On January 18, America will commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose work and legacy embody the spirit of religious freedom.
Long after his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to stir our hearts with his appeal to the nobility of every human being made in the image of God. The moral equality he emphasized in soaring speeches, from Los Angeles to Memphis to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, aimed to secure fundamental freedoms for all Americans, regardless of race. In his “I have a Dream Speech,” King declared:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This same principle of the moral equality of all human beings is the basis of religious freedom. King, as a Christian, believed that all people have moral equality before God. That equality is the basis for his famous argument, written on scraps of newspaper from a cell in Birmingham jail, distinguishing just and unjust laws. King argued:
A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
What could be more unjust than laws designed to repress humanity’s search for the profound questions about ultimate things? As RFI President Tom Farr has written, “if we are not free to pursue those answers, and to live according to the truths we discover, we cannot live a fully human life.” That is religious freedom.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the most powerful examples in American history of how religious voices can permeate the public sphere with arguments in favor of love and justice. This can only happen when religious individuals, religious authorities, religious groups, and religious organizations have a high level of independence to pursue and promote the common good. King admonished religious people to do so: “I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.”
King represented the Baptist tradition in America, which goes back to Roger Williams’ aversion to a coercive government enforcing religious conformity. The Baptist tradition is distinctive for its early calls for the institutional separation of religious and political authority. In his own day, King criticized cozy church-state relationships that resulted in oppression of minorities, or that provided religious justifications for prejudice or persecution. In his famous 1967 “Knock at Midnight speech,” delivered in Cincinnati at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, King announced:
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.
Institutional separation, however, does not divorce religion from public life—as vividly demonstrated in Dr. King’s influential voice in public life. Religious voices, like King’s, should be calling us to loving action.
As a fourth-generation minister, King’s roots in the church went deep. Churches have often been the first place where people practice the habits of participation associated with active citizenship. It was in independent churches, outside the confines of Jim Crow, that Black-American congregations practiced all the mechanisms of an organization, from finance and fundraising to running committees, public speaking, and electing church officers. Churches and denominations provided networks for advocacy and partnership: it was especially in churches and seminaries, as well as schools and private business, that transferable skills for political action were developed.
Scholars call this “resource mobilization:” the development and mobilization of social resources such as public organizing, writing, financial management, and electoral participation. This experience, combined with other changing social conditions after World War II, gave parishioners something that social scientists call “efficacy:” the confidence that their political action could finally break the shackles of American segregation. These churches were King’s cradle, his home turf, his bully pulpit, and his army. This kind of mobilization is at work in faith communities in the developing world today, empowering women and minorities and providing avenues for service and impact.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is an American hero for his sacrificial stand against segregation. He was faithful to the spirit of religious freedom because his values emanated from his own faith tradition and yet were capacious enough to see all human beings as his brothers and sisters. He stirringly utilized biblical imagery in his speeches while calling upon the resources of faith networks to mobilize a generation of citizens on behalf of freedom and justice. During our own time of uncertainty and division, we should embrace King’s hope for the future:
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says ‘Love your enemies,’ he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition.