my lament and frustration and to “renew a right spirit within me.” And so it came. It came yesterday in the form of an email from Rev. William Barber II containing an ‘epistle’ directed to POTUS, Congress and every citizen of this nation who seeks to be a purveyor of love, truth and justice. If you are such a person, you may benefit as I have from reading his “moral declaration for America” on this day that we recall Congress’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Hopefully it can light a fuse of justice and set off some ‘fireworks’ within each of us. You’ll find it in its entirety below:
A Moral Declaration for America: On Our Shared Task of Building the Nation That’s Never Been
To the President of the United States, to Congress, and to all the people of this Republic who claim to be on the side of love, truth, and justice:
One miraculous day, all Americans may rise to the moral mandate of obeying the unenforceable natural law that all humans are created equal and that we each have the right to enjoy the earth. But until then, all we have in this American democracy to protect people against oppression, domination, and man-made evil systems that value riches over human lives are our laws – laws derived from our Constitution and rooted in the biblical principles of justice. Tomorrow, as the nation turns 247 years old, we find ourselves amid an orchestrated moral crisis, and it is up to people of moral conscience to hold this nation accountable to itself. Finger-pointing at extremists is a wasteful exercise that wrongfully whittles this moment in our history down to a difference of opinion rather than a crisis of civilization.
St. Augustine once said, “Kingdoms without justice are mere robberies, and robberies are like small kingdoms; but large Empires are piracy writ large.” When a Supreme Court and political leaders conspire to lie about history and embrace action contrary to love and Justice, their actions are both piracy and perjury at the same time. They have conspired to assassinate the hopes and possibilities of a fully representative democracy to make way for the unimpeded rise and sustainment of the evils of domination, authoritarianism, racism, economic oppression, militarism, and empire tendency, all of which are contrary to our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. We cannot afford to interpret this moment as a difference of opinion. We are in a battle for civilization itself.
But who is responsible for the recent unjust Supreme Court decisions that attempt to upend civil and human rights in America? The answer to that question is similar to Dr. King’s response to the murder of Civil Rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson.
“Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson?” Dr. King asked, “We know a state trooper acting under the orders of George Wallace pointed the gun and pulled the trigger, but how many other fingers were on that trigger? Every white politician who feeds on prejudice and hatred! Every white preacher who preaches the Bible and stays silent before his white congregation! Every Negro man and woman who stands by without joining this fight as their brothers and sisters are humiliated, brutalized, and ripped from this earth….”
Yes, last week, the extremists on the Supreme Court dealt significant blows to our civil and human rights protections, but how many other politicians, organizations, and people were complicit through their participation or inaction as we watched our democracy being slowly chipped away, and most recently bulldozed, over the last 10 years?
Last week, six people on the Supreme Court sealed the deal on the destruction of affirmative action, an imperfect but significant legal precedent that had only begun to scratch the surface of repairing the history of legal segregation in our higher education system. The Court also significantly weakened the protection of the humanity of gay people, refused to protect the right to vote for formerly incarcerated people, and refused to relieve a fraction of the heavy debt of millions of people in an economy where one-third of all people are poor or one emergency away from poverty, and in a nation where poverty was the 4th leading cause of death before COVID.
For the past 10 years since the Shelby v. Holder decision, the Moral Fusion Movement has been the canary in the coal mine, sounding the alarm and, unfortunately, predicting the tragedy we are watching unfold. After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in Shelby, we saw unprecedented widespread voter suppression laws creep up nationwide, resulting in illegitimately constituted governmental bodies at the state and federal levels and producing the crises before us. From the original lie of racism created solely to justify slavery for economic gain, to the Southern Strategy over the last 50 years that pits Black and White poor people against each and creates divisive culture wars along partisan lines, the American aristocracy has had only one goal – to divide and conquer the people and distract them from the widening gulf of prosperity in the wealthiest nation.
