For Timothy Tyson, Moral Monday demonstrations in Raleigh followed a sort of ritual. Protesters sang hymns and listened to preachers quote the Bible and bless the volunteers who marched off to arrest.
“I just looked at it and said, ‘This is kind of a church,’ ” Tyson recalls. “Our rallies had a liturgy to them like a church service.”
Moral Monday, the North Carolina protest movement that comes to Charlotte on Monday afternoon, was organized to counter the policies of the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
The protests, which have received national attention, are not only grounded in religion but expanding their reach into churches. Organizers say they seek to reclaim the language of political morality.
“We are no longer going to let the so-called religious right define the moral discourse in the public square,” the Rev. William Barber II, president of the state NAACP, said at a news conference in Charlotte last week.
More than 900 people were arrested at Moral Mondays in Raleigh. More than 5,000 demonstrated this month in Asheville.
Protesters from the Charlotte area are to gather in Marshall Park at 5 p.m. Elsewhere in the state, similar protests are scheduled Monday in the Yancey County town of Burnsville and in coastal Manteo.
The movement has brought together critics of GOP actions on education, voting rights and unemployment. But its religious focus echoes the early days of the civil rights struggle, some say.
“It harkens back to an era, most recently in the ’50s and ’60s, when you saw the clergy and the church at the forefront at the movement for civil rights,” said Kerry Haynie, a political scientist at Duke University. “That’s what the attempt is here, too, to rekindle that spirit and that movement.”
The Rev. Rodney Sadler, a professor at Charlotte’s Union Presbyterian Seminary, called Moral Monday “a moral movement based on Scripture.”
“We need to frame this not just as a political issue but a moral issue,” he said at last week’s Moral Monday news conference. “We are truly fighting for the soul of North Carolina.”
‘Change the conversation’
Sadler helped produce an 18-page “lectionary” he plans to distribute to about 1,000 clergy members of various denominations and creeds. It offers Scriptural-based responses to current issues – a sort of talking points memo for Sunday sermons.
One part, for example, quotes Jesus from Matthew 25: “Just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family,” it reads, “you did it to me.”
“If there is one biblical passage that speaks to the plethora of problems produced by the (General Assembly’s) recent legislation, it is this,” the lectionary says.
In reaching into churches, the liberal protest movement is taking a page from conservatives.
“It’s interesting to see the left emulate the right,” says David Morgan, chair of Duke’s Religion Department. “They’ve facilitated this movement from rhetoric to political action, and I think that’s what the left is learning now…
“They’ve got to take Christianity out of the hands of the right and put it in the hands of the left … since Christianity and the Republican Party have been so closely associated since the Jerry Falwell days. They’re trying to change the conversation.”
Falwell was the minister who started the Moral Majority in 1979. Like later groups, such as the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council, it sought to galvanize conservative voters around Christian principles.
Last year in North Carolina, conservative churches were a big force behind the passage of Amendment One, the measure that bans gay marriage.
Different ways of interpretation
A leader of the effort to pass the amendment was the Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church and president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. He’s also a possible Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Without discussing Moral Monday directly, he says there are different ways to interpret the Bible.
“It’s important for folks to understand that there are times when people take positions and … go try to find a Bible verse to back up what they want to believe,” he says. “Then there’s biblical scholarship … that develops interpretation from the text itself.…
“Are they promoting an agenda utilizing Scripture to back up their thoughts? Or are they (letting) the truth flow out of the Scriptures themselves?”
Barber argues that issues such as abortion and gay marriage aren’t the only ones with a moral dimension. He made that point to reporters.
“If an issue comes up like abortion, you all will call a preacher,” he said. “If an issue comes up on the budget, you’ll call an economist. The budget is a moral issue.”
Tyson, a visiting professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke Divinity School, says the Moral Monday movement has become its own sort of congregation.
“We don’t have dogma,” he says. “It’s about a common understanding of the dignity of human personality and the equality of all humanity.”
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