Rev. Dr. William Barber II, the leader of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina gave a rousing, perhaps historic keynote speech at Netroots Nation. Part of what makes it so remarkable is that he was featured at all -- and in that sense it may be a turning point for the liberal/left and the Democratic Party.
It was not so long ago that a pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ rights religious leader who favors separation of church & state would not have been given such a platform, let alone the many lesser platforms from which they were quietly excluded. Indeed, a few years ago, many of the 22 authors of a book I edited, Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America, were marginalized because of their approaches to social justice. In fact, the book was published partly in response to what I called at the time, creeping Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party. I told one contributor who had experienced marginalization that I was offering a platform.
This marginalization was of a piece with a certain mad pursuit of, and pandering to white evangelicals and anti-abortion Catholics who were deemed to be "gettable" by elements of the Democratic Party. Those elements were willing to downplay or negotiate away the civil and human rights of others (see here and here, for example). Some went to far as to try to silence religious progressives who disagreed.
Those were extraordinary times. But this is a new day -- or at least I would like to think that it is. I would also like to think that the emergence of Barber as a national figure signals a trend. Time will tell.
David Dayen reported at Salon that while Vice President Joe Biden (who ran late because of the Ukraine crisis) got more attention and spoke to a full house -- Barber got bumped to 9 PM on Thursday night of the conference and spoke to a half empty room.
Nevertheless, according to Dayen, Barber stole the show.
Dayen observed that Netroots Nation had evolved over the years "from the passion of activism to something like a trade show for the Professional Left. Organizations," he reported "dominate the space and a number of the panels, and networking often takes precedence over idea formation. But the embers of hardcore activism do remain at a conference big enough to encompass a variety of perspectives."
Barber, a member of the mainline Protestant denomination, Disciples of Christ, is also the leader of the state NAACP.
Dayen who offered the only detailed reporting on Barber's speech that I've seen summarized some of his points:
Every time a moral fusion movement sought great changes among the populace, Barber explained, they invited a backlash, from extremists wanting to deconstruct this moral foundation. The way to deal with them was not through rational compromise or horse trading. Barber stated firmly that they need to be fought, that a movement must grow and bear witness to the most basic rights of citizenship, and show America the "higher ground."
Though too few bore witness to Barber's remarks - and nary a soul in the press - they encapsulated the other spirit of the netroots, not of an interest group subject to ingratiation by ambitious politicians but of outsiders, armed only with their moral convictions, using the tools they have to fight for change. Between Joe Biden's paean to consensus and Rev. Barber's plea for moral reconstruction, I know what I'd choose.
I agree. And having listened carefully to Barber's keynote speech, I plan to do a series of posts about it -- and what it means for writing, thinking, and acting in response to the Religious Right.