Over the last few days, Republicans have been rightfully linked to this mass attack on civil and human rights protections. However, it is high time that we stop pretending to be surprised by the party’s extremism. Extremist behavior is as old as the nation itself – backlash to progress to backlash. It is time for us to move beyond the shock of the extremists’ continued contortion of the Constitution and even Dr. King’s own words to justify oppression. People of moral conscience must turn inward and ask: how have we contributed to this crisis, and what can we do now to save this democracy?
In 1967, Dr. King spoke about his painful discovery that many people who supported the work in Selma and Birmingham were “not now willing to go all the way” because they were only really outraged by the extremist’s behavior rather than believing in genuine equality. It was easy to move people to action when firehoses and brutal beatings were commonplace. But getting Americans to take sustained action against oppression has proven difficult over the last 50 years because oppression has been intricately woven into the fabric of our socio-economic reality as a result of politicians—Democrats and Republicans alike—doling out compromise after compromise and displaying an unwillingness to go all the way on justice.
The language of left vs. right, conservative vs. liberal, can no longer be used to determine where people stand. The irony of the moment we are in is that, with all the above harmful acts done by Republicans, Justice Thomas was nominated and appointed to the Supreme Court under a Democratic majority in the Senate in 1991. He was also supported by many Black organizations and civil rights organizations because of his race, even after Justice Thurgood Marshall made clear that race should not be the primary consideration for the Supreme Court nominee that would replace him. Additionally, from 2009-2011, Democrats had a majority in both houses of Congress and did not use their power to reinforce the most important protections against voter suppression after the Supreme Court gutted the VRA; low voter turnout due to political disillusionment coupled with severely weakened voter protections ultimately paved the way for Trump to get elected with less than 85,000 votes in three states through the flawed electoral college system.
Just this year, a Democrat held the nation’s economy hostage in order to move a pipeline that will be detrimental to the environment and poor communities through Congress. Democratic leaders held up their hands as though powerless, and they refused to use that same strategy to pass legislation like raising the federal minimum wage to a living wage that would help lift millions of Americans out of poverty. It is unbecoming to admonish extremists on Monday and then strike deadly compromises with them on Tuesday. The compromises in this nation over the last 247 years have always come back to bite us. Compromises on justice are like a double-sided tool made to build and tear down progress concurrently.
The so-called moderates among us are also complicit in this crisis. Republicans who publicly denounce extremism but privately embrace it by allowing demagogues to rise out of their party and exploit the irrational fears and cultural divides are complicit. They legitimize tyrants in exchange for political security, trading the needs of the American people for their own political and economic ambitions.
We are all responsible for this mess. So, it’s time to let go of the blame game. It is time for people with a moral conscience to wield every ounce of influence and power they have towards justice and to force this nation to be true to what it said on paper – “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
After the gains of the Civil Rights Movement began to stall and regress, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said this to the nation in 1967, one year before he was assassinated: “I realize that if we are to have a truly integrated society, men and women will have to rise to the majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable, […however], Although it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. Even though it may be true that the law cannot change the heart, it can restrain the heartless. Even though it may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me…So, while the law may not change the hearts of men, it can and it does change the habits of men. I am convinced that we still need strong civil rights legislation.”
Now more than ever, we need strong, bold, and expansive legislation in America that establishes justice, promotes the general welfare, ensures domestic tranquility, and guarantees equal protection under the law.
To President Biden, this nation needs you now. You must embrace the “Bully Pulpit,” one of the greatest privileges of the office of the President, as an opportunity to speak for justice, truth, and reconciliation, just as President Theodore Roosevelt and President Franklin Roosevelt did in their moments of national crisis. The ancient Hebrew prophets would blow the shofar and use what they called “kol shofar” to speak to the nation. Isaiah 58 calls us to sound an alarm and bring the people’s attention toward the issues in society – in order to work towards solutions. You have a chance to call on the nation to repair past wrongs and a historic opportunity to change the lives of millions of poor and low-wealth people. You must speak and bring national and international attention to the stark death toll caused by poverty in this nation. When I last saw you in Selma at your invitation to deliver the invocation at the 58th commemoration of Bloody Sunday, I asked God to grab us all, that we might be used in the work of justice, and to empower us to put legs on our prayers. I prayed the same prayer when I, impacted people, faith leaders, and advocates, met with your senior advisors a few weeks ago to request an emergency meeting with you on these moral crises. We can no longer wait for the perfect political moment. The nation needs you to act now.
