William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and a key orchestrator of protests against Republicans in the Tar Heel State, is a minister. He serves as pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro.
Barber isn’t just a minister who engages in activism on the side. His political rhetoric is thoroughly infused with religious ideas, calls for divine guidance, and Biblical scripture.
This got him into trouble a few days ago. Asked about a photo of religious leaders praying for President Donald Trump in the White House, Barber exploded with indignation. “It is a form of theological malpractice that borders on heresy when you can p-r-a-y for a president and others when they are p-r-e-y, preying on the most vulnerable,” Barber told MSNBC host Joy Reid. “You’re violating the most sacred principles of religion.”
As you might expect, believers reacted to Barber’s outburst with disappointment and disgust. Religious congregations pray all the time for leaders with whom they disagree. They pray that such leaders receive guidance and wisdom.
Christians point to specific passages of the Bible exhorting them to do this. Other faiths have similar teachings. To put the matter bluntly, it is theological malpractice, bordering on heresy, for a Christian minister to urge believers not to pray for someone.
My guess is that Barber spoke before thinking. If you spend enough time in public life, you’ll do that — believe me. His remarks have drawn so much criticism, from across the political spectrum, that I suspect he’ll have to walk them back, at least somewhat, if he wants to continue to communicate with an audience beyond the unhinged fringe.
There is one line of criticism against Barber that I reject, however — that there is something unseemly or even unconstitutional about infusing political rhetoric with religious ideas. Barber isn’t the only one who does it, obviously. Since the 1970s, conservative evangelicals and other believers within the Religious Right have formed an important component of the Republican coalition. Earlier still, people of faith created, led, and sustained America’s civil rights movement.
Yes, there is a Religious Left. It has a long history in our country. If you go back and examine the organization, leadership, and rhetoric of the populist movement of the late 1800s and the progressive movement of the early 1900s, you’ll see lots of explicit references to God, the Bible, and church teachings. The conservatives and liberals (we’d call the latter libertarians today) who opposed the populists and progressives also referenced religious ideas.
You can’t keep religion out of politics any more than you can keep words out of sentences. People choose causes and candidates based on personal values, which arise from their understanding of themselves, the world, and their proper place within it. Most derive at least some of these perceptions from their faith in a higher power. Others, agnostic or atheist, start with different but still metaphysical premises.
In a free society, then, you can’t forbid citizens from casting ballots on the basis of spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof). You can’t forbid, and you shouldn’t shun, those who speak honestly about the source of those beliefs. Some of America’s greatest political rhetoricians — from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan — have employed religious allusions and scripture to argue their points.
What you can’t do in a free society, however, is force people to join or espouse belief in any particular religion. Courts can’t cite scripture as binding legal authority. If you fail to convince a majority of lawmakers to enact a bill on its merits, you can’t compel them to do so by citing the Bible, the Koran, or other religious texts.
It’s bad manners, and poisonous to political discourse, to question other people’s faith just because they disagree with you on an issue. William Barber is learning that now. But it’s also bad manners, and poisonous to discourse, to demand that people set aside their deepest personal convictions and motivations when they engage in politics.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.