Bending The Arc Of Justice
It was a scene eagerly anticipated by many, including those who have no particular enthusiasm for the person or policies of Barack Obama. Anyone conscious of America's original sin—slavery followed by segregation—could not be unmoved by the sight of a black president at the Lincoln Memorial, 50 years to the day after the greatest American speech since Lincoln himself was delivered right there by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. King spoke to America about his dream. It was a dream rooted in American history and animated by Christian conviction, meaning that it was a vision of how things ought to be, not a fantasy about things that could never be. Perhaps King himself did not dream in August 1963 that in August 2013 another black man would come to the Lincoln Memorial, twice elected president of the United States, to pay him tribute.
Obama was eager to get to the Lincoln Memorial. He began his first campaign for president at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Abraham Lincoln delivered his "house divided" speech in 1858. After winning the 2008 election, he staged a pre-inaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 2009. It was Lincoln's mantle that Obama very deliberately sought to wear.
Lincoln is the great figure in the history of Americans, a people who from the beginning set out to create a new order for the ages, a self-consciously "almost-chosen" people, as many have observed. Lincoln was their Moses, leading them out of slavery and to the promised land of liberty after not forty years, but four score and seven years. Often called the Great Emancipator, he was more of a redeemer, complete with the dramatic shedding of his blood on Good Friday 1865. He proved capable in words and deeds of redeeming the time, of renewing the American experiment as a great adventure in liberty not only for its own citizens, but for the whole world. It was, and remains, an audacious—to use a word once favoured by Obama during his messianic phase—proposal, one which meets with understandable suspicion at home and abroad. But Lincoln had the words—the astonishingly, even painfully, beautiful words—to make the audacious seem not only attractive, but attainable. Reading Lincoln, whether his correspondence or the second inaugural address—the greatest political speech ever given in the English language—is to marvel at how beautiful the language can be.
We mark the sesquicentennial this November of the Gettysburg Address, a de facto new constitutional founding for America. The original founding foundered after less than a century, flawed by the original sin of slavery, and collapsed into a savage civil war. At Gettysburg, Lincoln redefined the American project as one of universal liberty, equality and participatory government, not a mere confederation of cooperating colonies cum states. The Civil War put to the test whether a nation so conceived could endure. It was not a dispute about governance or federalism, but a sacrificial defence of a grand and noble cause, of interest not only to Americans but to the whole world and all peoples yearning to breathe free. It was audacious, and Lincoln achieved it. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew all that, and so when he marched on Washington in 1963, the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, he came to the Lincoln Memorial. It was Joshua summoning the almost-chosen people to the promised land that Moses looked out upon, but did not enter.
To those with historical eyes to see, all that was present on August 28, when Obama spoke of King's dream, flanked for greater solemnity by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. I don't know if the Bushes, père et fils, were invited or not, but it would have been better if they had not been missing, for Martin Luther King's achievement is not a partisan thing. It is an American thing, as Lincoln redefined racial equality to be an American thing. It would have been better if all four former presidents had been at the Lincoln Memorial. It was a moment full of the weight of history, and an occasion for national thanksgiving.
Forgetting the Preacher
America, and the West more broadly, is not in 2013 what it was in 1963. The great Biblical power that drove the civil rights movement is now often treated as a threat to the common good. Obama knows how to lace his speeches with Biblical allusions, but his administration relentlessly pursues policies that drive religion to the margins of public life. Obama and his administration claim ostentatiously to be King's heirs, but would blanch at the language King used in 1963. The speech at the Lincoln Memorial was only his second most important literary work that year. In April 1963, King wrote his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," where he had been imprisoned on Easter weekend for leading protests. He took the time to answer his critics, especially his fellow pastors, about bringing the Christian tradition to bear on politics. He rooted his legal and constitutional arguments about justice in the long Christian tradition:
"I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.' Now, what is the difference between the two? 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. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law."
King also explained that "the church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.... It must be the guide and critic of the state, and never its tool."
What would those at the Lincoln Memorial last August think about King's judgment that government laws must be examined against the standard of the eternal law and the natural law? Language of that sort is now widely considered a religious intrusion into politics, a threat to the common good that needs to be kept at bay. Since King died, there has been a great forgetting about the religious roots of the civil rights movement, and now the idea is abroad—spread not least by Obama's administration—that common life needs to be protected against the influence of religious institutions and religious believers.
It has long been the practice to refer to Martin Luther King as Dr. King and not Reverend King. Partly that is just cultural practice among Protestants—the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, is usually styled Dr. But there is also a forgetting that King was primarily a preacher, not a scholar. Given the substantiated charges of plagiarism in his doctorate, it is all the more dubious to refer to him as Dr. but there is no doubt that he was a pastor of souls and a zealous prophet of justice. The 1963 march took place on August 28, the feast of St. Augustine; unlikely though that it was chosen for that reason, it was a providential date for an oration that indicted the city of man for its thwarting of the city of God.
