Dec 19, 2022 - Politics & Policy

U.S. anti-poverty advocate to lead new Yale theology center

The Rev. William Barber, of the Poor People's Campaign, speaks during a demonstration at the U.S. Supreme Court during the MoveOn and Poor People's Build Back Better Action.

The Rev. William Barber. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for MoveOn

The Rev. William Barber, of the Poor People's Campaign, will lead a new Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School, the school announced Monday.

Why it matters: Barber is a major figure of the Christian left, and wants to train a new generation of theologians and activists on the social Gospel to fight systemic inequality amid the nation's shifting religious views.

Details: Yale Divinity School said the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy "will pursue teaching, practice, research, and collaboration at the intersection of theology and advocacy."

  • "The center's scholarly and teaching work will concentrate on expressions of public faith that contribute to movements for justice."
  • In addition to teaching and research, the center will hold regular convenings and a biennial training summit bringing together scholars, interfaith religious leaders, economists, activists, lawyers and students.

The intrigue: The establishment of the new center will develop a foundational partnership with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the U.S. South, to build pathways for HBCU students to meaningfully engage in the center's work.

What they're saying: "I didn't want to leave this Earth and not participate in helping to train up a whole other generation of leaders and to be engaged with them," the 60-year-old Barber tells Axios.

  • Barber said he will retire as pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina — a church founded by formerly enslaved people 130 years ago. He will continue as founding president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign.
  • "I'm retiring from public ministry after 35 years of pastoral ministry, but I'm not retiring from pastoring the movement," he added.

State of play: The new center comes as surveys and studies show the percentage of Christians in the U.S. continues to decline.

  • People who are religiously unaffiliated — sometimes called religious "nones" — accounted for 30% of the U.S. population in 2020.

Between the lines: Some historically white denominations and church organizations have yet to come to terms with their links to white supremacy and support for economic inequality, Robert P. Jones writes in "White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity."

  • The death of George Floyd forced some white churches to confront their legacy with enslavement and segregation, but many have dismissed discussions of the past as "wokeness."

Yes, but: Barber said it's not just white Christians who need critiques, but the nation needs to wrestle with its long history of misinterpreting the faith to create a kind of dominant understanding of society.

  • "On the one hand, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, but then you create a Constitution where women are not treated equal. Black people, Native Americans are not treated equal. LGBTQ people are not treated equal," he said.
  • Environmental justice is also part of it, he added.

Flashback: Barber joined Rev. Liz Theoharis of New York City in 2018 to lead a reboot of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign of 1968, half a century later.

  • Organizers of the 2018 campaign said they wanted to use the 50th anniversary of the 1968 effort to restart conversations around the struggles that poor people continue to face.

Be smart: Right-leaning white Christian evangelicals still dominate discussions about religion in the U.S., but Latinos are among the fastest segment of evangelicals.

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