Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr Day. Many TV and radio programs traditionally mark the occasion by replaying King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Here are links to read and watch it if you’ve never done so.
It is interesting to think about King’s speech in light of the growing secularism of America. I have many friends who are atheists and agnostics, and they are quick to argue that religion should have no place in public life in America. In their mind, religious beliefs should not be permitted to influence what the law says – separation of church and state forbids this. The late atheist provocateur, Christopher Hitchens, summed up this secularist creed in a debate against Tony Blair:
Relatively simply, the United States has uniquely a constitution that forbids the government to take sides in any religious matter, or to sponsor a church, or to adopt any form of faith itself.
Hitches was arguing for the exclusion of all religious beliefs from any public policy question.
Contrast this attitude with King’s speech. When Martin Luther King Jr argued for civil rights for black Americans, he did so on explicitly (though not exclusively) religious grounds.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
King was not arguing for the federal government to officially recognize a “state church.” He was not claiming that the Congress codify specific religious practices like adult baptism or congregational church polity. Those actions would indeed violate what the First Amendment is about.
But he was arguing that government policy should reflect the view of human rights that flows from belief in God as Father and all humans as his children. Separation of church and state is one thing, but separation of faith from the state is a different matter entirely. Those who purport that religious faith should have no bearing on public policy are Constitutionally naive and historically illiterate.
King’s rousing conclusion to his speech sounds just like something a Baptist minister (which he was) might say:
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
It is undeniable that religious faith played an enormous role in the civil rights movement. By the way, it is also inarguable that religion played a role in the effort to oppose civil rights – religious faith in and of itself is not a good or bad thing. My point here is that I’ve never seen any secularist impugn the religious motives of those who advocated for civil rights, like MLK.
And the fact is that when you get right down to it, what really bothers most secularists is not whether religion plays a role in government, but which religion it will be. Last year during Senate confirmation hearings, two different senators, Bernie Sanders and Diane Feinstein, explicitly attacked nominees to federal positions because they were professed believers from conservative faiths. This is a direct violation of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which expressly forbids a religious test for public office. That doesn’t matter to dogmatic secularists like Sanders and Feinstein.
Yet at the same time as these senators undermined nominees to public service because their religious beliefs may have an impact on their work, the Boston Globe wrote a glowing piece about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s faith.
But religious leaders who have known her since her first run for public office say her Christian faith is a constant, if quiet, presence in her life, that it is deep and authentic, and informs her work as a senator.
If you read the article, you will find that Warren is deeply convicted by Jesus’ teaching about taking care of the poor and needy, and that it motivates her commitment to social justice. I am sure Sanders and Feinstein (and my secularist friends) have no problem with THAT religious belief informing public policy. It’s only the religious beliefs that they dislike (like the sanctity of unborn life and traditional marriage) that should be barred from public life.
Human rights don’t just magically appear. They flow from the belief in something transcendent, something that lies beyond the natural order of race and ethnicity. Societies that deny this transcendence (the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Maoist China), have horrific human rights records precisely for this reason. I don’t think my secularist friends on the Left understand the implications of their effort to scrub faith from public life.
And what is most alarming to me is the growing secularism of the Right. The alt-right movement is an example of what happens when so-called “conservatism” is cut loose from its moorings in the tradition of faith. And once the secularists on the Left and the Right realize how much they truly have in common in their abhorrence of faith-informed civic life, night will truly descend on our society.
People of good cheer, dedicated to civil society, have a lot of work to do to keep the dream alive to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”