For the first time since Reconstruction, North Carolina Republicans control both state houses and the governorship. Governor Pat McCrory has taken advantage of his party’s control over the legislative process to push for lower corporate taxes, a higher sales tax, and cuts to unemployment benefits, healthcare funding, and education. In response, liberal Christian leaders in the state have begun what they call “Moral Monday,” a weekly protest in Raleigh to protest the new, rightward tilt of the state government.
This past “Moral Monday,” Duke University held an online discussion with Duke professors who supported the protest. The 45-minute discussion (which can be watched here) raises serious questions not just on how moral “Moral Monday” really is, but also what sort of religious education those attending the United Methodist-supported Duke Divinity School are receiving.
One of the first red flags came about eight minutes in, when professor emeritus of history William Chafe claimed he was concerned about “the denial of women to control their reproductive process.” Yep, one of the issues that have protesters so riled up is abortion. Not the fact that 1 in 6 pregnancies in North Carolina ends in an abortion, but the fact that North Carolina is taking steps to lower abortion rates by informing middle schoolers of the risk. Every Christian protester on Moral Monday marches alongside Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice, and a pro-choice North Carolina PAC called Lillian’s List.
Another participant in the discussion was Dr. Willie Jennings, associate professor at Duke Divinity School and an ordained Baptist minister. Jennings went a step beyond the average protester and went to Moral Monday with the explicit goal of being arrested. If that sounds like speculation, it isn’t: Jennings recently wrote an editorial in which he admits he planned his arrest weeks in advance. “An inescapable fact hit me” Jennings wrote, “I must get arrested.”[Emphasis in the original] He goes on to claim that “Real preaching and authentic teaching is inextricably bound to real criminality.”
Another professor at Duke Divinity School, Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, joined in the discussion. Like Jennings, he had been arrested at the Moral Monday protest for refusing to obey a police officer’s instruction. Speaking on the webcast, Turner said that being arrested was his way of “bearing witness.” Otherwise, a “radical Republican agenda” would be seen to reflect North Carolina’s moral sensibilities.
Although the Duke panel consisted entirely of professors who supported Moral Monday, James Todd of Duke News did read for Turner a critical quote by Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, saying that the Moral Monday pastors “take certain passages of scripture about dealing with the poor and the needy that are meant to address individual responsibility, and apply them to the government.”
Turner responded that he took “strong exception to any insertion of a category like ‘individual.’ It simply has no place in Christian scriptures, whether it’s Old [Testement] or New.”
Turner went on to compare Creech’s support of personal charity to historical defences of slavery. “Some of the strongest defences of slavery came from theologians and pastors who read the Bible. But the way they read it [was] in a way as to privilege one socioeconomic or ethnic group … The insertion of this category of individual repeats an older trope that was articulated very clearly during the slavery debate and the abolitionist debate.”
Setting aside how unfair and offensive it is to compare conservative Christians to supporters of slavery, Turner’s assertion that there is no textual support for preferring personal charity in the Bible is baffling. Consistently throughout the Scriptures, giving to the poor and caring for the needy is depicted as a form of personal charity. The very idea that the state should be the primary caretaker of the despondent is fairly new in the course of secular thought, let alone Christian thought.
If the viewpoints expressed by the Duke Divinity professors are typical of Moral Monday participants, it casts serious doubt on their claim to a moral high ground. The moral path is not to intentionally provoke law enforcement when perfectly legal forms of protest are readily available. The moral path is not to picket alongside organizations known primarily for their rabid support of unrestricted abortion-on-demand. And the moral path is not to sacrifice the virtues of individual charity at the altar of government welfare. All indications are that Moral Monday is a purely political protest at its heart, with only the veneers of morality.