Editor’s note: NRO first published this piece on January 21, 2013.
Listen carefully to all the celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. this week. Listen very carefully. There is one aspect of King’s life that you won’t hear much about, no matter how hard you try: his devotion to his faith, his devotion to God, his devotion to Jesus Christ.
Listen carefully and you’ll hear endless mention of Doctor Martin Luther King — but little if any mention of the Reverend Martin Luther King.
Listen carefully to all of the video and audio clips, and you’ll hear some of the greatest rhetoric and some of the most passionate speeches of the 20th century. The sound bites and clips will stir your soul. But you won’t hear the references to God that so often filled his speeches, nor will you hear references to the book that most inspired him: the Bible.
You won’t hear references to God because the secular media dislike the Bible so much — and public affirmations of a belief in Christ — that they do everything in their power to redact them.
The Reverend Martin Luther King loved the Bible so much that he got an undergraduate degree in Bible studies. At modern universities, they call it a divinity degree. His Ph.D. was in theology. To King, the Bible wasn’t some strange old book that didn’t have relevance in the modern world. It was God’s word. It was a book that was — and always will be — relevant because it expresses eternal principles and eternal truths.
And you know how much the media hate talking about ideas like eternity. Or principle. Or that really awful word: truth.
In a version of his famous “A Knock at Midnight” speech, which you are unlikely to hear this week, King started with a quote from Luke 11:5–6:
Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him”?
Why start a speech about the problems of the 20th century with a parable from an ancient text? King explained why:
Although this parable is concerned with the power of persistent prayer, it may also serve as a basis for our thought concerning many contemporary problems and the role of the church in grappling with them. It is midnight in the parable; it is also midnight in our world, and the darkness is so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn.
He goes on in this remarkable speech to talk about the marvels of science, but also its limits:
But alas! Science cannot now rescue us, for even the scientist is lost in the terrible midnight of our age.
Toward the middle of the speech, King condemns moral relativism:
Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes and the customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly described the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm. . . . This mentality has brought a tragic breakdown of moral standards, and the midnight of moral degeneration deepens.
Why don’t the media showcase this dimension of King? After all, his commitment to equality and his commitment to social justice were driven by the same spirit: the Holy Spirit.
Why don’t we see or hear the video clips of his religious speeches, even though they are easy to find, thanks to YouTube? Because secular liberals — and the mainstream media that are the megaphone for the secular Left — loves to secularize the sacred. They love to remove King’s source of inspiration — his love for God — and reduce it to something more earthly, such as his desire for social justice.
But whose justice? His own? The government’s? The Supreme Court’s?
Don’t trust me on this one. In what may be the most beautiful document written in the 20th century, “Letter from aBirmingham Jail,” King identified his source of inspiration:
We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.
King was in jail when he wrote that because he believed that the law man had created — segregation ––was unjust. In jail, he addressed why, as a man of God, he felt compelled to break the law to change it:
How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? 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.
That was King speaking with clarity. He was fearless, and he was faithful, and that’s what made him so dangerous to segregationists and racists. And that’s why totalitarians always get rid of God as their first order of business.
But King also invoked God’s mercy in his speeches. And nonviolence was his methodology. Peaceful protests, he thought, were the most effective way to stir the conscience of a nation.
Not everyone agreed with King’s approach in the early 1960s. A young Muslim named Malcolm X had a different vision for black America. Malcolm X was a member of the Nation of Islam and a follower of its leader, Elijah Muhammad. Like King, Malcolm X was a brilliant orator, but he had little tolerance for King’s Christian emphasis on nonviolence — especially the whole part about loving our enemies, and the part about loving the same white people who had mistreated so many black people in our country.
Indeed, Malcolm X thought King was weak and his message feeble. On more than one occasion, he publicly accused King of being an Uncle Tom, a tool of the white establishment. In his “Message to the Grass Roots,” in Detroit 1963, he described the role of an Uncle Tom:
The same old slave master today has negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th-century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent. That’s Tom making you nonviolent.
Malcolm X wasn’t just taunting King; he was mocking his faith. In the same Detroit speech, he decried King’s Christian nonviolence.
A revolution is bloody. Revolution is hostile. Revolution knows no compromise. Revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. And you sit around here like a knot on a wall saying, “I’m going to love these folks no matter how much they hate me.” No, you need a revolution.
Malcolm X thought that all of the hymns, all the prayer, and all the church activity was just plain silly:
Whoever heard a revolution where they lock arms . . . singing “We Shall Overcome”? Just tell me. You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing; you’re too busy swinging.
Talk about two competing visions.
Luckily for America, King’s Christian impulse prevailed.
You won’t hear any of this on TV or the radio this week. The media will ignore all of the yucky, messy God talk, all of the icky Jesus talk.
And you won’t ever hear the secular Left invoke the separation of church and state when it comes to King’s legacy. You will never hear the secular Left complain that King used the power of his pulpit, and the power of his Christian faith, to change the culture and, indeed, change the law.
What many of us wonder as we approach the national holiday in his honor is this: What would King have to say about our current problems?
What would he have to say about fatherlessness in the African-American community, and in America?
What would he have to say about crime and drug abuse and the culture?
What would he have to say about abortion?
We know what he would have said about the economy. King was a social-justice liberal, and he cared passionately about the poor. Indeed, he spent the last years of his life fighting for the poor.
Not all Christians (and not all Americans) agree on how best to deal with the vexing issue of poverty. King believed in more government redistribution and saw government as the best instrument for correcting the problem of income inequality and other grave social ills.
Conservatives believe that free markets and a growing economy lift all boats. We observe that as government grows, churches and the private economy get crowded out of the public square, to the considerable detriment to all Americans, rich and poor.
Would King learn lessons from European socialism and its effect on churches throughout the continent? Would King see the folly of the Great Society, or, like President Obama, would he double down on the commitment to redistributionist policies?
Whatever your opinions on the matter, say this about the Reverend Martin Luther King: He cared deeply about the poor. He was there. He showed up. He was in the streets fighting for the poor every day, every day until his last.
On April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination, King gave a speech at the Mason Temple, then the Church of God headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support black sanitation workers, represented by AFSCME Local 1733, who had been on strike since March 12 for higher wages and better treatment. In one incident that spurred the strike, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees received a full day’s pay.
In the speech, titled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he made at least a dozen references to the Bible, and toward the end, he spoke of the end of his own life as if he knew it would be ending shortly:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
The audience roared. They could not know that their hero would be gunned down the very next day at the Lorraine Hotel in downtown Memphis.
Though King had a sense of foreboding, he was not despondent — because he knew he was doing God’s work. Here were the final words of his final public speech:
And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
Listen carefully to the stories of King this week. Listen very carefully.
The man who so loved God — and who feared only God’s judgment — will be stripped of that animating spirit by a fiercely secular media.
But it was God, and King’s desire to serve his God, that changed this country forever. No amount of revisionist history by the secular left and the mainstream media it dominates can change that eternal truth.
That’s what drives totalitarians crazy about Christians: They believe that no God shall come before theirs, even if his name is the State. That’s what really drives liberals crazy about Jesus. His followers believe He is the answer to their problems, not government.
That’s why liberals hate Jesus, even the ones who say they love him.
As King said that night in Memphis, a few hours before his death:
We need all of you. And you know what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around, he must tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, who said, “When God speaks, who can but prophesy?” Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me,” and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.
Martin Luther King Jr. changed America by acting upon his closely held beliefs about that old book he so deeply loved, and he impressed those beliefs upon millions of Americans, so many of whom were Christians themselves.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network.