Member-supported,
grassroots media.

Uplifting Black, Brown, and queer voices across the South—no matter who's in office.

On an 84-degree day in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Rev. Dr. William Barber is addressing about 100 activists gathered across the street from the North Carolina State Legislature. He stands on a stage in front of a tent erected for rain, but the rain has eased for the moment.

Barber is wearing a shawl with the inscription "Jesus was a poor man." He gives a speech that touches on tax cuts for the wealthy, voter suppression, lack of healthcare, and other social justice issues. In typical preacher fashion, Rev. Barber tells the crowd he's just about done, but he's far from done. The reverend raises his volume to a shout as he reaches his crescendo.

"This Legislature behind us has done more to pass laws so people can have more access to guns than they've done to pass healthcare and living wages and to ban assault weapons," he says. "That is wrong and that is immoral and that's why we can't be silent anymore!"

The sun is beaming down now, and the audience is whooping and hollering and amening.

"There's a scripture that I wish could be read to every politician, to the president, to [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions – 'cause they claim they believe, you know, they claim they believe – but maybe they haven't read that one that said it would be better for somebody to tie a stone around their neck and to be thrown into the ocean than to offend and hurt these little ones!"

A spontaneous chant of "We love you, Reverend Barber" breaks out as he leaves the stage.

The May 29 protest was one of 37 similar events held around the country that day by the Poor People's Campaign, a two-year-old nationwide movement. The protests are part of a new phase of intensity for the campaign. As a press release described it, the nationwide rallies, which began May 13, are part of "a six-week season of direct action demanding new programs to fight systemic poverty and racism, immediate attention to ecological devastation and measures to curb militarism and the war economy." While Barber led a demonstration in Raleigh, dozens of people were arrested in a direct action at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office, demanding more money for veterans services and education.

Rev. William Barber addresses a crowd of about 100 people at a protest rally March 29across the street from the North Carolina Legislature. Credit: Phil Fonville, Poor People's Campaign

Rev. Barber has received nationwide attention since starting "Moral Mondays" at the North Carolina State Legislature in 2013. He electrified delegates at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 with a speech that laid out a moral imperative for fighting for social justice.

When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference created the first Poor People's Campaign in 1968, Christianity went hand in hand with progressive Black organizing. In recent years, the face of politically organized Christianity in the U.S. has appeared as mainly conservative and white. Moral Mondays and the revived Poor People's Campaign are part of a larger effort on the part of the Left to reclaim the rhetoric of Christian morality, a movement that's being led from the South.

A new "Southern Strategy"

The battle for higher moral ground between conservative and progressive Christians has been going on for decades, and conservatives seem to be winning. About four out of five voters who describe themselves as white evangelical Christians voted for Trump in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. White evangelicals made up half of the protestant voters in the 2016 electorate.

But progressive Christians have not given up. With midterm elections just around the corner, they have ramped up their efforts. Three things progressive Christians seem to agree on: Trump's moral character (or lack thereof) has elevated the importance of winning over evangelicals to their side, it's not an easy fight but it's winnable, and the battle will not be not won unless they make serious gains in the South.

Christian progressives tend to insist that their movement is not partisan and rather aims for moral truisms that transcend political parties. They are trying to avoid the trap of conservative evangelicals who, they feel, have become too closely associated with Republicans.

But progressive Christians are also trying to elect progressive candidates. Ironically, the strategy is sort of a reversal of the Southern Strategy, first employed by Richard Nixon, to put conservatives in power, according to Rev. Barber, who co-chairs the Poor People's Campaign.

"You cannot change this country without fundamentally changing the South," he said in an interview with Scalawag. "You register 30 percent of unregistered Black voters, build a coalition with progressive whites and Latinos, and you can change five or six Southern states right now, from North Carolina to Florida to Texas to Virginia and possibly Tennessee. You change three of those states and you've changed the political map."

Three things progressive Christians seem to agree on: Trump's moral character (or lack thereof) has elevated the importance of winning over evangelicals to their side, it's not an easy fight but it's winnable, and the battle will not be not won unless they make serious gains in the South.

"The Southern Strategy put in place in '68 was designed to split black and white and brown voters from each other," Rev. Barber said. "It was designed to have a 50-year life span. This is the 50th year. The demographics have shifted."

