Dear Republican leadership,

I am writing because I love the United States of America and long to see justice for all in this land. After an election when your party won more than half of the votes for congressional seats, I know that we cannot achieve a Third Reconstruction without some part of your coalition making justice for all your aim as well. So I write in hope that at least some of you will remember the critical role your forebears played in America’s First Reconstruction.

My grandfather was a Republican because he remembered the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, who helped establish your party on the notion that a government cannot endure permanently as half-slave and half-free. On the fundamental moral question of whether humans can own other humans, Republicans were right. You not only opposed slavery, but also wrote into your 1860 platform a guarantee of immigrants’ rights and a just, living wage for all workers. This is the party that Frederick Douglass and millions of other formerly enslaved people embraced when they were able to participate as full citizens in America’s democracy. When I review the strategies and policy focus of today’s Republican party, I have to ask, “What happened?”

Those 19th-century Republicans joined together with white Populists in many parts of the American South to elect governments that established universal public education as a right for all people. By the early 20th century, Republican leaders like Theodore Roosevelt were adamant that a commitment to liberty for all also required commitment to universal health care and protection of our common lands from corporate greed.

When the struggle for voting rights in the 20th century led to a Voting Rights Act in 1965, many Republicans voted with Democrats in Congress to guarantee the franchise to Black Americans. Indeed, the VRA was last reauthorized by a bipartisan vote and signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush less than 20 years ago. But when some of your colleagues in North Carolina took advantage of the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision to pass a voter suppression bill without preclearance, the state chapter of the NAACP, which I led at the time with Forward Justice as our lawyers, challenged the law in federal court and won with the final decision declaring that your party had engaged in racism with “almost surgical precision.” During one of the hearings, a Republican-appointed judge stopped the lawyers defending the bill that had been passed unanimously by Republicans to ask if they could explain why they didn’t want people to vote.

Have those within your party who openly promote and defend voter suppression forgotten that you were founded as the party of liberty for all? Why have so many in your ranks embraced efforts to suppress the votes of Black people, Latinos, Native Americans, poor people, students, women, and working people? Is it because you do not believe a majority of Americans will support your platform?

In the South, where I live, most states are led by a Republican majority today, even as they rank among the poorest, most uninsured, and sickest states in the union. This is not what the people want. For instance, though Republicans are a majority in South Dakota, voters there overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to expand access to Medicaid, guaranteeing access to health care to thousands who were uninsured. In Nebraska, where a Republican won the governor’s race with almost 60 percent of the vote, a similar share of the electorate voted to raise the minimum wage. Polling suggests similar public opinion across the South, where your party too often spreads division while low-wage workers of every race struggle to survive.

As I have I tried to understand the commitments of today’s Republican Party, I have studied your platform from 2016—the most recent public statement you have made. You begin with an affirmation of America’s commitment to equality and the Constitution—an affirmation I celebrate. But I come from a long tradition of movements that have challenged Republicans and Democrats to demonstrate their commitment to “establishing justice” by enacting legislation that makes life more just for people who are harmed by injustice. Such people are not hard to find. I have stood with them as they cry out across this land for living wages, access to health care, environmental justice, protection of Native land rights, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and immigration reform. But your party has not proposed policies that would establish justice for these people. Instead, many within your ranks have demonized them as “anti-American,” “extreme radicals,” or “socialists,” often blaming them for the injustice other Americans suffer. In fact, you often push policies that hurt the very people who have believed these scare tactics and false narratives about their fellow Americans.

What myth will make you vote for somebody who claims to be Christian and then tries to pass polices to take your health care? If Jesus did anything, he healed the sick and never charged a co-pay.

What myth makes you wake up in the morning and say, “Since I’m an elected official, let me figure out how many policies I can pass that will keep the government from promoting the very general welfare I swore to promote”? What myth makes a few people care more about packing the Supreme Court with one person rather than protecting thousands from being placed in caskets during the Covid pandemic?

What myth makes somebody think that allowing public education funds to be cut is going to help your children? What myth makes people think that bad police who kill innocent people make you safer?

Your party is known for launching what have become known as the “forever wars”—conflicts that have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians, left millions homeless, and destroyed cities, yet never made us safer. Your last platform reflected your party’s long-standing commitment to military force as the centerpiece of our country’s role in the world—calling for a militarily “resurgent America.” For decades you have backed spending more than half the congressional budget on the military—diverting 53 cents or more of every discretionary dollar away from health care, education, jobs, child and elder care, and other priorities desperately needed by our people.

Your platform says you believe in limited government and the rights of individuals, but when it comes to women and LGBTQ issues, you seem to suggest that the government should legislate some notions of morality.

