Rev. William Barber on Greed, Poverty and Evangelical Politics


Very few religious leaders are able to inspire political action on the part of large numbers of people who don’t share their church, their denomination or their faith. Yet the Rev. Dr. William Barber, senior pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., has done just that. The initiatives he has helped to start — the Moral Mondays series of protests and the Martin Luther King Jr.-inspired Poor People’s Campaign — have motivated legions across the country to engage in demonstrations and peaceful civil disobedience in support of racial, economic and environmental justice as well as the protection of voting rights, among other issues as much moral as political. Which is to say, Barber and his fellow progressive adherents have their work cut out for them these days. ‘‘We’ve got to challenge Democrats and Republicans,’’ said Barber, who is 57. ‘‘Somebody in every age has to challenge this country to be true to its moral foundation in the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and our deepest religious values.’’

Your politics flows from an understanding of love, justice and compassion as being at the heart of Christian faith, which is something that presumably every Christian agrees with. You also iden​tify as an evangelical. How do you square that with the politics of Christians — I’m thinking mostly of conservative evangelicals — whose faith manifests itself politically as support for politicians and policies that seem to go against those same values? I understand it as a form of heresy. In the Bible, there was always tension between prophets and false prophets. When you look today and see so-called white evangelicalism, you have to understand they are powerful, but they are not the majority of religiosity in this country. They are a loud, well-funded group. If you think about it, white evangelicals say they’re against abortion, but they vote for candidates who’ve never undone Roe v. Wade. They say they’re against gay people, and they’ve lost on their battle against gay people’s rights. But what do their preferred candidates always win on when they get elected? Helping corporations. So we’ve got an unholy connection: Religion is being used as the cover for greed. The term ‘‘evangelical’’ has been hijacked in favor of corporate interests. You have to stand up and say that systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of health care, the war economy and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism are interlocking injustices that require us as people of faith to challenge them. If you’re going to promote the faith, at least do it from the biblical foundations of love, truth and justice! You know, we asked to debate Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham. They won’t agree to it.

Wiiliam Barber, center, at a Moral Mondays protest at the North Carolina Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh in 2013.
Al Drago/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service, via Getty Images

Why do you think that is? A lot of the policies they push in the public square, have you ever noticed they never say about them, ‘‘Jesus said this’’? Because they can’t! I once met with Franklin Graham. I was with a group of folks, and I asked him: ‘‘Have you ever even read the Bible? Have you ever even read the Scriptures?’’ He wouldn’t answer. In fact, the group that we were with, a couple of folks said to me: ‘‘Reverend, don’t do that. He welcomed us here.’’ But I’m saying: ‘‘No, this is my brother. I have a responsibility to challenge him.’’ I mean, Jesus is very clear. That’s the problem for people like Graham and Falwell. They can’t debate us publicly because there’s no way they can say, ‘‘We’re against guaranteed health care for all because Jesus was against guaranteed health care for all.’’ Jesus never charged a leper a co-pay! How can you stand up and say God is for the oppression of the poor when Isaiah — in Isaiah 10 — says, ‘‘Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their right and make women and children their prey?’’

What does it mean to use scriptural passages like that as evidence for political arguments? Couldn’t ‘‘those who prey on children’’ reasonably be understood by somebody with different political views from your own to mean something like ‘‘those who support abortion’’? Let’s take it there. The answer is no. It’s not just open to interpretation. Once you sit down and look at the original Hebrew and read the rest of the Scripture, it tells you exactly what it means. The problem is you got this guy, Jesus, who was the founder, and he was pretty clear. So for example, the first sermon he preached, he said, ‘‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me to give good news to the poor.’’ Luke wrote about this in the Gospel, using a Greek word for poor, ptochos. In Roman society at the time, ptochos meant those who’ve been made poor because of exploitation. There were other words Luke could have used for poor, but he didn’t — he used ptochos. Let’s say you are adamant about being anti-abortion. Are you adamant about raising the baby when it gets here? Are you adamant about the baby having health care? Are you adamant about the baby having food and education? You can’t be for life inside the womb and not be for life outside the womb.