One of the reasons Poor People's Campaign is holding its protests at state capitols around the country, he said, is to focus on the importance of State Legislatures, which have crucial powers—like setting election districts.

Participants at the rally held a variety of signs, many home-made, addressing such issues as unfair treatment of the poor, excessive military spending, destruction of the environment, and harsh treatment of immigrants. Credit: Phil Fonville, Poor People's Campaign

Progressive Christians believe they have strength in numbers, even in the South. Faith in Public Life, a Washington, D.C.-based group that aims to change the narrative about the role of faith in public life, has mounted a full-scale effort in conservative strongholds.

"We're building these broad-based coalitions," said Rev. Jennifer Butler, the group's CEO. "… We're making sure that African-American churches get heard, that synagogues get heard, that some of the more progressive mainline Protestant churches get heard. I think the vision that we have is inclusive, persuasive and revolutionary really."

Rev. Butler says the coalition works with thousands of religious leaders in North Carolina and Georgia alone. "I think the Christian Right has hoodwinked a lot of people into thinking that their view of faith is the Christian way, and it's just not," she said.

Evangelical identity contested

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is associate minister at St. John's Baptist Church, in Durham, North Carolina, a historically Black church that he said "welcomes whites with open arms." It is a "Black, white and brown" church, he said. It is also a sanctuary church.

Wilson-Hartgrove describes himself as "a person who was taught to imagine myself white." A thin, 6-foot-6-inch bearded man who towers over the crowd, he stood at the side of a recent rally in Raleigh listening to the speakers. Wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a cleric's collar, dress pants and gym shoes, he occasionally encouraged the speakers: "Tell the truth," "That's right," and (when a rabbi was speaking) "Preach it Rabbi!"

Wilson-Hartgrove is on the steering committee of the Poor People's Campaign in North Carolina and is part of the push to reclaim evangelical identity.

"The evangelical label has been identified with the extreme right, but young people are not identifying themselves with that label," he said. "I do think there's a real movement of people who understand that this is a moral issue and are forming new types of coalitions around a different agenda."

Wilson-Hartgrove has it exactly right, according to public opinion polls. A survey released in April by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 75 percent of white evangelicals still have a favorable opinion of Trump, even after revelations that he paid a stripper hush money to keep quiet about an affair. But the same polling firm also found that Trump has apparently tainted the evangelical brand, especially among young people. The survey showed that white Christian evangelicals declined from 23 percent of the U.S. population in 2006 to 17 percent by 2017. And only 8 percent of adults aged 18 to 29 are white evangelical Christians.

Love' Lemon, one of the quad-chairs of the NC Poor People's Campaign. Credit: Phil Fonville, Poor People's Campaign

Wilson-Hartgrove is the co-author – along with Rev. Barber – of The Third Reconstruction. That 2016 book lays out the thesis that the First Reconstruction was right after the Civil War, when Union soldiers occupied the South and ensured the safety of newly freed slaves. The Second Reconstruction was during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. These first two Reconstruction eras were fought in the South because that's where the enemy was, and so must the Third Reconstruction focus on the South, Wilson-Hartgrove said, because the fight for the soul of Christianity is essentially a struggle against ideas that rose from the South and remain entrenched here.

"The evangelical label has been identified with the extreme right, but young people are not identifying themselves with that label," he said. "I do think there's a real movement of people who understand that this is a moral issue and are forming new types of coalitions around a different agenda."

The battle today, Wilson-Hartgrove said, "is not just about the South, but I do think that it needs to take the fundamental problem of the South seriously, which is that our nation's moral crisis has been the compromise that was made with the Southern slaveholding states from the very beginning."

The Christianity of white evangelicals, Wilson-Hartgrove said, has been co-opted by economic forces. Many years ago, it was slave owners who put their minds together and came up with a brand of Christianity that allowed them to hold on to their slaves without offending Jesus. Today, Wilson-Hartgrove believes that evangelicals are carrying water for big business interests.

The alliance between white evangelicals and big business has a decades-long history. When Paul Weyrich died in 2008, the headline on the obituary in The New York Times eulogized him as "the architect of the conservative movement of the last part of the 20th century." The Los Angeles Times called him a "blunt-tongued cultural warrior who helped to engineer the union between the Republican Party and the Christian Right."

