I'll admit to some snark with the headline, but bear with me.
Despite the editorial caterwauling over any diminishing of the so-called "Johnson Amendment" barring political endorsements from the pulpit, a reporter at The New York Times editors have found a posse of Bible-quoting ministers they can "endorse" with a favorable news story. But you can quickly see which side of the political divide these preachers are on, and that's a journalistic problem.
"Ministers Look to Revive Martin Luther King’s 1968 Poverty Campaign," the headline reads, and it's the kind of feel-good story -- from one perspective, at least -- that newspapers like to report. Here, after all, are a group of clergypersons willing to risk arrest for public protests against a piece of economic legislation, in the nonviolent tradition of the late King.
Read this longish excerpt to get a flavor of the piece:
When 12 religious leaders in collars and vestments were arrested last week in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, they were reading Bible verses about caring for the poor, and doing it so loudly that their voices could be heard at the doors of senators’ office suites nine stories above.
It was to little avail: The Senate went ahead and passed a tax bill early on Saturday, promoted as relief for the middle class, that mainly benefits corporations and the rich — and that many economists say offers little or nothing for the poor.
The middle class and its discontents have occupied so much political and media attention lately that poverty has been crowded out. But some prominent religious leaders are gearing up for a campaign to try to put it back on the nation’s agenda in a way that it hasn’t been in decades.
On [Dec. 4], exactly 50 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his Poor People’s Campaign, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a black minister and civil rights leader from North Carolina, and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, a white theologian originally from Milwaukee, will announce a revival of Dr. King’s campaign, which stalled when he was assassinated in 1968. Organizers now hope to mount large protests on 40 consecutive days next year, in at least 25 state capitals and other locations, with crowds in the tens of thousands courting arrest.
This is not unfamiliar territory for the Times, which ran a laudatory profile of Barber and others the paper described as "religious liberals" six months earlier. Oh, is that political liberalism or is it doctrinal liberalism? I guess that really doesn't matter.
Well, that's the same journalistic issue I have here: Is there anyone -- anyone at all -- in the Christian world who might take issue with some of the economic points raised by Barber, Theoharis and others? There's little doubt that there is a "progressive" wing in American Christianity, and, as the Times notes here, Barber and Company hope to find their voice:
They are aiming to redefine what constitutes a “moral agenda” in politics. Many on the right frame it in narrow terms of opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. By contrast, the poor people’s campaign’s sprawling agenda includes issues like wages, health care, immigrant rights, gay and transgender rights, criminal justice reform, and clean water and air.
Valerie Jean Blakely, a mother of five in Detroit, became a local organizer after protesting shut-offs of water service in her neighborhood in 2014. Her husband lost a factory job after the 2008 crash, she said, and now the couple make less than $20,000 a year, she said.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for, this kind of mass mobilization,” Ms. Blakely said in a telephone interview. “I don’t have any faith in Democrats or Republicans.”
But is that the only stream of thought in Christian circles? Are there Catholics, Protestants, evangelicals even, who might view economic issues from a different perspective, even when it comes to fighting poverty?
The answer, of course, is yes. The Rev. Robert A. Sirico of the Acton Institute, immediately springs to mind. World magazine editor Marvin Olasky, who frequently writes about economic issues, is another potential source. I'm guessing an enterprising reporter could find other informed voices to comment.
The point is not to set up a point/counterpoint debate, but rather to bring perspective to the story. The Times report is long on praise for Barber and his acolytes, but short on critical analysis.
One doubts such opposing voices would be absent from a profile of a politically conservative pastor or faith-based leader, when talking about issues of economics. Imagine a one-sided profile of an evangelical leading a campaign to support a Donald Trump project.
Just give us a little context, won't you, dear New York Times? There's generally more than one side to a story, and the near-hagiography for Barber and his compatriots doesn't help readers grasp those sides.
FIRST IMAGE: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other faith leaders at the March on Washington, 1963. National Archives photo via Wikimedia Commons.