This op-ed by Faith in Public Life CEO Jennifer Butler originally appeared at NC Policy Watch’s blog, The Progressive Pulse.
The recent criticisms leveled by newspaper columnist J. Peder Zane and others against Rev. William Barber II for using religious and moral language to inspire political change displayed a disregard for history and even contempt for the role of faith in public life.
As we commemorate the 54th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in that sought to end legal segregation, let’s never forget that the Civil Rights movement was a religiously inspired, prophetic movement led by pastors and diverse people of faith. The late Franklin McCain, one of the Greensboro Four, said the question that inspired him and three other students at the Agricultural and Technical College (AT&T) of North Carolina in Greensboro was this: “At what point does a moral man act against injustice?”
Religious leaders have been central to movements that drive political change. The struggle to end the evil of slavery, create fair labor practices and secure equal rights for all citizens were profound moral causes. We are stronger as a country because determined people of faith challenged political and social threats to human dignity. The unfinished task of living up to the ideals of our democracy and stirring the conscience of Americans continues today.
Rev Barber is raising important and often uncomfortable questions about educational disparities, voting rights and economic injustice that impact not only North Carolinians, but the entire nation. Here are some telling signs of the times. CEOs often earn as much in a single day as their workers make in an entire year. Minimum wage jobs don’t pay enough to keep many hardworking Americas out of poverty. Half of all workers are not allowed to take a sick day without being docked pay or potentially losing their job. Congress is slashing food nutrition programs for struggling families even as corporations are coddled with tax breaks. These are moral scandals. Faith leaders will continue to speak truth to power.
The separation of church and state is meant to protect both religion and democracy. Because our government does not enforce an official religion, America has a diverse religious marketplace. Speaking from deeply held beliefs about the issues that affect us all is a healthy sign of pluralism and strength, not confining moralism. Those who argue that religious leaders should be silent in public debates have not only failed to learn the lessons of the past, they deprive us of powerful voices that can help forge a more just future.
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A year ago today, the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI paved the way for the unexpected Pope Francis revolution now shaking up the Catholic Church.
It’s an understatement to say a cerebral theologian more at home in the quiet of his study than on the global stage never became a defining figure in the way his predecessor did or his successor is quickly becoming. Many Catholics grateful that Pope Francis is emphasizing a more merciful and less doctrinaire vision of church had a hard time warming to Joseph Ratzinger, who as a cardinal made his most distinctive mark during his time at the Vatican’s doctrine office blowing the whistle on theologians, nuns and others deemed afoul of orthodoxy.
But the Benedict legacy often forgotten today amid the understandable euphoria over Pope Francis is a significant contribution to the Church’s social justice tradition. A pope largely viewed through the prism of popular media and culture as a staunch conservative for his opposition to gay marriage and abortion also trumpeted views to the left of most Democrats in Congress when it came to economic justice and the environment.
In his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict denounced the “scandal of glaring inequalities” and called for a more just distribution of global wealth. A defining theme of Benedict’s papacy – especially after the 2008 global financial crisis – was an uncompromising critique of economic systems that subjugate the human person to the demands of profit. In his 2013 World Day of Peace message, he lamented “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” Along with “terrorism” and “international crime,” the pope named unfettered markets as a threat to stability and peace.
You’re unlikely to hear that kind of talk even from most liberal politicians. While free-market fundamentalists lobby for greater deregulation of markets and corporations, the Vatican’s justice and peace council during the Benedict era called for a “minimum, shared body of rules to manage the global financial market” and a “world reserve fund” to support countries hard hit by the economic crisis. He was no Catholic outlier, of course, and just as Pope Francis today Benedict inherits and articulates anew a centuries-old Catholic social tradition that defends the rights of workers and puts human dignity at the center of just economic systems.
Benedict also earned the title of “Green Pope” for defining environmental stewardship in stark moral terms, and his frequent warnings about climate change. More than any of his predecessors, he articulated a clear theology behind what he calls the “covenant between human beings and the environment.” In his 2010 World Day of Peace message, Benedict asked: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifiers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?”
