Was Martin Luther King Jr., whose life and legacy is memorialized this weekend, really a Christian? Of course, he was. He was thoroughly and deeply formed in the Christian faith. His language and cadences were biblical. His convictions and strategies were shaped by the life of Christ and the cross.
And yet, at some Seattle Martin Luther King Jr. Day events that you might never know or suspect this. The title “Reverend” disappears in favor of “Dr.” when King’s name is spoken. He is not remembered as a preacher of Christian faith but as a “civil rights leader.” Often no link is made, or acknowledged, between his work and his Christian faith and convictions.
I pondered the ways that King’s Christianity is muted or forgotten in Seattle as I listened to the recent debate over Fox News analyst Brit Hume’s suggestion that Tiger Woods should convert to Christianity. Generally, I am no fan of Fox News, but on this one I thought Brit Hume was right, or at least not wrong. What’s wrong with suggesting that a person weighed down by guilt and remorse might find grace and forgiveness in a particular faith?
A lot, according to the people at MSNBC and other outraged liberals. How dare Hume or anyone suggest that Woods might find succor in Christian faith? To say so constitutes denigration of Wood’s Buddhism. It is bigotry or harassment on the part of Christians.
These cries have something in common with the curious omission of King’s Christian faith that often occurs in Seattle MLK Day events. Underlying both is the idea that religion ought never show up in the public square. It should be relegated to the private sphere of home and religious congregation. It was this specious argument that Yale law professor and Christian, Stephen Carter, critiqued in his book, The Culture of Disbelief.
I agree with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who writes that the liberal idea that people in pluralistic democracies ought to be free to practice their faith without harassment has often blurred into “the more illiberal idea that nobody should ever publicly criticize another religion. Or champion one’s own faith as an alternative. Or say anything whatsoever about religion, outside the privacy of church, synagogue or home.”
Douthat points out that, “When liberal democracies were forged, in the wake of Western Europe’s religious wars ... peaceful theological debate is exactly what it promised to deliver. [Moreover] the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them.”
In some measure, the responsibility for vacating the public arena falls to Christians themselves who have accepted the argument that faith should be kept private and familial. One would not suspect in many churches these days that any truth claims are being lodged. Rather, we too play it safe, offering vague pieties with a little advice on family life thrown in. This, the loss of the conviction that theology has consequences and can change lives, has as much to do with the decline of mainline Protestantism as any other factor. If nothing’s at stake, why bother?
Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, the author of the new book Justice suggested in an earlier book, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, that this is the problem gnawing at America’s soul, the inability to posit or even discuss moral questions or the nature of the good life. We become instead “the procedural republic.”
“In recent decades,” writes Sandel, “the civic or formative aspect of our politics has largely given way to the liberalism that conceives persons as free and independent selves, unencumbered by moral or civic ties they have not chosen.” In other words, there is no truth beyond the truth I choose for myself.
Martin Luther King Jr. would surely have found this an odd and deceptive proposition. As he intoned the words of the Biblical prophets with their cry for, “Justice to flow down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he did not see faith as a purely private matter with no implication for public life.
Over the years, I have gone to orientation sessions at the three liberal arts colleges my kids attended. At each one some faculty member or administrator has said to the students, as if it were something quite interesting and remarkable, “Students, we are here to teach you to think for yourselves, to chose your own values, to decide what‘s true for you.” Hearing this once again at the last go-round, I leaned over to my wife to say, “This is news? Kids in our society get that with their mother’s milk.” The claim that there is no truth except the truth you choose for yourself is also a truth-claim.
Actually I think it would be far more interesting and helpful to inhabit a world where the relative merits of Buddhism and Christianity, New Age and Judaism, capitalism and socialism, consumerism and materialism — all narratives about what is true and real — are in lively debate. By alleging that religious conviction has no place in the public square, we in fact abandon it and our children to the reigning ideologies: capitalism, consumerism and materialism. If you don’t believe that they too are constantly working to convert people, to win hearts and minds, it‘s a sure sign that they‘ve got you.
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