King read and was formed by Augustine, and used his arguments in favour of the civil rights movement. He appealed to American law and to the federal courts, but his ultimate justification was the Gospel and the Christian tradition. All that is now deliberately obscured. This secularization of history is striking given how recent the civil rights movement was. The religiosity of King—or even of Jimmy Carter when he ran for president in 1976—is now very alien to the crowd who gathered last August 28. King was a preacher, not a gifted community organizer.
Religion and Politics
Reverend King is an example of the essential and positive contribution that religion makes to the work of justice and the pursuit of the common good. The Baptist preacher knew how to answer those who repeatedly told him to keep to his pulpit and out of public life.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born just down the street from the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where preaching was the family trade—both his father and grandfather held that pulpit. In the 1960s, King and his father were co-pastors, taking turns preaching at what the son made one of the most important pulpits in American history. I once visited Ebenezer Baptist, where King's recorded sermons are played in the church, and the sermon when I visiting was right on point. Preaching on Matthew 25, King spoke in blunt language about those who claim to be Christians but do not feed the poor or clothe the naked or visit the sick.
"The Lord will say to them: Get out of my face!" preached King. Remember that the next time someone tries to make King into a milquetoast clergyperson urging everyone just to get along. The King of 1963, not 2013's truncated memory, stands as a rebuke to those who would separate faith from the works of faith, and would separate religion from public life. Many tried in the 1960s. King resisted. The 50th anniversary celebrations conveniently forgot that part of the civil rights movement.
Obama's favourite King quotation is that "the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice." At the Lincoln Memorial, Obama added that "it doesn't bend on its own." And how did King bend history toward justice? He preached Jesus Christ. It was as a teenager reading the speeches of Martin Luther King that I first awakened to the power of the Gospel preached with conviction to bend the course of history. He had a great influence on my thinking about the relation of the civil law to truth, the limits on State power, and the role of religious faith in politics. I was introduced to his speeches when in junior high school, and my first major high school presentation was on his life and thought. In the ways of providence, that thread, along with many others, were woven together such that I, too, would be charged with preaching that same Gospel. Many in King's time—both in the church and the broader culture—admonished King to keep quiet, to preach the Gospel if he must, but restrict it to the humble confines of Ebenezer Baptist. But the word of God cannot be chained. There were those who wished to chain it in 1963. In 2013, many who came to praise King fulsomely also set about chaining the word of God, rejecting King's conviction that God's word belonged as much on the national Mall as it did at Ebenezer Baptist.
King After 1963
The themes articulated by King in 1963 were the mature fruit of his civil rights preaching. When he was dead less than five years later, it was universally considered that he died too soon, nine months shy of his 40th birthday. What might he have done if he had lived his three score and ten? It's tempting to think that greater heights might have been reached, but the evidence is that Washington 1963 was the high point of King's life, a prophetic denunciation and uplifting of America. Part of the evidence that King after 1963 was no longer the King of Birmingham and the Lincoln Memorial was provided in Canada.
In 1967, Reverend King was invited to deliver the prestigious Massey Lectures under his chosen title, "Conscience for Change." Even amid all the flag-waving of the centennial year, surely King's words were an occasion of Canadian pride without equal that year:
"Canada is not merely a neighbor to Negroes. Deep in our history of struggle for freedom, Canada was the North Star. The Negro slave, denied education, dehumanized, imprisoned on cruel plantations, knew that far to the north a land existed where a fugitive slave, if he survived the horrors of the journey, could find freedom. The legendary Underground Railroad started in the South and ended in Canada. The freedom road links us together. Our spirituals, now so widely admired around the world, were often codes. We sang of ‘heaven' that awaited us and the slave masters listened in innocence, not realizing that we were not speaking of the hereafter. Heaven was the word for Canada, and the Negro sang of the hope that his escape on the Underground Railroad would carry him there. One of our spirituals, ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd,' in its disguised lyrics contained directions for escape. The gourd was the Big Dipper, and the North Star to which its handle pointed gave the celestial map that directed the flight to the Canadian border. So standing today in Canada, I am linked with the history of my people and its unity with your past."
Unfortunately, especially for a deep admirer of Reverend King, the Massey Lectures rather go downhill from there. The great Scriptural trumpet blast that King would deliver only months later in Memphis, on the eve of his assassination, was not much in evidence. Indeed, King seemed to have lost his way from 1963. One detects in King's Massey Lectures the seeds of what would later flourish in the anti-Americanism and reverse bigotry of hucksters such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, to say nothing of the lunatic raving of then-Senator Obama's "pastor," Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
The King of 1963 went to the Lincoln Memorial to, as he put it, cash a cheque. America had promised all her citizens liberty, but the black man had been denied it. King appealed to the basic justice of America, refusing to accept that the vaults of justice were empty or that the wellsprings of liberty had run dry. His speech resonated not only across America, but around the world, precisely because it sought to include the black man in the American experiment in ordered liberty. Anyone denied liberty, oppressed by the State, could share the dream. Citizens of the Soviet empire, promised liberty in theory but delivered the gulag in practice could share that dream. Blacks suffering under apartheid in South Africa, promised equality but kept separate, could share that dream.
