While a broader coalition of supporters is building around the “Moral Mondays” started by the state chapter of the NAACP, the inspiration behind the protests is a throwback to the biblical message of civil rights leaders fighting segregation in the Jim Crow era.
They argue that cutting benefit programs and cutting tax breaks for low- and middle-income families violates Jesus Christ’s teaching to care for those with the least. It’s running into another school of Christian thought followed by many Southern conservatives: The best way to help the poor is through private charity, providing jobs and promoting self-reliance, rather than government programs.
The NAACP, and other groups that are joining them in larger numbers, oppose a range of Republican policies, from refusing to expand Medicaid to about 500,000 more people to restricting eligibility for the state’s pre-kindergarten program. Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in more than a century, have also cut unemployment benefits and abolished the earned-income tax credit, which serves low to middle-income people.
State bishops and church leaders from five major Christian denominations issued a statement supporting the NAACP’s actions ahead of a clergy-led protest on Monday.
Robert Daniels, senior pastor at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, said Monday that he chose to get arrested to let legislators know that disproportionately hurting the poor wouldn’t go unnoticed by voters or God.
“I want them to know that justice will win,” he said. “God will show his hand that he’s for the poor. It’s only a matter of time.”
On Wednesday, eight more people were arrested outside the doors of the Senate chamber after being told to leave. Two were city council members from Durham and Rocky Mount. They were among 100 people who attended a rally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the killing of national NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers.
Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University who writes about the intersection of religion and politics, said differences in responses to poverty historically come down to denomination. Roman Catholics and black Protestants don’t oppose public solutions, but Protestants of evangelical or Baptist leanings often do. And those denominations — heavily clustered in the South — emphasize personal responsibility, an individual relationship with God and work ethic, he said.
“A lot of studies show that evangelicals give more money to private anti-poverty groups than any others, so they do take very seriously the biblical imperatives to help the poor, but they differ in that they see the biblical imperative to help the poor as being an individual imperative as opposed to a collective social imperative,” Wilson said.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he sees Christians as similarly concerned with prosperity for all, but divided over how to bring it about.
“Obviously there will always be those who have no concern for the poor at all, and that’s clearly forbidden by Scripture, but usually the differences we have are over unintended consequences,” he said. “And so Democrats and Republicans will disagree on what policy objectives will actually help the poor and what will put into place patterns that will, in the long-term, harm poor people.
The protests are dominating local news coverage and attracting national attention, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be immediately effective. Republicans maintain that they’re doing exactly what the public wanted in electing them to veto-proof majorities and the protesters don’t represent a clear majority. But the NAACP plans to continue its weekly protests indefinitely.
While some Republicans hesitate to apply biblical lessons to fiscal programs, that hasn’t stopped a raft of legislation on private social behavior. In recent years, North Carolina lawmakers have pushed through a constitutional amendment for voters to ban gay marriage and new restrictions on abortion.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg and a long-practicing Christian, said social legislation as well as economic policy are inevitably driven by worldviews, and among people of faith those perspectives are influenced by their religious beliefs. She said she and her family act charitably in private, but she thinks the best economic policies rein in spending and create a better climate for businesses.
“If we’re spending money on this thing, we’re taking it from somewhere else, but we can’t do it at the cost of the ability of the person paying for the taxes to still have enough to provide for their own families and to create that environment for jobs,” she said.
To other Christians, the Bible calls for reforms that more directly address systems of inequality.
Miguel De La Torre, a professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology and an ordained Southern Baptist minister, said he sees the NAACP’s efforts akin to the Occupy movement but with more of a moral current. The one-time Republican candidate for the Florida House of Representatives said the more evangelical strain of Protestantism is tied to the American ideal of individualism, which he believes misses a clear biblical call to address economic strife.
“Having faith without the work of changing the structures is meaningless, which is where I think the NAACP is opposed to the more dominant evangelical view of Christianity,” he said.
The state NAACP chapter president, the Rev. William Barber, argues it’s impossible to divorce a call for collective social justice from the Bible, given that most of it was written under systems of exploitation and Christ focused so heavily on uplifting the poor.
“The problem with (private initiative) is, if you see a kid floating down the river, you can run in and rescue that one child. But if you see a bunch more, you have to go up that river to see who’s throwing them in,” he said. “If we didn’t apply that moral critique we wouldn’t have hospitals, public schools, universities, Medicaid, Medicare, unemployment (benefits), even labor laws.”