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Watch: Where faith-based outreach meets progressive movements
The role of faith organizing in progressive movement building. Anoa speaks with Reverend Billy Michael Honor, a Georgia Faith Organizer and Public Scholar, and Tiffany Roberts, Community Engagement & Movement Building Counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights. Rev. Honor is a public scholar and civic organizer, whose progressive and compelling insights have made him a sought-after speaker and social commentator. He currently serves as a Georgia-based faith organizer mobilizing religious communities to break the chains of injustice through organized civic engagement. As a community organizer and attorney with over a decade of experience, Roberts co-founded the police accountability organization Building Locally to Organize for Community Safety (BLOCS) in 2008 to promote a holistic approach to public safety. She is also chair of her church's social justice ministry, working to build bridges between grassroots social justice organizations, the legal community, and faith-based institutions.
Read: Debunking the myth of the Conservative Christian Southern Voter
The media's first reference to the South as the "Bible Belt" was by a journalist covering the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes was a case about a high school teacher accused of teaching lessons that went against Biblical Creationism, violating the state's education laws.
H.L. Mencken used the descriptor in The Baltimore Herald to poke fun at the fundamentalist Christianity that marked the rural town that held the trial and the ideology's apparent hold on the community. While the moniker was born out of satire, the sentiment behind the phrase "Bible Belt" has shaped coverage of Christianity in the South in the news ever since—especially about politics.
The archetype of the Southern Christian voter is conservative, fundamentalist, capitalistic, and nationalistic. But an examination of both history and modern action tell a different tale than that of the typical white-centered purview of the region's coverage over time.
Though history books tend to create distance between the two worlds, political activism has remained a constant companion for many Southern Christians since well before the Civil Rights movement. The origins of the Abolitionist movement sprouted from the church. This is also true for the most famous and violent slave rebellions.
"Such is the fate of much of the activism of the so-called religious left: if it is successful, it is subsumed by broader causes and coalitions; if it fails, it is forgotten," Casey Cep wrote in July for The New Yorker. "For all the opprobrium directed at the religious right, the activism of religious leftists suffers a different fate, alternately ignored and fetishized, trotted out every election cycle with a tone befitting the Second Coming: always just about to happen."
Cep is referring to Bree Newsome Bass' courageous climb to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina's capital building in 2015. Newsome Bass, the daughter of a Baptist preacher, spoke Bible verses aloud as she climbed toward the flag, and declared upon its removal, "In the name of Jesus, this flag will come down." But most media outlets—left, right, and moderate—stripped the driving force behind Newsome bass' fateful climb from it's telling.
Lilly Knoepp, a reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio and a graduate from the University of North Carolina in Political Science and Religious Studies, blames denial over the religiosity of the United States as a whole for why the ever-present Christian Left is often excluded from the mainstream narrative—and for the treatment of the South's strange brew of Christianity and politic as outside the norm.
"I think nationwide if you look at who is in office," she explained, "most of those people identify somewhere on the spectrum of Christianity, or at least along some sort of religious spectrum. We're a bit more open about religion here in the South. But I think the way that Christianity works within politics and how religion moves in the country exists across the whole United States."
See also: To prevent abhorrent state-run voter suppression and police brutality, look to local action beyond election years
According to the Pew Research Center, the words "God" or "the Divine" are mentioned in every state's Constitution, and currently 88 percent of Congress members identify as Christian.
From the Sanctuary to the Streets
Addressing both legacy media's tendency to ignore the Christian roots of most progressive movements and the large capacity for Southerners to hold both faith and politics in tension, it is easier to notice the power from the Christian Left that begins in the South.
Two years before Newsome Bass liberated South Carolina's capital building from the Rebel Flag, Rev. William Barber II sought to liberate North Carolina from the draconian rule of it's GOP supermajority.
In the face of restrictive voting laws, fracking, cutting unemployment benefits, refusing to expand Medicaid, and repealing the Racial Justice Act, Rev. Barber—then President of the North Carolina NAACP and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church—and other progressive religious leaders across the state declared a state of moral emergency.
On April 29, 2013, Rev. Barber released a statement preceding the first Moral Monday protest. It began with the first three paragraphs of North Carolina's Constitution, which states that all people are created equal, how certain inalienable rights, and that North Carolina's political power rests in the hands of its citizens.
He then quoted a Bible verse, Micah 6:8, "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." These words guided the marching feet of the protesters who descended upon the North Carolina Legislative Building that day and into the following year, and inspired the organization of Moral Monday marches in Georgia, South Carolina, and other states across the country.
See also: With the Poor People's Campaign, Southern progressives aim to reclaim "morality" from the Right
The language Rev. Barber used in his statement and throughout his organizing work is at once emblematic of his faith and his Southern heritage.
While covering the Moral Monday marches as a student at UNC, Knoepp remembers hearing organizers and protesters referring to "The last, the least, and the lost," which refers to three Bible verses in the New Testament Gospels:
The Last: "So the last will be first, and the first will be last." Matthew 20:16, NIV
The Least: "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'" Matthew 25:40, NIV
The Lost: "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" Matthew 18:11, NIV
The work of other progressive Christian organizations is not limited to taking to the streets, but it is no less fueled by their faith. The NC Sanctuary Coalition was started by the 80-year-old NC Council of Churches in 2018 to respond to the surge in deportations of North Carolina immigrants after Trump's executive order to increase the partnerships between sheriff's offices and ICE under section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. A loophole that forbade ICE agents from entering places of worship allowed the group to give sanctuary within their churches.
"It is crucial that people of faith respond to the immigration crisis by offering advocacy and welcome in the face of rising anti-immigrant sentiment," Rachel Baker, who coordinates the Council's Immigration Advocacy Program wrote in an op-ed for The Daily Tar Heel last year. "Religious communities find in our scriptures traditions which call us to welcome the stranger, promote hospitality and seek justice."
On November 2, the first day of Early voting for Alamance county, Rev. Gregory Drumwright of The Citadel Church in Greensboro, North Carolina took to the streets of Graham with hundreds of protestors to lift up the importance of voting to the fight for Black lives. With the demonstration ending in an intense display of police force, the story made national headlines. Yet, as with Newsome Bass' demonstration, the role of religion in the "I Am Change" march on Graham was given little attention in major media outlets.
"Having that desire to spread the Gospel message is part of their service," Knoepp said. "Whereas other branches of Christianity might have less of a focus on spreading the word of God, or evangelizing, through their service. I think that can be one of the differences between different parts of Christianity and people who are part of these communities."
While the narrative of the religious Right and the nonreligious Left are often spouted on the national stage as a single-issue voting bloc, the reality is much more complex.
"It's hard to make sense of the data that is collected about religious voters," Knoepp said about the most recent Pew Research polls. After engaging just 4,000 voters, they found that 6 in 10 believe churches or other houses of worship should stay out of politics, but about half of Americans believe that the Bible should at least somewhat influence our laws.
"But the important question that isn't being asked is what churches feel this way and what their values are."
Like every other identity, Christians are not a monolith. As reporters and journalists across the country, and the South, begin to unbuckle the "Bible Belt" stereotypes—and embrace the religiosity of the entire country—the actions of the Christian Right can be decentered and those of the Christian Left can be seen in the fullness of their intent, an expression of their faith.