Two of the biggest preachers of the American progressive movement took to the Duke Chapel Thursday night, but this was no rosy sermon.
Exactly three months after originally scheduled, Bernie Sanders and William Barber II spoke at Duke and argued that the United States isn't doing nearly enough to promote economic equality.
“A moral economy is one that says, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, all of our people should be able to live with dignity and security,” said Sanders, the longest serving independent in congressional history and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate.
Barber, a reverend who graduated from Duke Divinity School and formerly led the North Carolina NAACP, agreed with Sanders, noting that for a nation that claims to hold deeply religious values, the United States neglects to properly care for its less fortunate. He quoted the North Carolina Constitution, the U.S. Constitution and the teachings of Jesus to reinforce the point that elected officials put their hands on the Bible and swear an oath to defend the Constitution.
“We have to change our domestic policy agenda or stop lying,” Barber, who now runs the non-profit Repairers of the Breach, proclaimed. “We can’t have it both ways!”
The event, entitled "The Enduring Challenge of a Moral Economy," honored the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Perhaps it was fitting then that the talk took place in April, suggested panel moderator and Dean of the Chapel Luke Powery—King was assassinated fifty Aprils ago. Both speakers spoke reverently about King's achievements, remarking that he not only fought for desegregation but also the end of poverty, or a moral economy.
Sanders echoed many of the issues he raised on the campaign trail—the minimum wage is too low, there are too many people live without healthcare, America spends too much money on its military and there is too much money in politics. He called Congressmen “way, way, way out of touch” because they are “listening to wealthy campaign contributors and not to their constituents.”
Barber took Sanders’s point even further, denouncing the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in "Citizens United v. FEC" that allowed corporations to spend unlimited funds for political campaigns, while also mocking the media’s sensationalist habits.
"Every night on CNN we talk about Stormy [Daniels], every night,” he said. “The most pornographic thing that has happened in America was the illicit relationship between the Supreme Court and big business that produced Citizens United.”
At the same time, however, both men possessed plenty of hope that real change is forthcoming. Sanders said repeatedly that the vast majority of Americans support progressive reforms in healthcare, immigration, taxation and the criminal justice system—they just have to be brought together. He referenced King’s work to alleviate poverty for all people as a model.
"In the last months of his life, what he was talking about was the need to bring low income blacks and whites and Latinos and Native Americans and Asian Americans together to change the national priorities of this country,” Sanders said.
Sanders also mentioned young people's enthusiasm for standing up for justice, as did Barber. The reverend emphasized throughout the conversation that a moral economy cannot come about without a “moral fusion agenda.” For example, white people must talk about voting rights while black people must discuss economic concerns. Barber believed this sort of agenda can certainly flourish in America.
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He described a young woman in Seattle who pledged to join his Poor People’s Campaign because, as she said, “‘I am the white trash that these rich Americans forgot to burn.’”
Sanders echoed the idea of people coming together around what they have in common instead of dividing by what makes them different.
“Our job is to rethink the limitations that are place on our lies about what we can accomplish,” he declared. “We are a common humanity, and when we stand together, we can do incredible things for the world.”
The event was opened with a song session led by singer and activist Yara Allen. She had the whole audience stand up and sing with her to “This Little Light of Mine” and an original call-and-response song.
“Somebody’s hurting my brother, and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t be silent anymore,” she sang.