Research is vital to the moral integrity of social movements

The faith community has a long history of involvement in social movements for economic justice, bringing into focus the moral failings of our political and economic systems. I’m always struck when people say to me, “But you’re talking about morality, and we’re talking about money.” I answer, “You really think they’re different? You don’t recognize that a budget is a moral document? That policies are about moral decisions? That morality is not just about inspiration but about information?”

I realize that for some, the concept of a preacher writing for an economics blog might seem odd, but the link between what I do—as a pastor, architect of the Moral Monday movement and co-leader of The Poor People’s Campaign—and the research done by EPI is absolutely vital. One of the quickest ways for a movement to lose its integrity is to be loud and wrong. We’ve seen too many movements that have bumper sticker sayings but no stats and no depth. Researchers help to protect the moral integrity of a movement by providing sound analysis of the facts and issues at hand. Armed with this information, we’re able to pull back the cover and force society to see the hurt and the harm of the decisions that people are making.

In fact, I believe we find evidence of a relationship between religion, activism, and research that dates back to the prophets of the Bible. The prophets of the Bible were the social activists of their time. I say that because the only time prophets in ancient Israel rose to the fore was when the kings or the politicians and their court chaplains weren’t doing their job.

For example, the prophet Isaiah said to those who were rich, powerful and presumed themselves to be morally superior, “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights and make women and children their prey.” Isaiah even went as far as saying that religious activity—worship and prayer—was not a cover for their failure to “loose the band of wickedness.” Wickedness in that text is specific to the issue of not paying people what they deserve and trying to cover it over with a lot of religiosity. He goes on to say that the nation will never be able to repair itself until it ends the wickedness of not paying people what they deserve. Because society’s policies had actually insulated destruction, injustice and inequality could never be resolved without a change of policy.

These statements reflect more than just a difference of opinion concerning the legislation. Rather, such bold and specific statements suggest an analysis of the society which concluded that the legislation was evil in that it was robbing those who were most vulnerable. In other words, Isaiah’s moral authority to criticize policy could be confirmed and validated by research.

Now, let’s consider Jesus, the central figure of the Christian faith, who was also very keen on social policy. The opening line of his first sermon went like this: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me for he hath anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” The researchers would have told Jesus in that day that Rome favored the 1 percent and disregarded the 99 percent. That Rome had distinct classes of people. One group of people were called the humiliadors, the humiliated ones. The others were called the honoristeries, the honored ones. The honored ones controlled politics. They wanted all the tax cuts. They wanted the law to favor them and they expressed their grandeur by flaunting and boasting on their entourages, their dress, and their education.

It was into that world that Jesus comes and says, no, this is wrong. This is not the way it should be. This may be Caesar’s way, but Caesar is an egotistical narcissistic builder who loves to put his name on buildings and, if he could, would put his face on every coin. Caesar is the one who desires military parades to flaunt and boast about his position of authority. Caesar believed he had the authority to grab any woman any time he wanted to. Caesar only wanted people around him who told him what he wanted to hear. Caesar only cared about money. Everything was about money. If it’s unclear, I’m talking about something that happened 2000 years ago.

Into this, Jesus comes and says the spirit of the Lord, which is above Caesar, is focused on the poor. Now, there are three words for poor in Greek. But the one used to describe this moral movement of Jesus is ptchos, which literally means those who have been made poor by exploitive policies. So Jesus had to have some research around in order to say in his first sermon, “I’m calling out the policies and declaring that they are wrong.”

In our contemporary society, researchers protect the integrity of movements in other important ways. When we started the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina, the first thing we did was create a budget so that we could answer up front the critique that always arises, which is, “that would be a nice moral thing to do, but it’ll raise taxes.” As Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, has said, we have to deal not just with what it costs to fix inequality, but what inequality is costing us. So, for each issue we wanted to raise, we calculated the cost of doing it, and the cost of not doing it.

The research that goes into developing that kind of budget helps us to disarm the obvious critiques of our movement, but also puts us in a position to challenge our critics on the costs of opposing or stifling attempts to find solutions. When we lead public demonstrations, research provides an empirical connection to the anger and legitimate discontent being expressed. Research also provides connections for building unity.

Right now in the Poor People’s Campaign, we are saying that there are five potentially fatal diseases that are impacting this democracy: systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and the false distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism that gives cover for the four other social diseases.

What our movement is saying is that we have to have researchers that can connect all five of them and help people to understand that you cannot talk about economic advancement, living wages, and lifting the poor if you don’t deal with the systemic racism, for instance, of voter suppression. You can’t talk about either of those two without talking about ecological devastation, including the fact that the first people who are going to be impacted will be poor people, and those poor people will disproportionately be people of color. We have to have researchers that can help movements and the larger public to understand these connections.

Research and revolutions go hand in hand because you can’t challenge Rome if you are Rome. Revolutionaries have to be re-educated by the research because that’s what helps them think beyond the predominant mindset of the larger society.

For example, most people don’t realize that voter suppression in this moment is more of a white issue than a black issue. The research shows that the states that have participated in racialized voter suppression are among the poorest states in the nation. So the people that get elected through racialized voter suppression pass policies that hurt mostly white people because they are still the majority of the population in those states. We’re losing too often on these issues because we work in silos with black folk on one end fighting against voter suppression and then white folk on the other end fighting neo-liberalism. We work in silos because we’ve been conditioned to think they are separate issues when in fact they’re all connected.

People are ready for a grown-up, researched movement that can handle dealing with race and poverty, and ecological devastation, and the war economy all in the same space, and can use that kind of power and research to build out a long-term strategy. That is what it takes to register people for the movement who vote. So, where do we start?

I believe it starts with changing the South. We do that by building the coalitions of white and black and brown and Latino and Asian and poor folk in the South to raise up this movement and to vote. That’s what it’s going to take to shift the political calculus in this country. For eleven years I’ve been saying we’re in the midst of the birthing pains of a Third Reconstruction. But we cannot wait until election season to do the work. It has to be done year round and every year.

I want to give you some numbers to consider—178, 26, 31 percent, 100 million, 40 million. Now, why those numbers? If you calculate the number of electoral votes available from the 13 former Confederate states from Virginia to Texas, you come up with 178 electoral votes. Which means, any candidate that gives away the 178 electoral votes in those 13 states, puts their opponent in the position of only needing 92 electoral votes from the other 37 states.

The 13 former Confederate states, which only have about 36 percent of this country’s population, decide 178 electoral votes, 26 United States Senate seats and 35 percent of the seats in the United States House of Representatives. That means all it takes to win control of both houses of Congress is 25 Senate seats and 16 percent of U.S. House of Representatives seats available from the other 37 states.

100 million is the number of people that didn’t vote in the 2016 election. 40 million is the number of poor and low-wealth people in this country. The majority of them are in the South and are the key to the transformation of our politics.

All of the close elections we witnessed in the 2018 midterms are a sign that we are right at the tipping point. If there’s ever been a time that we ought to go south and shift the political calculus in this nation for the next 20 to 40 years and beyond, it is in fact right now. Don’t believe the talking heads who haven’t done the research, or just don’t want the public to know that if you registered 30 percent of unregistered black voters in the South and connected with progressive whites and Latinos you could flip about five Southern states right now: Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. Perhaps Texas and maybe even South Carolina. That’s what the research says, even though it’s not what the talking heads are saying.

A movement connected to the right researchers can do this, must do this and has to do this. This is our movement and our moment. I believe with everything inside of me that if you give us the data, the research and the analysis we need to create budgets that put “ordinary” people first, we will change this nation.