Yet the King of 1967 did not speak in the language of universal rights, moral witness and individual liberty. The Toronto lectures followed the urban riots of the previous summer, and one gets a sense of King trying to re-connect with a movement that is no longer marching to his earlier ideals. For King admirers, accustomed to his prophetic denunciations of violence and injustice, it is painful listening to him distinguish between the rioters' violence against property rather than persons, as if the former was somehow justified. The teacher of non-violence does not condone the riots, but he is uneasy condemning them.
Obama noted in his anniversary speech that, post- 1963, the leadership of black America lost its way:
"We'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support—as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself."
The seeds of that are already there in Toronto in 1967. While the 1963 King emphasized the virtue, discipline and community strength of black Americans as the means for achieving their emancipation, the 1967 King takes a more statist tone, blaming an economic system that can only be changed by massive government spending. No longer are black Americans the agents of their own development; rather it is now up to the government to take the lead for them. The Massey Lectures have the tone not of prophetic emancipation, but rather a campaign brief for the expansion of the welfare state. In 1967, King is greatly preoccupied with the injustice of the Vietnam War, which he opposed strongly. But he allowed himself to be seduced by the anti-Americanism that tainted the anti-war movement: "I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."
It is painful to read that. Whatever America's sins in Vietnam, it is impossible to justify that claim, while hundreds of millions were imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain, while millions were starved off the land in the Great Leap Forward. Calling America the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world" is inconsistent with the body of King's work. He is no doubt accommodating the more militant blacks who once followed him but, by 1967, thought he was too moderate. Yet in giving comfort to that view, he set the stage for the civil rights movement to, as Obama put it, lose its way.
Perhaps in 1967, King was too caught up in the social turmoil and compromised the purity of his earlier movement. Perhaps he would have corrected himself over time. Perhaps, but he died too soon. And for those of us who greatly admire him, we will prefer to remember not what he said in Toronto in 1967, but what he said in Birmingham and Washington in 1963 and in those inspiring years before. King remains an important figure, for in our secular age he remains one of the few culturally acceptable witnesses to the power of the Christian gospel to bend history toward justice and peace, even if that is oft overlooked. President Obama overlooked it at the 50th anniversary. But politicians often overlook what is inconvenient to them. King's fellow Christian disciples—then and now—need to remember that he did bend the arc of history toward justice, but the bending was not that of the social activist alone, or the government bureaucrat. It was the bending of a prophet.
The Dictatorship Of Relativism Arrives
Not far from the Lincoln Memorial is the American Supreme Court. It powerfully boosted the civil rights movement with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was unconstitutional in public schools. This summer, the court ruled that the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), by which the federal government defined in 1996 that marriage was between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional. President Obama, who welcomed the ruling, made the case explicitly at the Lincoln Memorial that same-sex marriage is in continuity with the civil rights movement for racial equality, a claim that certainly would have surprised the pastors who marched in 1963. Yet leave that aside. What the court did in its ruling on DOMA in the Windsor case is a perfect example of what we looked at in our last issue regarding what I called Pope Benedict's "September Speeches."
Those four September speeches lay out Benedict's proposal for how faith and reason, religion and politics, charity and justice, ought to animate the free society. They are an extended response to the phrase Benedict made famous on the day before his election as pope. Preaching to the cardinals as they prepared to enter the conclave, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger surveyed the public intellectual history of our time:
"How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves—flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error comes true."
Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14), seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.
"Dictatorship" conjures up images of jackboots and the midnight knock at the door. The dictatorship of relativism arrives rather more congenially than that. And what Cardinal Ratzinger warned against in 2005 has now come to full flower, delivered with great courtesy by the American Supreme Court. Just as the dictatorship of relativism is relevant in Canada and the around the world, what the American court did in Windsor is relevant to us, too, for it provides a model of how this new dictatorship arrives, and comports itself when it does.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Windsor, and he had himself something of a challenge. Same-sex marriage was clearly not deeply rooted in American constitutional history, and in 1996 DOMA passed the Congress by huge margins and was signed by President Clinton. The law was clear, and the constitution was silent about defining marriage. So how to rule that what DOMA did was unconstitutional? Kennedy, joined by the court's four liberal justices, ruled that the law was unconstitutional because the only reason for it was an animus towards homosexuals. Casually casting aside the ancient civilizational consensus that marriage proceeds from the differentiation and complementarity of the sexes, Kennedy and his colleagues asserted that no good reason existed for the federal government to establish the traditional definition of marriage in law other than rank prejudice.