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North Carolina Reverend Says Trump's Executive Order Is About 'Religious Bigotry'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's go back to one of the executive orders President Trump signed this week that got a lot of attention, in part because he led a ceremony in the Rose Garden to promote it. This order directs the Justice Department to, quote, "issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law," unquote. Now, over the course of the campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly promised conservative Christian supporters that he would defend their view of religious freedom by allowing them to opt out of mandates with which they disagree.

The executive order he signed, though, mainly focuses on the Johnson Amendment, which limits political activity by churches and other tax-exempt institutions. Basically, it bars religious people and institutions from politicking from the pulpit. Now, a number of Christian conservatives have weighed in both praising the order and criticizing it, but we thought we'd like to hear a perspective from a politically active clergy member from the other side of the aisle.

The reverend William Barber II is president of the North Carolina NAACP. He also pastors Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and we reached him there. Reverend Barber, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

WILLIAM BARBER II: Thank you so much for allowing me to be on today.

MARTIN: Now, you are politically involved, as we said. Is there something you can do today that you couldn't do last week?

BARBER: No. And the fact of the matter is when I look at that executive order it is not about religious liberty. It's about religious bigotry. But clearly as a clergy person who knows the Scripture, we have the authority at any time to speak out on policy. It's as old as the prophets in the Bible who said woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights.

What this order does - and Ralph Reed said it in an interview. He said if an organization, a religious organization, wants to spend some of its money on endorsing candidates, now they would be free to do that. And that's what this is really about. It's about loosing more dark money, doing it under the guise of religion to support candidates who in many ways support policies who are the antithesis of love and justice and mercy.

MARTIN: Would you like to do that, though? Do you envision people with your perspective spending money to endorse candidates specifically?

BARBER: I don't think that's necessary. I think that if you follow the tradition of Dr. King or you follow tradition that I'm moving in, we have freedom to speak about policy. If I want to endorse somebody, you do that as an individual. You don't have to use the pulpit. I think, in fact, we should really desire to critique policies whether it's Democrat or Republican. So I think really this is a false narrative that they're trying to create.

And for Donald Trump, for instance, to put the name and ministry of Dr. King in his mouth as the basis for doing this is actually a form of sacrilege because this misses the message of Dr. King. Dr. King didn't go around endorsing candidates. He went around endorsing moral issues, standing against systemic racism, poverty and militarism. It didn't matter who was in office. He said there were some principles that are not left versus right but they're about right versus wrong.

MARTIN: There have been reports that some prominent Christian conservative voices are disappointed because they believe the order is meaningless. They say it doesn't go far enough. And to that point, the ACLU, which had threatened to litigate on this, says that they aren't going to bother because they in essence agree that the order really doesn't change anything.

BARBER: It was more of a spectacle and a show, an attempt to appease what I would have hoped that clergy would have been with the president challenging him to support universal health care, challenging him to support a living wage, challenging him not to put more money in the military and less money in caring for the least of these. That's what we should be doing as clergy. There's plenty of things we should be speaking out on. There's plenty of criticism we should be giving this executive without engaging in a religious spectacle for a moment.

MARTIN: That's Reverend William Barber II. He's president of Repairers of the Breach. That's an ecumenical organization focusing on public policy. His latest book is "The Third Reconstruction." We reached him in Goldsboro, N.C., where he pastors Greenleaf Christian Church. Reverend Barber, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BARBER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.