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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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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One of the central struggles in American politics right now is between a pro-family justice movement rooted in faith and a right-wing campaign to punish the poor and consolidate as much power in as few hands as possible.
Last year, this conflict manifested most clearly in North Carolina, where the Moral Mondays Forward Together movement brought thousands of people of faith to the state capitol to resist a vast array of unpopular, immoral policies rammed through the Republican-controlled legislature. Week after week, clergy and lay leaders marched, spoke out and were arrested in acts of civil disobedience. Meanwhile, lawmakers’ approval ratings plummeted.
What happens in these state capitols matters for all of us. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Atlanta isn’t just the capital of the South, it’s my hometown and the cradle of the civil rights movement. Seeing a diverse, clergy-led movement spring up there now is inspiring beyond words – not only because of its symbolic significance, but also because it portends a future when justice once again rolls down like a mighty stream.
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Former Vatican Ambassador Thomas P. Melady died yesterday at the age of 86. His passing is a significant loss for the Catholic community in Washington and anyone who cares about public service. Tom was a true gentleman who believed in civility, building bridges across ideological divides and finding common ground with Catholic progressives like myself. A moderate Republican from Connecticut, he served his country and the Catholic Church by carrying himself with a gentle dignity that is all too rare in a city of strutting partisan peacocks.
While almost 50 years separated us, Tom became a friend because of our love for the Catholic Church and the conviction that serving the common good means a lot more than whether you voted for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. At times the politics of the Catholic Church can feel even more polarized and nasty than the battles waged on cable news and Capitol Hill, but Tom never let labels or blind partisanship stop him from reaching out to progressives. He even joked with me a few times that he was willing to take heat from his friends on the right for his eagerness to make common cause with more liberal Catholics.
Tom was a man of integrity and clear moral vision. He spoke up as a pro-life Catholic who opposed abortion but also called the scourge of gun violence a sanctity-of-life issue. While some conservatives and a vocal minority of bishops argue pro-choice Catholic elected officials should be denied Holy Communion, Tom rejected turning a sacrament into a political bludgeon. He joined other Christian leaders to denounce Uganda’s shameful efforts to dehumanize gays and lesbians. He spoke out for comprehensive immigration reform. He challenged the powerful and all of us not to forget the growing ranks of the poor and hungry. Tom knew that politics could be a noble calling, not simply a blood sport for the self-serving and ambitious.
I will miss his stories over lunch at The Army-Navy Club and his impromptu phone calls to talk about politics or the Church. Our country will miss his spirit of service.
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