To Congress, it is time to stop playing into the cultural wars and divisive tactics. Any party that is serious about the well-being of our people and our democracy must take legislative action now to stop the rapid erosion of democracy in the United States. Put the puny partisan labels aside and meet this moral emergency with bold and transformative legislation. This moment demands a moral imagination that puts the well-being of the people at the forefront of our policymaking. The Senate has an opportunity to take legislative action that can undo the Supreme Court’s destructive decisions. If their efforts fail in the House, they can show the nation in 2024 what is at stake in the congressional and presidential elections. Politicians can no longer run on promises of bold action and then refuse to act or compromise their constituents away once they are in office.
To the Moral Leaders in our nation, we must engage in the solving of this moral crisis. Our faith traditions and religious values teach us that God requires us to challenge the things in society that adversely impact people’s lives. We must engage in our pulpits and move our communities to action. To the Christian leaders particularly, the false prosperity gospel has no place in a nation where poverty is the 4th leading cause of death. The pulpit is supposed to be the place from which all people, believers and non-believers, can hear a call to conscience, a call to love, truth, and justice. Yet, a Pew Foundation poll of sermons in the United States showed that addressing poverty and calling for justice hardly registered in American pulpits. If we truly follow the life and ministry of Jesus, which was centered around the liberation of people from evil and oppression, then we must challenge this system and be unafraid to speak truth to false power.
To civil rights organizations, we must be careful in this moment to avoid further dividing the nation with our rhetoric along race, gender, sexuality, religion, and other differences. This moment teaches us that we must tackle these crises with a fusion, multi-issue approach, not merely a black, women, or LGBTQ+ agenda. Racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the continued oppression of Indigenous people, the denial of health care, the lack of living wages, the war economy, regressive immigration policies, mass incarceration, LGBTQ+ discrimination, and all other forms of oppression – we must tackle them together. It is the only way we can avoid compromising each other out. Extremists want us to be divided, that is why they used a very small sector of the Asian American population to undermine affirmative action, and it is why they continue to pit Black and Latino immigrants against poor white and Black people. We cannot afford to buy into the lies. People of moral conscience will continue to stand together across racial differences as we always have – as Fredrick Douglass stood with Chinese Americans, as Dr. King fought alongside Jewish and Latino people, and as in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, people of all races flooded the streets around the world.
Civil rights organizations must also learn from the mistakes of their past leaders, who turned their back on Dr. King when he called for the nation’s churches and civil rights organizations to address the triune evils of racism, poverty, and the war economy. His charge is even more applicable today as these societal evils have been intensified by both the extremists and the inaction of our allies.
To the economists and scholars, we need you in the public sphere to help the moral movement dismantle the lies and failure of trickle-down economics, neoliberalism, and those who blame inflation on raising wages to a living wage. America cannot survive without a moral economy, and it is a shame that we often cite low unemployment rates with poverty wages as progress in the wealthiest nation in the world.
And finally, to the people of this nation, our struggles are inextricably linked. The extremists are winning by default and by shallow margins of victory. We must use all the tools available to us to fight voter suppression, and we must also commit to mobilizing the 20 million poor and low-wealth people who did not vote in the past election because they have been disabused of their importance to our democracy. History teaches us that where false hatred fueled by greed has caused government leaders to falter in favor of a few, moral social justice movements have always stepped up to steer the nation back on course. Until that miraculous day when the rights of human beings are respected without the need for enforcement, it is up to the people of moral conscience to provide the unwritten checks and balances necessary for good governance. This nation is ours to make over and over again for as long as justice takes.
God help us.
Forward Together, Not One Step Back
Bishop William J. Barber II, DMin
Founding Director, Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School.