These are bracing words for conservatives in position of power today who prefer denying the reality of climate change than proposing practical solutions. In 2011, the day before world leaders from 194 countries meet in Durban, South Africa to chart out next steps to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gases, Benedict urged the international community to “agree on a responsible, credible and supportive response to this worrisome and complex phenomenon, keeping in mind the needs of the poorest populations and of future generations.”
Historians will debate the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI for centuries, but we should not overlook his unambiguous teachings when it came to economic and social justice. In the end, of course, Benedict may be best remembered for his unexpected departure and the still unknown ways that seismic decision could reshape the Catholic Church.
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While I marched alongside 80,000 people at Saturday’s Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina, I couldn’t help but feel I was witnessing a struggle for justice that will go down in history. The flurry of destructive, regressive state laws passed over the last year demanded an overwhelming moral response, and that’s what’s happening.
I watched Rev. William Barber II’s rousing keynote address from the roof of a six-story parking garage roughly 150 yards from the main stage. As if written in the script, halfway through his speech the sun came out and shined over the impassioned crowd that stretched more than four city blocks.
Rather than try to recapture now what it felt like, here’s what caught my eye, rang in my ears and stirred in my heart as the march unfolded:
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Earlier this week, a new study reported that as many as 17,000 Americans will die as a result of states refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. One of the authors of the report summed up the situation well: “Political decisions have consequences, some of them lethal.”
Since the Supreme Court ruled that states could opt-out of Medicaid expansion, 25 have chosen to do so. The results? As many as 5 million of the neediest Americans are missing out on vital health insurance for purely political reasons. Many of the states that would benefit most from expansion are the very states saying no.
Given the moral stakes, people of faith aren’t sitting silently while this tragedy unfolds. From Allentown, Pennsylvania to Mankato, Minnesota, they’re giving voice to a simple pro-life message: no American should die for lack of health care.
In Ohio, Faith in Public Life has worked closely with Nuns on the Bus Ohio and Ohio Prophetic Voices to pressure Gov. John Kasich to expand Medicaid against the wishes of his Tea Party state legislature, providing coverage to 275,000 Ohioans. Other Governors should heed Kasich’s thoughtful words: “Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”
Just last week, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon met with more than 350 religious leaders at Missouri Faith Voices and invoked the words of the Prophet Isaiah as he recommitted himself to enacting Medicaid expansion. He’ll need their leadership as this life-saving policy faces heated opposition in the state legislature.”
In the darkest days of the health care reform debate in 2010, when it looked like the legislation was destined for defeat, faith groups refused to give up hope. Nearly four years later, that struggle continues as religious leaders fight for a healthcare system that puts people ahead of politics.
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Last fall I had the honor of praying in front of the White House with federal contract workers affiliated with Good Jobs Nation who were striking for a living wage. After a strong campaign of similar demonstrations, President Obama confirmed last night that he got the message.
In his State of the Union address, the president said he would require that all government contract workers be paid at least $10.10, and he reiterated the need for all American workers to paid at least that much.
The economic case for raising the minimum wage is strong, and the moral case is even stronger. Scripture is replete with condemnations of oppressing workers, and make no mistake, paying someone who works full time a wage that can’t cover a family’s basic necessities is oppressive.
The core values question here is whether we accept the notion that some workers must be destined for poverty in order for our economy to function well. The clear answer is no. As Pope Francis said, “Money must serve, not rule!”
Increasing the minimum wage faces fierce opposition among Tea Party extremists in Congress — even though the vast majority of Americans favor raising it.
So it’s inspiring to see faith leaders from in states across the country calling for a minimum wage that’s a family wage. Faith in Public Life is humbled to be working side by side with clergy leaders and groups like Interfaith Worker Justice and PICO National Network to help raise a clear moral voice for just wages that strengthen family bonds.
In 1968, the federal minimum wage was worth the equivalent of more than $10 today. Getting it back to that level isn’t asking for a miracle, and it’s a crucial step toward building an economy that is truly pro-family.
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