Liberal activist clergyman The Rev. William Barber was recently interviewed in New York Magazine about his revival of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign. The stated goal of the campaign is to draw national attention to poor and “low wealth” people as well as possible solutions to overcome the evils of wealth disparity.
The interview clarifies Barber’s intention to influence next year’s presidential election. It’s also another attempt to increase the power, political influence, and credibility of the fledgling Religious Left as a legitimate counter to a more prominent Religious Right.
While reacting to portions of the interview, it should be read at length:
“[T]he campaign intends… to train the nation’s attention on poverty and related issues ahead of the presidential election. That work serves the campaign’s principal goals: to force a more honest conversation about the state of inequality in America, and to make sure that conversation leads to substantive political change.”
What are the specifics with regard to poverty and “related issues” and “substantial political change”? Knowing the modus operandi of the left – both religious and secular – these vague platitudes encourage bigger government through more social welfare programs. Endorsing the status quo hasn’t been an effective antidote for alleviating poverty and doesn’t equip the poor with any practical help. Government redistribution of money to the poor makes the poor comfortable in their poverty. It offers scant realistic tools like soft or hard skills that can be applied to the lives of those who need them most.
Like most Christians, I’m very much in favor of having a “more honest conversation about the state of inequality.” However, part of that “honest conversation” is acknowledging what actually causes poverty and inequality. It also involves addressing how both can be avoided at best, minimized at worst.
According to the Brookings Institution, following a specific, three-step plan – finishing high school, getting and keeping a full-time job, and waiting until at least 21 to get married and then having children – almost guarantees one will avoid poverty. According to Brookings:
“… of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class (defined as earning around $55,000 or more per year)…following [these steps] guides a young adult away from poverty and toward the middle class.”
Government isn’t included in this framework to avoid poverty. I doubt very much that this will be included in Barber’s progressive platform on poverty.
The timing of this revival is questionable. Why didn’t Barber begin this campaign for the poor when poverty and unemployment were much higher under Barack Obama?
When Barber was asked about the importance of his campaign, he responded in part:
[The poor] are ashamed of a country that continues to push policies that create poverty. Poverty is not, for them, something that they have created because of their lack of initiative. You know, we talk about the working poor, as if the rest of poor folk aren’t doing anything. The problem is not a lack of morality, it is a fractured and broken system that tends to lean itself toward the middle-class and the wealthy.
The progressive left – again, secular and religious – love to use vague terms that can mean anything at any time, to anyone. Think of former president Barack Obama’s slogan, “hope and change.” Deliberately vague and ultimately malleable, the meaning and intent can be changed to mean whatever the user wants it to mean, at his or her whim.
The same process works here.
What specific “policies” create poverty? What “broken system” does Barber refer? Predictably, he doesn’t say. I’d like to know from the good Reverend himself what policies he has in mind when making statements like this as well his solutions.
Despite his reluctance to use government data regarding poverty, the U.S. Census Bureau shows the official poverty rate in 2018 was 11.8%, down a half percentage point from the previous year. Should Barber want his audience to take him seriously, he should name the particular policies that have created or contributed to the kind of poverty that only 12 percent of the country is susceptible.
Moreover, to suggest that some poverty isn’t caused by the poor themselves is foolish. Though the Bible has many passages that demonstrate how the poor should be regarded by their neighbor, it also has passages explaining what leads to poverty. Proverbs 20:4;13, Proverbs 21:5 and Proverbs 24:30-34 are just a few verses that describe self-inflicted wounds like laziness, the refusal to work, and the absence of wisdom, among other things, which lead to poverty. To excuse this outright as Barber does here is to disregard scripture. Moreover, it also excuses the behaviors – like drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and the unwillingness to be treated – that have caused many to suffer the consequences of poverty and in many cases, homelessness.
Barber was then asked what the Religious Left has to offer. His answer is… interesting. The ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) clergyman begins his answer saying that he’s “a theologically conservative liberal, Evangelical Pentecostal Biblicist.”
To be honest, I’m not sure what that means or more specifically, how that’s possible. How can he be theologically conservative, and a Biblicist – meaning, he interprets the Bible literally – but self-identify with politics that contradict the Bible, generally, and ignore biblical passages that deal with the moral causes of poverty, specifically?
How can one read the Bible literally to the point of theological conservatism but still support and allow representatives of Planned Parenthood to join his so-called Moral Mondays protests? A theologically conservative Biblicist wouldn’t stand with and endorse an institution that deliberately places almost 80 percent of its abortion facilities in overwhelmingly black neighborhoods and whose founder has significant roots in racial eugenics. A theologically conservative Biblicist wouldn’t read into Jesus’ care and concern for the poor as justification of government welfare in defense of socialism.
That last issue should be a central one.
Progressive Christians adamantly see government-mandated redistribution as the faithful and appropriate response to caring for the poor.
Jesus doesn’t signal caring for the poor through the inefficiency and impersonal vehicle of government. Americans don’t “give” through government; government confiscates through threat of fine and imprisonment. Then with little discrimination, government “distributes” to the deserving and undeserving alike. How is that a Christian fulfilment of our moral and spiritual obligation to care for and love our neighbor?
Ultimately, Barber doesn’t answer the question about the contribution of the Religious Left because he knows as well as I do that the Religious Left has nothing credible to offer that the secular Left hasn’t proposed and tried already.
Please read the article and look at the “Poor People’s” agenda. There’s nothing innovative nor moral about it.
The primary goal of the Religious Left is to assign moral credibility to immoral, ineffective policies – policies that have repeatedly hurt the very people the Left claims to want to help. Barber claims to want an honest conversation regarding poverty and “low-wealth” people.
Based on this interview, it is clear Barber wants anything but.