Happy Birthday Dr. King

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered 28 August 1963 is one of the greatest pieces of rhetoric in the American experience. I rank it with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for its combination of oratorical beauty and importance in defining us as a nation. What I want to note today is how Dr. King called upon civil religion to make his points. He appealed to America based upon its reverence for both American democratic ideals and biblical religion.

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Dr. King and Civil Religion

On Monday we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King’s birthday is a national holiday, not a religious one. It’s important to note, however, how Dr. King integrated the best of what some people disparage as “civil religion” into his appeal to the American people.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered 28 August 1963 is one of the greatest pieces of rhetoric in the American experience and one of the most significant milestones in American history. I rank it with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for its combination of rhetorical beauty and importance in defining us as a nation. It has brought me to tears as I listened to it.

What I want to note today is how Dr. King called upon civil religion to make his points. He appealed to America based upon its reverence for both American democratic ideals and biblical religion.

King’s speech contains numerous religious references. He alludes to the biblical prophets. He looks forward to the time when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). He dreams of a day when “every valley shall be exalted, and 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” (Isaiah 40:4-5). He concludes with an allusion to “the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

Dr. King draws even more heavily, however, on the creeds, documents and events of the American democratic ideal. American society has a religious-like reverence for the parts of our heritage that define us. Dr. King connects the struggle for civil rights with ideas and stories with which most Americans nod their heads in agreement. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, he begins, “Five score years ago,” and our thoughts go to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He points to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, declaring our creed to be, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” He gives new voice to the patriotic hymn, “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”

Dr. King draws on the best tradition of American civil religion, as did Lincoln before him. He blended elements of American political values and biblical religion to appeal to the “better angels of our nature” (a Lincoln phrase). In today’s discussion of the role of religious speech in public discourse and policy, I think it’s helpful to remember at least one occasion where civil religion played an extremely positive role in society.

Dr. King and the Use of Force

Dr. King, of course, accompanied his words with direct, non-violent actions to challenge segregation. It was King’s words and deeds together – in the context of American political and religious ideals – that brought change to American society. In another context, King’s actions would have resulted in an American Tiananmen Square. Instead, we got Little Rock.

Among the many exhibits in the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas is a picture of Soldiers from the 101st Division, standing with fixed bayonets in Little Rock, Arkansas, keeping a mob at bay so that children could enter a school in peace. President Eisenhower sent the 101st to Little Rock in September 1957 to restore order and face down the Arkansas National Guard. The governor of Arkansas had called out the state troops to stop the federally ordered integration of the Little Rock school system. Below the picture is displayed a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Eisenhower. Dr. King begins:

I wish to express my sincere support for the stand you have taken to restore law and order in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the long run, justice finally must spring from a new moral climate. Yet spiritual forces cannot emerge in a situation of mob violence.

Both physical force and spiritual force have a role to play in bringing a measure of peace to this world. And still, even working together, spiritual force and physical force, the best of human effort with the best of human intentions, will not bring in the kingdom of God. We who hope in Christ wait for the day when God’s perfect will is done.

Happy Birthday, Dr. King, and thanks. May your dream continue to take root in our lives.