The late 70s and early 80s were formative years for the Religious Right, and Weyrich was in the thick of it. In 1979, he was heavily involved in rallying opposition to attempts by the Carter Administration to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of racially discriminatory policies. Weyrich himself described that battle as a seminal event for the Religious Right, says Columbia University religion professor Randall Ballmer. Ballmer, in his 20067 book, Thy Kingdom Come: How The Religious Right Distorts Faith And Threatens America, writes that he attended a conference of the Religious Right in 1990 with Weyrich. Weyrich spoke about the history of the Religious Right movement at the conference, and described the Bob Jones University controversy as the event that "got us going."

What came out of Weyrich's era is an unholy alliance, progressives say: Big business wants government regulators off their backs and needs voters to support their agenda, and the Religious Right needs the financial support of corporate interests.

"The Christian Right in the 1980s was funded by corporations to build a massive infrastructure to sway Christians politically, particularly white Christians," Rev. Butler said. "And they used racism and white supremacy to do that, particularly involving segregation issues and Southern schools."

This link between corporate power, white supremacy, and evangelical Christianity forms a powerful coalition that the Left is trying to upend with coalitions of its own.

Abortion and gay rights as wedges

No one believes this is an easy fight. David Swartz, who teaches history at Asbury University in Kentucky and is the author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, believes that Trump's victory in some ways slowed this momentum.

"In 2012 it looked like the evangelical Left could be on the rise," Swartz said. "A lot of them voted for Obama, particularly youth. It looked like evangelicals might actually make a difference on the left, but when everyone heard about that 81 percent [of white evangelicals] who voted for Trump, it just made the evangelical left seem minute and insignificant"

Scalawag contacted several representatives of the Christian Right in the South for this article; all declined to be interviewed.

But the Christian Right has hardly been quiet on the matter. Chelsen Vicari, for example, wrote in a recent article in Charisma Magazine, that Christian progressives are "twisting the gospel."

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a minister from Durham, N.C., who is a leader in the North Carolina Poor People's Campaign, speaks with a fellow protester at the May 29 rally. Credit: Phil Fonville, Poor People's Campaign

Vicari is evangelical program director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington-D.C.-based organization dedicated to "working to reaffirm the church's biblical and historical teachings, strengthen and reform its role in public life, protect religious freedom, and renew democracy at home and abroad," according to its website. Vicari also wrote a book titled Distortion: How the Christian Left Is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith, published in 2014.

Moral Mondays and the revived Poor People's Campaign are part of a larger effort on the part of the Left to reclaim the rhetoric of Christian morality, a movement that's being led from the South

In the article in Charisma magazine, Vicari wrote: "Popular liberal evangelical writers and preachers tell young evangelicals that if they accept abortion and same-sex marriage, then the media, academia and Hollywood will finally accept Christians. Out of fear of being falsely dubbed 'intolerant' or 'uncompassionate,' many young Christians are buying into theological falsehoods. Instead of standing up as a voice for the innocent unborn or marriage as God intended, millennials are forgoing the authority of Scripture and embracing a couch potato, cafeteria-style Christianity, all in the name of tolerance."

Vicari hits upon two of the biggest obstacles Christian progressives have in winning over conservative evangelicals – homosexuality and abortion.

Progressive Christians say they are winning over people from the middle and the right on LBGT issues. Abortion may be the biggest stumbling block, said Swartz.

"A lot of the evangelicals have the potential to move leftward but abortion is keeping them from moving in that direction," he said.

It might take a little compromise on the way Christian progressives deal with abortion to win over evangelicals, Swartz feels.

"Democrats have moved left on abortion," Swartz said. "Their position used to be 'safe, legal and rare.' That was the standard Democratic line. Now, it's almost impossible to be pro-life and Democratic."

Christian progressives will not win over every evangelical, but that's also not the goal, said Butler of Faith in Public Life. Asked what success would look like for her, she responded: "I guess in my dream world it would be that when people hear, 'What does the Christian community think?' they don't think of the Christian Right, they think of people like Reverend Barber."

Dan Holly

Dan Holly spent 25 years as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers around the country, most recently at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. He also spent time as a press secretary for a Member of Congress and presidential campaign aide. Currently he is the Media & Communications Department Chair at Saint Augustine’s University and a freelance writer.