Fred Burnham and Jennifer Butler: Historically, religious leaders central to change

February 13, 2014 

J. Peder Zane’s Jan. 28 column criticizing the Rev. William Barber 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 N.C. A&T 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.

Barber is raising important and often uncomfortable questions about educational disparities, voting rights and economic injustice that affect 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 or potentially losing their jobs. 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 also deprive us of powerful voices that can help forge a more just future.

Rev. Dr. Fred Burnham

Director emeritus, Trinity Institute at Trinity Church Wall Street, Asheville

Rev. Jennifer Butle

CEO, Faith in Public Life, Washington, D.C.

The length limit was waived to permit a fuller response to the column.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service