Your platform claims that political freedom and economic freedom are inseparable and decries stagnant wages, but the legislatures your party controls have consistently refused to raise the minimum wage in states where working people are bound by poverty and its attendant misery. And your party has led the way to block increasing the federal living wage. Just last year, you repeated the lie that raising the minimum wage would hurt society and raise prices and unanimously voted against a $15 federal minimum wage, which would have lifted over 50 million working Americans out of poverty.

A healthy democracy benefits from debate between parties that disagree on the best way to achieve our shared goals. Such is the nature of politics. As I read your platform, your party wants to argue that the personal liberty of all Americans is best supported by a limited government that “cuts red tape” and practices “deregulation.” If that is your conviction, why not be specific about what you intend to cut? Should Americans expect to feel more free when Social Security ends? When Medicaid is done away with? When the Environmental Protection Agency no longer regulates corporations that have poisoned our water? Will those suffering from “stagnant wages” experience true liberty when every corporation is allowed to pay nothing in federal taxes and the infrastructure those businesses depend upon is allowed to crumble?

I have listened as your party has debated how to process the results of the midterms, where MAGA Republicans seem to have underperformed while some other Republicans won congressional seats that had been controlled by Democrats. Some suggest that Republicans can win a governing majority by simply going back to what the party was before Donald Trump. But a more thorough soul-searching is needed. The party of Lincoln now promotes a vision of liberty that would delight the Southern Democrat and pro-slavery Senator John Calhoun. Since the civil rights movement, Republicans have embraced a Southern strategy that offers cultural wedge issues as surrogates for racial resentment.

Let me remind you, the Southern strategy was born out of Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, when George Wallace ran as an independent and demonstrated the power of white backlash beyond the South, across the suburbs and the Sun Belt. Kevin Phillips advised Nixon that the Republican Party could win without Negro votes, by painting the Democrats as a “black party.” Phillips predicted “a new American revolution coming out of the South and West” because of fears and objections raised by the civil rights movement’s victories.

Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips called this “positive polarization,” and developed ways to divide the country for political advantage. The aim, wrote Buchanan, was to “cut the Democratic Party and country in half.” “My view,” he said, “is that we would have far the larger half.”

He noted that “white ethnics” in the North were also ripe for the picking, correctly predicting, that the Irish Democrats in New York would turn Republican “because they don’t like the Jews and Negroes who run the New York Democratic Party.” The South became the base for a new Republican Party.

This divide-and-conquer strategy wasn’t new. They just found new tactics to make it work post–civil rights. And this is the political formula that produced the audience for Fox News and Donald Trump.

The tactics we are seeing today have their roots in the states’ rights movement that began before the Civil War with the fight for laws to maintain slavery. Confederates militarized it; the KKK added violence; Plessy legalized it; it was picked up and continued by Strom Thurmond, Barry Goldwater, and George Wallace. It became the Southern strategy, and it was picked up by Ronald Reagan, continued by Pat Buchanan and George W. Bush. Donald Trump just charismatized it, pushed it with media savvy, and convinced greedy elites to invest billions of dollars in it.

In Trumpism, the chickens have simply and sadly come home to roost. As the Bible says, the sins of the fathers have set the children’s teeth on edge. This is not a moment to pivot. You must own this history if you want to repent and be transformed.

I am a preacher, so I know firsthand what’s in the book that your politicians so often claim as a guide for your party’s vision. The Bible is clear that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” is doing God’s will.

The prophet Isaiah declares, “Woe unto those who legislate evil and deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?”

Isaiah 58 teaches that when we attempt to engage in religious activity without loosing the bands of policy wickedness, and when we refuse to honor the image of God in all persons—especially the poor—a nation sets up its own destruction and disables its ability to be an enlightened nation that can repair its breaches.

So we always have to hold any policy up against the standards Scripture sets for justice, love, and mercy in human affairs. If you want to make the Bible your guide, then you must ask how your rejection of living wages impacts the poor people whom Jesus blessed. If Jesus says the nations will be judged by how we care for the sick, how can you go on resisting some expansion of health care to cover every American? If every person is created in the image of God, how can you continue to support measures that will deny some people born or naturalized as citizens of this country the right to vote?

I write to you because I know your party’s history and I know repentance is possible. It is, in fact, celebrated in one of our nation’s hymns, which says:

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

If liberty is to be real for every American, we must have a Third Reconstruction to write a level playing field into law. Republicans have been part of every stride toward a more perfect union in this nation’s history, and I believe you can be today. I pray this appeal finds you willing to seriously consider what this moment demands and ready to act with courage.

Sincerely,

Bishop William J. Barber, II

CC: Chair of Republican National Committee
Senate Minority Leader
House Minority Leader
National Republican Senatorial Committee
House Republican Campaign Committee