By Brian T. Kaylor
Twenty-five years ago, the third Monday in January was designated a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Born on January 15, the Baptist pastor led one of the most significant social movements in the history of the United States, transforming American politics, society, and religion. More than four decades after King’s assassination, the fruits of his work continue to reverberate throughout society. When Barack Obama placed his hand on the Bible two years ago and took the presidential oath of office, it symbolized a partial fulfillment of King’s dream.
However, King’s influence on American politics today extends far beyond opening doors for minorities to find political success. King and the civil rights movement also impacted the relationship between religion and politics. Few political figures invoked God and cited scripture as explicitly and eloquently as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In many respects, King’s civil rights movement—and to a lesser extent the anti-Vietnam War movement that he was also part of—brought religious rhetoric squarely into public policy debates and created a model for later religious activists seeking political influence. King built a movement that urged religious leaders and citizens to leave the church sanctuary and march into the streets. He directly served as a primary instigator for today’s liberal evangelical movement and an inspiration for today’s conservative evangelical movement—even among those who initially criticized his political mission.
Many politicians join religious leaders in pointing to King as justification for infusing God and scripture more heavily into their political discourse. While arguing the importance of connecting one’s faith to one’s policies during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama pointed to King and other religious-political activists: “Look, Martin Luther King, the abolitionists, the suffragettes, Dorothy Day—we have a long history of reform movements being grounded in that sense, often religiously expressed, that we have to extend beyond ourselves and our individual immediate self-interests to think about something larger.” As Obama correctly noted, King and his movement demonstrated how religious faith can inspire people to make the world a better place. To attempt to excise faith from the public square would be to isolate society from the influences of individuals like King.
Yet, the reverse problem can also develop—one where politicians attempt to become preachers and use the government to enforce their specific sectarian goals. King, the prophet calling out the powerful interests, demonstrated the healing power of faith. But those same aspirations could backfire if used instead by those in power to maintain their positions. In the age of confessional politics in which we live, too often religion is used to gain power and strip minority religious groups of their civil rights. What we need is not necessarily more or less religion in politics, but a different kind. We need the faith that King preached, the faith that shows love for all one’s neighbors, the faith that empowers the down trodden, the faith that fights for justice for all.
Dr. Brian T. Kaylor (www.BrianKaylor.com) is an assistant professor of communication studies at James Madison University. He is the author of Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics.