The Spiritual Politics of Martin Luther King

With Martin Luther King's birthday holiday coming up I've been thinking of the connection of religion with politics and the contradictions that so often result.

Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister. The organization that he helped to start and lead was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a remarkable group of Southern preachers who stood up to bombings, beatings, jailings and assassination plots to lead the struggle for civil rights. Though many of the young turks in the civil rights movement, especially in the Black Power movement that emerged after 1965, disparaged King and his fellow ministers, King, and the religious orientation that he represented, was a major force in the movement that defeated segregation and continues, to this day, to challenge, racial, social and economic injustice.

Despite their religious and racial backgrounds, King and his fellow ministers spoke to people of all faiths -- and, just as convincingly, to people of no faith. The Christianity of the black church in the civil rights movement rarely bothered non-Christians and non-believers. Rabbis, priests and ministers marched arm and arm and committed civil disobedience together -- filling the jails together. Jews, Catholics, Protestants, atheists and agnostics, people of all creeds and color, were moved by the gospel spirit. Meeting in a black church, listening to preaching about justice and equality, and then rocking the church with gospel-tinged freedom songs, was a transcendent moment.

I know I'm not alone in saying that my participation in the civil rights movement (as minor as it was) was the defining experience of my life, a profoundly spiritual journey that shaped who I am and everything I've done after.

But here's the contradiction: Many of us inspired by the religious-based politics of the civil rights movement are, yet, the most determined supporters of church-state separation. We are also, by and large, strong opponents of the faith-based social welfare initiatives of the Bush Administration, and the power that the right-wing Christian Coalition and its theocratic allies wield in the Republican Party.

This enmity is returned by many backers of the Christian Coalition (who will not be celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday), and born-again Administration officials like Attorney-General John Ashcroft. They oppose -- and have always opposed -- the spirit and substance of what Martin King and the civil rights movement stood for. The division, it needs be emphasized, is not so much about religion as it is about politics disguised as religion. Jimmy Carter, for example, is representative of many: he's a born-again Christian who was transformed by the civil rights movement and imbibes its spirit in his humanitarian endeavors.

So here we have two polarized groups each claiming adherence to a spiritual-based politics that have little else in common except their religious grounding. What's going on?

The message of Martin Luther King, Jr., emanating from Christian teachings, was universal in its application. He and his fellow ministers never proselytized; their good news of tolerance was that wisdom and righteousness exist in other secular and religious teachings. According to King's biographer, Taylor Branch, King was inspired by theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, who taught Christianity "as a spirit of brotherhood made manifest in social ethics." King, and others in the movement, reframed that idea into the concept of a "beloved community," an inclusive vision of humankind striving together for peace and justice.

King was a superb political strategist who understood that race and class (that is, social and economic issues) could never be separated. He democratized the social gospel, transforming it from noblesse oblige, by which people find salvation by doing good deeds, into a calling to empower the powerless, to give the poor and disenfranchised not just bread, but political and civil rights, the tools to fight their own political battles.

Then King went one step further in his commitment to inclusion. When the oppressed gain their freedom, he taught, the debilitating, guilt-ridden burdens of the oppressor also would be lifted. King saw the big picture; he had his "eye on the prize." The cup of justice was both half full and half empty. He exposed political, social and economic injustice and at the same time integrated change into the process of protest.

And what of those on the religious right who mask their lust for power under the guise of public piety and pitiless authority? It's certainly not just an American phenomenon. All over the world, among Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims, are sectarian religious leaders who believe that they alone hear the voice of God and that the authority of God speaks through their temporal political passions. And so they scour religious texts for quotes condemning things they do not like -- taxes, tolerance, and other people's sexual, political, and religious choices. When it suits them, of course, they ignore basic teachings. How does one equate "thou shalt not kill," intrinsic to the Koran as well as the Judeo-Christian Bible, with terrorist attacks or with the death penalty and the planned military invasion of Iraq?

King's religion informed his principles and values. He lived the principles of nonviolence, which he interpreted not as a withdrawal from politics but as a means of infusing politics with ethics and morals. His subjects were freedom, democracy, public good and personal responsibility and empowerment. His concern was doing the right thing, not, as in the case with the religious right, of devising religious-based strategies to achieve wealth, power and domination over non-believers. As Taylor Branch put it, he "established a kind of universal voice, beyond time, beyond race." And that voice still resonates all over the world, for people who will listen.

Marty Jezer's books include "Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel." He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at


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