The Religious Right and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I always have strong feelings of apathy for this civil religious holiday. My main contention of the holiday is that it whitewashed King, removing all of his complexity as well as ignoring his radical social agenda. We stop at 1963, even though King was assassinated in 1968. It was clear once the Civil Rights Legislation was passed that King’s social agenda would become more radical. Moreover, even the speech that we hail as one of the greatest pieces of American rhetoric, is whitewashed: A speech that ends on a hopeful note, in fact, begins with harsh criticisms of America. We never hear these criticisms. This latter part is ignored by us, likely because we don’t want to hear someone condemning our racist society.

Does it really surprise me when Glen Beck bastardizes the thought and theology of King when many people within our country do the same? The answer is obviously no.

Nevertheless, I get annoyed when conservatives use Dr. King to promote their own conservative message. My frustration is that they are unaware of King’s history and thought. Beck, for instance, promotes colorblind politics, when King’s speech seems to show that color-blindness is the goal of his political agenda, not the means. In short, Beck fundamentally misinterprets King. Now the Illinois Family Institute says that the Civil Rights envisioned by King doesn’t extend to queers. My contention is that their use of King is sloppy. Their goal is to appropriate an important figure in American history for their specific agenda.

The Illinois Family Institute is likely made up of people who heavily support the Republican Party, and at least unintentionally supports  their neoconservative view of militarism. King opposed the war in Vietnam, rather staunchly. In fact, he was one of the few civil rights leaders to do so. King opposed the war in specific relation to poverty within our nation. He saw it as appalling that a nation would spend thousands on a war when there were thousands in our nation that were suffering from poverty. King thought that money spent on war would be better spent on America’s poor. It also meant creating an economic bill of rights. In fact, King’s goal was for a radical reconstruction of our civil society. These are things that the Republican Party ignores. These are the things that the Illinois Family Institute ignores, especially how the family, as an institution, is extremely unstable in the face of poverty.

Lewis Baldwin is a central figure in understanding King. This year, I took a course on King and the larger context of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin’s book, There is a Balm in Gilead was one of our central texts for the course. Baldwin notes that central to King was culture of life. While pro-lifers might swoon at this suggestion, Baldwin is clear that King’s vision of a culture of life was much more expansive. King’s culture of life was one that promoted a culture of openness and enlargement: a culture where differences were not simply tolerated but respected and celebrated. Moreover, this was part of King’s goal of radical democracy: the prophetic expansion of rights and the human community.

None of this proves that King would have supported LGBT rights. We do not know how King felt about homosexuality. We could argue vis-à-vis the thought of Coretta Scott King for King’s support of queer movements. At the same time, I would like to contend that the thought of Martin and Coretta need not be the same. Martin’s thought is distinct from hers. He never talked publicly about homosexuality. In fact, the few times where King dealt with homosexuality were in situations where King handled the situation in a homophobic way. Specifically, I am thinking of the 1960 Democratic convention. Sen. Adam Clayton Powell told King that he would accuse both King and Bayard Rustin (a key figure in the Civil Rights movement and openly gay) of a homosexual love affair if they did not stop the march on the Democratic convention. King cancelled the march and let Rustin go from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Contextually, King’s thought might not specifically refer to homosexuals. King displayed homophobia. At the same time Baldwin has argued that King promoted a culture of openness and enlargement as well as a culture of radical democracy must include things such as LGBT Rights. That is, even though King did not refer to homosexuality in his thought, his thought is meant to be a framework. King’s thought is meant to be expanded.

If anything, Baldwin’s scholarship on King supports the notion that King might have criticized the contemporary Religious Right for their narrow vision. This is not to say that King would necessarily support the Religious Left either. Persons on the Left can be just as racist and homophobic/heterosexist as the Religious Right. Nevertheless, what I mean to say here is that the Religious Right needs to stop using King if they merely hijack him for their specific religious agenda. Clearly the rhetoric of the dominant (and I say dominant because I do not think we should generalize the Tea Party) Tea Party is contra to a culture of openness and enlargement and radical democracy, especially when we think about the political climate of Arizona (both in terms of the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords as well as SB 1070) or the rhetoric used against Muslims and those who are even slightly politically moderate.

To end, we have no right to draw on the thought Martin Luther King, Jr. if we are unwilling to wrestle with all of King’s intellectual thought. Refusal to do so is political appropriation that is at best expedient and at worst charlatanism.

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