Comment

Politics and morality -- a dangerous mix for Barber and NC

January 28, 2014 

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The Rev. William Barber

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

I agree with liberals on many issues, especially on the separation of church and state. Religion can be a vital force in our personal lives, but it has no place in politics.

This is why the Rev. William Barber II is such a dangerous figure in North Carolina politics.

Barber, the head of the N.C. NAACP and leader of the Moral Monday protests, is in a long line of figures – some great leaders, others wretched demagogues – who have tried to use religious language and values to effect political change. Politics and religion, however, are distinctly separate realms. Especially in an increasingly secular country, they offer very different modes of understanding the world and how we should act in it.

Consider Barber’s favorite concept: morality.

He invokes it incessantly because it is religion’s calling card. Morality suggests a timeless code that can provide a useful anchor in a fast-changing world. With few exceptions, the morality espoused in a place of worship 50 years ago ought to be similar to what one hears today.

Morality has almost no place in our politics, which rely on adaptation and change. Democracy demands flexibility: It requires us to be able to rethink cherished beliefs, to modify our positions and strike a compromise in response to evolving standards of right and wrong and the greater good.

The line between morality and politics has always been blurred. Until quite recently, the government oppressed gays and lesbians because it considered their lifestyle immoral. It threw people into jail for smoking marijuana. Pre-marital sex and out-of-wedlock births were widely seen as moral failings to be controlled through harsh stigmatization.

To our great credit, America has moved away from moral arguments in our politics, using different criteria to determine what is right. It’s no surprise that this has raised the hackles of many conservative people of faith who believe society should be a sturdy foundation, not a weather vane.

Barber has re-energized the liberal left by resurrecting the moral argument and applying it to questions long seen as strictly political. Yes, any issue can be cast in moral terms, but education, health care, environmental policies and voting laws are not the traditional forums for debates about good and evil.

Barber doesn’t need me to say that he has every right – and may see it as his duty – to participate fully in our political process as he sees fit. And I agree with him on many issues: We shouldn’t reduce opportunities to vote (though I support voter ID); teachers deserve a raise; we should help people live happier, healthier lives.


The problem is not with what he says, but how he says it. His merger of religion and politics is a recipe for intolerance. In the world of morality, there are two sides: the right and the wrong. When you stand on principle, you can’t compromise. And why bargain with immoral opponents?

The religious mindset can be helpful when wrestling with spiritual questions, but it is dangerous in politics, which hinges on finding ways to get along with other people of good will who see the world differently. It is hard to think of any issue that cannot be resolved more effectively by asking the political question: How do we achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people? – rather than the moral one: What’s right and wrong?

At a speech honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., Barber thundered, “We must not give up the so-called high moral ground to the right-wing extremists,” according to The State newspaper. “Any profession of faith that doesn’t promote justice and standing against wrong is a form of heresy.”

These absolutist sentiments may be fine for a preacher – although “heresy” strikes me as a tad 17th century. But they are dangerous in politics where “justice” and “standing against wrong” are not concepts with strict definitions but points of view open to various interpretations.

Barber underscored his intolerant frame of mind in that speech when he called Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina – a Republican and the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction – a ventriloquist dummy for “the extreme right wing.” Apparently it hasn’t occurred to “my way or the highway” Barber that an African-American (or anyone else for that matter) can think for himself and come to different conclusions about how to serve the greater good.

Barber is not the creator but a symptom of our nasty politics of division. I know that he has rallied beleaguered Democrats and that they will follow him as long as he seems useful. But I hope they recognize that even if he provides them with short-term gains, his brand of progressive politics is a backward step that will hurt us all in the long run.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.

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