Progressive religious leaders push lawmakers on voting rights, raising wages
Marshaled by the Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis and the Poor People’s Campaign, Jewish, Methodist, Church of Christ, Episcopalian, and other Christian leaders came to Congress to demand lawmakers vote—before the mid-term election—on three moral issues: voting rights, minimum wage, and restoration of the child tax credit. | @unitethepoor via Twitter

WASHINGTON—The usual news about religion in the nation’s Capital is coming from the religious right. After all, they’ve been making the most noise and exercising the most political clout—especially on so-called “social issues,” such as opposing abortion, endorsing guns, and agitating against gays—for decades.

On September 22, it was the progressives’ turn to speak up.

Marshaled by the Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis and the Poor People’s Campaign, Jewish, Methodist, Church of Christ, Episcopal, and other Christian leaders came to Congress to demand lawmakers vote—before the mid-term election—on three moral issues: strengthening and extending the Voting Rights Act, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and restoring programs, especially a federal child care tax credit, to feed the poor and hungry.

They got enthusiastic endorsements from progressive lawmakers who sponsored the session in a U.S. House hearing room. Whether they’ll get Congress as a whole is another matter.

Lawmakers are rushing pell-mell through measures before racing home in October to campaign for re-election. They also must pass legislation to keep the government funded.

And while the Democratic-run House has voted on all three issues—and passed the first two—the evenly split Senate has defeated all three. Prospects for a second vote there are dim.

Even though they were “preaching to the choir” of progressive U.S. representatives and their aides, the pastors, lay leaders, and rabbis urged lawmakers to take stands, and force their colleagues to do so, before this fall’s balloting. In so many words, they want the election to be leveraged.

The election will also decide the right to vote, which is being quashed in many states, Barber warned. That’s why restoring and strengthening the 1965 Voting Rights Act is so important and such a moral issue. “Fifty-five million people are facing (voter) suppression because for nine years we didn’t restore that law,” Barber said.

Left unsaid: In 2013, the Republican-named U.S. Supreme Court majority killed its federal enforcement provisions. Since then, Republican-dominated states have enacted massive curbs on voting rights of people who are poor, Black, Spanish-speaking, students, and workers, among others. And Republicans have blocked the voting rights restoration law.

“I was told—lied to—in March that nothing else would get done” before the election, Barber explained. Instead, lawmakers approved several key measures. In one, to reduce the deficit while creating jobs, “everything that helped poor people was left out.”

And the House just voted on police funding coupled with reform requirements. So lawmakers should vote on these moral issues, too, he declared. “The vote on the living wage has got to occur before November, so people can see where people stand.”

“We need a vote before the midterms on a living wage, voting rights, and programs” to help lift the nation’s estimated 140 million poor and low-wealth people out of the economic hole, said Rev. Theoharis.

“We’re asking Congress to put forth legislation to lift the load of poverty, and to do so before the elections so if there are politicians who are against it, we (will) know it and can vote them out.”

The other religious leaders sounded the same themes, with Jewish leaders linking them to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, a time of introspection and considering how to return, teshuvah, to God-given moral values. The holiday began at sundown on September 25.

Turn away from the lobbyists

“We need you to turn away from the hordes of lobbyists and their billionaire backers who every day sacrifice our children on their altars of greed and power,” said Philadelphia Rabbi Michael Pollack. “Bribes come in, policy violence comes out,”

“In my diocese, some families live in luxury and just a few miles away, others live in rat-infested apartments with no running water,” said Marianne Edgar Budde, Episcopal Bishop of the Washington, D.C., diocese. “In one of my churches, 1100 families rely on groceries” it distributes. “In another, in an affluent neighborhood, hundreds line up twice a week for grocery bags—and they work two or three jobs.”

Rev. Neil Tellier of Grovetown, Ga. particularly criticized the end of free meals in schools for kids from poor and low-wealth families. “In Georgia, 1.5 million kids benefit from SNAP,” the current name for food stamps. “But kids can’t get a free lunch anymore.” That deprivation reminded Teillier of Biblical prophets’ criticism of “leaders who were treating” the poor “as if they weren’t people at all,”

“Our aim is that everybody will be able to say, ‘This is my country, land of my birth. This is my country, the grandest on earth,’” said Florida Methodist Minister James Morris. “This must not be heard as political discourse, but to embolden you to have a public commitment to justice.”

Rev. Theoharis noted the number of poor actually declined in 2021 but that’s only because the federal government stepped in with massive aid that boosted people’s incomes in the face of the coronavirus-caused depression. That aid, notably the expanded child care tax credit, has lapsed. And much of it went to corporations anyway, Barber noted. He said the numbers of poor are increasing again.

Speakers urged lawmakers and constituents to view the video of the session, posted at And constituents can pressure lawmakers to take stands on moral issues by texting to #vote.

Rev. Theoharis reiterated the campaign’s frequent point that lawmakers ignore the voices of the poor and low-wealth people at their peril, as those citizens can be a large bloc. “The poor, low-wage, locked-out, looked-over and left out are those who can change society” by voting in the millions, she said.

The Poor People’s Campaign has embarked on a new drive not just to register more poor and low-wealth voters, but to increase their turnout by five million this fall—and to ensure their votes are counted.

Besides the religious leaders, the Poor People’s Campaign replayed tape from its massive rally in downtown D.C. in June. That event featured poor and low-wealth people telling their own stories and demanding congressional action to end poverty and discrimination—based on class—in the U.S.

“We should not be forced to choose one necessity over another,” Floridian Penelope de la Cruz said on that tape. Added Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry, the only union leader on the video: “Our votes this November are not a show of support. They are a demand.”

Barber added the Poor People’s Campaign and its allies, pastoral and lay, wouldn’t stop after this fall’s balloting occurs.

“We have been rejected by the politics of trickle-down economics,” he declared. “We have been rejected by the politics of neoliberalism. If we have to march, we’ll march.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.