This is a slight tangent, but how do you make religious sense of a pandemic? Is it God’s will? No, no. People start trying to figure out what God’s will is — I tend to lean more into, What is God’s will in my response to a pandemic? What is God’s call for compassion? Jesus said, ‘‘Love your neighbor.’’ So how do I love my neighbor politically, policy-wise, in the midst of realities? What is the godly response to tragedy? And as I said, Jesus is very clear: When I was hungry, did you feed me? That’s the question for America right now. Every one of those politicians that’s going to put their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution, I wish they’d make sure they knew what was in the Bible about how we treat one another. I had a professor who said: ‘‘Dr. King didn’t get shot because Dr. King believed in love. He got shot because he dared to raise the love question in the wrong places.’’ He dared to look at a piece of policy and say, ‘‘How does this policy reflect love?’’ But I do believe — and I’ll be honest with you, I’m conservative in this way — that our sins can find us out. I do believe that there can be retribution. What you sow, you can reap. And a part of what’s happening right now in this pandemic is we didn’t learn the lesson from a hundred years ago. We’ve been through this with Woodrow Wilson. He ignored the reports about a pandemic, and his administration downplayed it. He caught it himself. When people called it the ‘‘Spanish’’ flu, he allowed the stereotype to flourish, racializing it. More than 650,000 Americans died. We should have learned this lesson a hundred years ago. We didn’t, and look where we are.

What lesson should we have learned? Tell the truth. Don’t be a racist. Pay attention to the science.

Barber at a Poor People’s Campaign event in 2019.
Michael Nigro/Sipa USA, via Associated Press.

More than 70 million people voted for Trump in 2020. That’s a bigger number than in 2016. What makes you confident that your moral vision will win out? Because I know American history. We are the country that had a reconstruction movement and then had a violent, meanspirited regression. We had a civil rights movement and then a regression. We have a strange history as a country, but there is another side: After Woodrow Wilson and Hoover, we get Roosevelt. Roosevelt pushes through Social Security, minimum wage, union rights, leads us through a war. He puts the first Black people in the cabinet. So here’s what I say: Yes, 70 million voted for Trump, but more people than at any time in history voted for a white man and a Black woman with Indian descent who ran openly saying that if you elect us, we’re going to talk about systemic racism and we’re going to expand health care. They won in the West, in the upper Midwest and in the Northeast, in Georgia and Virginia and almost won in a few other Southern states. And we still have about 80 million people who didn’t vote! We don’t know what this democracy would look like with a full vote. So let’s acknowledge that democracy is hard, and we’ve always had to battle. Having said that, it is also important that we ask, Where does healing come? What doesn’t heal us is conversations about left versus right. When you swear to be a politician, you don’t swear to be a liberal, you don’t swear to be a conservative. You swear to defend and uphold the Constitution. The Constitution is clear that the purpose of government is to establish justice and promote the general welfare. So, does a policy establish justice? Does it promote the general welfare? If it does, then you will ensure domestic tranquillity, healing. So, now you say —

Now I say, What does that mean practically? Yes, ‘‘Reverend Barber, what does that mean practically?’’ I talked with Vice President Biden during Eastertime. I said to him, ‘‘The hope is in the mourning. When you get in, don’t listen to the politicians and the right and left.’’ Seventy-two percent of Americans want a minimum-wage increase. Give them that. If you do that, all these people that are mad, they’ll say, ‘‘Wait a minute. I was told to hate this person, but he increased the living wage in my family.’’ And these people in the South, in states that didn’t expand health care, they need it now. So do the policies that will help people in their pain. That will cause a lot of them to say, ‘‘You told me they were socialists, but they just passed policies that are making sure my child has health care.’’ The way to heal the soul of the nation is to pass policies that heal the body of the nation. It’s the just thing to do. That’s how we as a nation can together move forward.


Opening illustration: Source photograph by Paul Morigi/Getty Images.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.

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