The GOP has in recent years been remarkably successful at pushing through an agenda that topples to the right, an agenda that includes, among other things, decreased spending on public goods and welfare, economic policies that favor the wealthy and powerful, and a conservative take on moral and social issues. The same cannot be said, however, for progressives. Save for a few isolated victories here and there, those who lean to the left have been unable to achieve similar success. Why that is the case is, of course, a complicated question, but it has less to do with content than a failure to unite disparate voices and concerns. Many would, of course, classify themselves as progressives, but it seems fair to say that political culture in the United States lacks a real and broad progressive movement.
Enter the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina. Led by the NC chapter of the NAACP and its charismatic president, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, protestors have every Monday for the past ten weeks come out to the state legislature building in Raleigh, NC to voice their opposition to a spate of conservative legislative measures. Since gaining control of both the legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in 100 years, the GOP has rapidly pushed through a string of regressive, ideologically-driven laws, often using tactics not fully on the up and up. For example, since taking full control, the GOP has: rejected federal funds for the expansion of Medicaid; cut the amount and length of state unemployment benefits, cuts that also render the unemployed ineligible for federal unemployment benefits; repealed the Racial Justice Act, which allowed inmates on death row to challenge their sentences on racial grounds; ended the Earned Income Tax credit, which effectively raised taxes on the poor to provide tax cuts for the wealthy; and banned the state from making policy decisions based on scientific predictions of sea level increases. Up this week for the House, “The Family, Faith, and Freedom Protection Act,” which is in effect an anti-Shariah law bill, to which the GOP has tacked on severe anti-abortion measures.
The Moral Monday protests seek to draw attention to and counteract this rightward drift in a state historically known for its moderation. Much has already been written about the nuts and bolts of the protests, which, as the number of participants has grown, have garnered a steady stream of national attention. Rather than rehashing what has already been said, I want to focus on two, interrelated aspects of the protests that I’m trying to think through and that readers of this blog may find most interesting.
First is the role that the language of faith, and religion more generally, plays in the protests. I’m well aware of the difficulty in using such labels, but what struck me when I attended my first Moral Monday is the explicitly religious, usually Christian, sensibility that pervades the protests, a sensibility that hearkens back to biblically-charged language of social justice that underpinned the civil rights movement. This is, of course, not surprising. Barber is an ordained minister who has spent his career struggling to make the vision of the civil rights movement more of a reality, and one of his strengths is his ability to organize and mobilize with clergy in and among various and diverse churches. Indeed, some of the most active participants in Moral Monday—among the speakers, arrested, and masses—have been members of the clergy and laypersons.
Although some have criticized Moral Monday for its seeming fusion of religion and politics—again, I’m aware of the difficulty in such neat labels—the language of faith does play an important strategic role as well, even if its not explicitly stated. For good or ill and whether we like it or not, religion continues to play a significant role in politics in NC, for the simple reason that it continues to play a significant role in the life of many North Carolinians. This is especially the case in more rural areas, where the religion is more often than not Christian, conservative, evangelical, and in the GOP’s pocket. What I’m getting at is that any broad-based political movement in NC is going to have to find some way to appeal to such religious sensibilities, which, it is worth pointing out, are often more complicated than portrayed. True, the socially progressive brand of Christianity on display at Moral Monday is often quite different than the Christianity practiced by many North Carolinians, but there is common ground nonetheless, even if only in the sense of a shared language. It’s this common ground that the language of faith that pervades Moral Monday seeks out. However one feels about the matter, the simple fact is that any political movement in NC that desires broad support has to find some way to appeal to the religious sensibilities of its citizens, or else fail. It’s precisely this broad support that we need right now.
This leads me to my second point. Although religious language has up to this point gone hand in hand with the spirit of the protests, it’s important not to reduce Moral Monday to its Christian or more general religious aspects. The language of Christianity, to be sure, is at this point predominant, but it is by no means determinative. Other faith traditions, those without a specific tradition, and those critical of religion are actively involved as well, even if there remains at times some degree of tension in the religious atmosphere of the protests. Likewise, a diversity of issues represented by a diversity of groups and individuals with various motivations has made up the content of the protests.
One helpful way to understand how all this holds together is to use William Connolly’s image of a resonance machine. In Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, Connolly uses the image to understand the at times uneasy alliance between capitalism and evangelical Christianity. The alliance is not held together causally or ideologically but through a shared yet unarticulated “spirituality” that allows convergent and divergent positions to resonate with and amplify each other in virtual and social spaces. It seems to me that Moral Monday is, in a lot of ways, such a resonance machine, albeit on a much smaller scale. The various religious and non-religious dispositions and issues represented cannot be lumped together under a common, ideological banner, one that would attempt to smooth out the tensions that exist among individuals, groups, and causes. Rather, these resonate on the basis of a shared “spirituality,” a mutual ethos that allows divergence and convergence in a specific space.
Right now, that “spirituality” is largely defined by the protesters’ opposition to the regressive ideology and legislation of the GOP-led legislature. There’s potential to move beyond that, however, towards the creation of a real, post-secular progressive movement, a movement defined less by ideological purity than a shared, though somewhat amorphous, “spirituality.” It’s too early to tell, of course, but there’s reason to be optimistic.
Hollis Phelps is Assistant Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, Mount Olive, NC. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology (Acumen Publishing 2013).