Monday, January 15, 2007

Long Weekend Secularism Blogging: MLK

(I hope my massive and adoring audience can forgive the recent infrequncy of my posts; I've been very overworked and underslept lately, but this week should be better.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the very few widely-recognized American heroes that genuinely deserves the adoration he receives. I have no doubt that we will all be inundated today with tributes to his legacy, both genuine and disingenuous. He clearly deserves the adulation, but I feel like there's little point in me adding to it. I'd like to talk about a more ambiguous aspect of the man's legacy.

MLK was and thought of himself as a religious figure. He was a preacher himself, of course, and his political oratory drew heavily on religious imagery and appeals to common, and specifically Christian, faith.

I think this goes a long way toward explaining how the man has become that rarest of all American public figures: the universally, unambiguously revered icon of an activist social movement. It's hard to imagine a secular or even a non-Christian figure achieving a similar standing. Certainly Malcolm X did not, despite his own very deeply felt Muslim faith and earnest, principled stand for civil rights. Nor did the atheist W.E.B. Du Bois. I don't think this is due to their relative lack of importance, or even due to King's practice of exclusively non-violent resistance. Certainly this is a big part of his legacy, and the violent resistance advocated by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers turned so many whites off that it (unfairly, IMO) tarnished their images. But I don't think it's possible even to imagine a secular or atheistic person, no matter how pacifistic, in King's role.

MLK is now revered even by all but the most extreme right-wingers. Conservatives often try, absurdly, to claim him as one of their own, in part based on his use of religious arguments. As Andrew Busch of the National Review puts the point (quoted in a piece from TNR quoted by Digby),
he rallied his followers with an explicitly religious message" and thus "stands as a stinging rebuke to those today who argue that religion and politics should never mix."

Now, it would be perfectly reasonable to dismiss this line of argument entirely, since it's obviously nothing but a transparent attempt to appropriate a popular left-wing figure to make a case for policies and principles utterly opposed to his own. But we shouldn't dismiss it entirely, because there is a kernel of truth here. King did use religious language and religious arguments. Nothing about that contradicts with liberalism or leftism per se, but it should at least raise some hackles for us secularists. (Not all leftists must be secularists, though liberals really ought to be if they want to be intellectually consistent--note that secularism is not the same as atheism!)

No offense to Dr. King, for whom I have the utmost respect, but it troubles me that the total reverence he inspires is so intimately connected to his religion. This seems to me to be part and parcel with the unspoken rule that candidates for political office--particularly national political office--must be possessed of a deep religious faith of some kind.

Now, I understand that we do live in a mostly Christian society, and that it makes perfect sense that people would respond to faith-based arguments in politics and would feel more connection to openly religious public figures, etc. That it's understandable shouldn't make it any less troubling, though. It's troubling that you have to be publicly religious in order to have your voice heard in this country--and that non-religious voices are utterly shut out. But it goes deeper than that.

Whether a good faith-based argument can be made for a particular policy has absolutely nothing to do with whether it's a good policy, and should have absolutely nothing to do with whether the policy is implemented. Whether a person puts on a good show of piety has absolutely nothing to do with her fitness for public office, and should have absolutely nothing to do with whether she gets elected. Whether a person's activism draws on his religious faith has absolutely nothing to do with whether his activism ought to succeed, or whether his legacy ought to be respected. In King's case, I think his activism and his ideas would stand on their own feet without their religious dressing. But I wish that our society could get to the point where it was possible for them to actually do so.


M.J. O'Brien said...

The beatification of MLK is also founded on deep official relief over his long commitment to nonviolence. His pacificism may have been militant, and their relief inappropriate, but the perceived threat from Malcolm X, the Panthers and the Nation of Islam was far greater. Meanwhile, during the 20 years of semiofficial holidays recognizing MLK, the U.S. has engaged in three major wars, nearly a thousand executions, and torture in Iraq and elsewhere, all with no indication that nonviolence is even considered as an alternative. Except, of course, for dissenters, in which case it's a sacrament.

Edward J. Blum said...

Just so you know, I have a religious biography of W. E. B. Du Bois coming out in May: _W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet_ that makes it quite clear that Du Bois was not an atheist. In fact, he was probably one of America's greatest thinkers. My book examines how seriously he took religion and how he moved thousands in their spiritual lives.
Best, Edward J. Blum