Moral Mondays: Religious Progressives Protest North Carolina Policies

Almost every Monday since late April, hundreds of protestors have gathered in Raleigh to oppose the state’s budget cuts to unemployment benefits, healthcare funding, education, and other social benefits.

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Gerry Broome / AP

Demonstrators and NAACP-led supporters are arrested during an act of civil disobedience opposing the Republican legislature's agenda congregate at Halifax Mall outside the House and Senate chambers during "Moral Monday" protests at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, June 24, 2013.

Almost every Monday since late April, hundreds of protestors have gathered at the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh to oppose the state’s budget cuts to unemployment benefits, healthcare funding, education, and other social benefits. Today, July 1, the “Moral Mondays” protest may break records: Thousands of people are expected, as it is the first Monday since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned parts of the Voting Rights Act and the day that some of the most severe state cuts go into effect.

Nearly 600 people have been arrested for civil disobedience in the Moral Mondays protests since they started on April 29. Last week’s protest alone drew 3,000 people, and 120 people were arrested. The protestors range from ministers to a 60-year-old seventh-grade teacher to college students to a Duke University historian. Baptist churches host worship and prayer services before the protests begin, and regional Christian radio stations are starting to cover the protests.

Moral Monday protestors are liberal in bent, unhappy with the conservative policies their Republican-controlled legislature has enacted so far this year. A new law goes into effect Monday that pulls extended unemployment benefits from over 70,000 North Carolinians. The legislature opted out of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion provision that would have covered an additional 500,000 people, and repealed the state’s earned income tax credit, which will now expire at the end of this year. It also appealed the Racial Justice Act, which allowed people on death row to argue that racial bias influenced their trial.

State Republican leaders have largely dismissed the Moral Mondays. Governor Pat McCrory waited five weeks before commenting about them, and then stated that he is not interested in meeting with the group, whom he called “outsiders” who were trying “to do to us what they did to Scott Walker in Wisconsin.” Republican State Senator Thom Goolsby dubbed the protests “Moron Mondays” in an op-ed for the Chatham Journal. He later said he was just joking. Police records indicate that 98% of people arrested are actually from North Carolina.

The man behind the Moral Mondays movement, Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and a Disciples of Christ minister, says he is undeterred.  The Moral Mondays are the result of seven years of progressive organizing for a new Southern ‘fusion politics’—a new multi-ethnic, multi-religious coalition with an anti-racist, anti-poverty agenda. Their goal, he continues, is “to directly attack the old divisions of the white southern strategy and what we believe were the shortcomings of the so-called Christian evangelical right that limits issues in the public square to things like prayer in school, abortion, and gender issues.”

His goals are bigger than just changing policies and looking toward the 2014 election. Barber believes the South is in the middle of what he calls the “third reconstruction.” Changing demographics in America, and state battles over voting rights laws, he claims, echo both the first reconstruction, which was voting rights for African Americans after the civil war, and the second reconstruction, which was the Civil Rights movement. A new southern strategy must, he says, be “rooted in the idea of the deep moral issues about faith, our constitution, anti-racism, anti-poverty, that can break open the solid south and put holes in it so that we expand the electorate, we expand the discourse, we destroy the myth that when you hurt entitlements you only hurt certain folk.”

Barber, 49, sees North Carolina as a necessary test case. Republicans won both houses of the General Assembly in 2010 for the first time in more than a century, and the state that swung from President Obama in 2008 to Mitt Romney in 2012. “[Republicans] believe if they can get away with this in a progressive, southern state, then it pours water on the aspirations of the rest of the southern states,” Barber says. Barber has a masters degree from Duke Divinity School and a doctorate in Public Policy and Pastoral Care from Drew University, and he worked on Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign.

Local Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Methodist leaders issued a joint statement in early June supporting the Moral Mondays purpose, if not their means of civil disobedience. Their concern, the faith leaders explain, is “not an act of political partisanship”—instead “it is a matter of faith with respect to our understanding of the biblical teachings and imperatives to protect the poor, respect the stranger, care for widows and children and love our neighbors (Isaiah 10:1‐2, Hebrews 13:2, James 1:27, Matthew 22:39, Galatians 5:14).”