In a recent article, Professor Peter Dreier appropriated Martin Luther King Jr. as champion of the “liberal” side of several raging public debates. Having been inspired from childhood by the justice of King’s struggle for racial equality and the effective and eloquent way in which he pursued his “Dream,” I find Dreier’s conclusions surprising and counter-intuitive. I reject the assumption that this giant of a man can be so neatly categorized.
Dreier claimed, for instance, that “King would stand — and sit in when necessary — with the LGBT community to help push states toward legalizing same-sex marriage…” The staggering presumptuousness of such a statement is exposed by the preceding sentences, in which Dreier first concedes that “King did not approve of homosexuality,” but then declares that King’s viewpoint would certainly have changed over time in light of the NAACP’s position and growing support for gay rights among black clergy members.
First of all, it is the height of arrogance for anyone to start from King’s known, stated position (disapproval of homosexuality), and assume that he knows King’s psyche, religious convictions and motivations well enough to conclude that King would have done an about face as a result of special interest groups or polling data.
But beyond that, the rationale behind Dreier’s conclusion is unconvincing. Historical giants like King are historical giants precisely because they don’t form their moral views based on cultural trends; rather, they resist man-made constructs that ultimately harm and degrade human beings and lead us, instead, to what is true, good, and beautiful.
William Wilberforce stood against the slave trade and Dietrich Bonhoeffer against the Nazis because, like King, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer believed that every human being is created in the image of God and therefore has unique dignity and inherent worth. There is no escaping it: at the core of these heroes of humanity is a decidedly and specifically biblical worldview. Their passion for honoring the teachings of Jesus Christ was their motivation for waging war against various iterations of human oppression.
Where would King have stood on gay marriage? I don’t presume to know the answer. Although the Bible consistently identifies homosexual activity as a moral wrong, many today profess to be convinced that Jesus Christ himself would have championed gay marriage as a step toward love, compassion and equality.
My respect for King is deep enough, however, to convince me that he would have studied the Scriptures to critically evaluate that claim. In considering whether recognition of gay marriage really is loving and compassionate, he probably would have examined the reasons for marriage and the likely societal consequences of defining this fundamental institution based on individual preferences. He would have looked past value-laden labels and studied the contents of the package under a lens comprised of both compassion and truth.
Another label King would have parsed is that of “reproductive freedom.” Dreier trots out the fact that King once received a “Margaret Sanger Award” as ironclad proof that he would have been an abortion rights activist. Dreier candidly admits, however, that “King never spoke publicly about his views on abortion,” and that he was assassinated before Roe v. Wade was decided.
We live in a culture committed to the concept of liberty and obsessed with the idea of “choice,” so any conduct packaged in the trappings of “right to choose” (as any conduct at all might well be packaged) appears, superficially, to be a moral good. But I believe King would have balked at the idea of labeling one human being’s purposeful destruction of another human being as a liberty or “choice” that is beyond the power of a civilized society to restrict.
While supportive of Planned Parenthood’s educational efforts on birth control, I think King would have wept at the rate at which babies of color —babies with unique dignity and inherent worth — are being aborted. I think he would have been outraged that a whopping 80 percent of Planned Parenthood clinics are strategically located in minority neighborhoods.
It is impossible for anyone to credibly claim King’s endorsement for causes that arose after his death. But this much we know: King was a follower of Jesus Christ.
His boldness, compassion and commitment to serving others were beautifully consistent with the Christ depicted in the Bible. And just as Christ stood for timeless moral absolutes, I believe King would have looked beyond labels, politics, and polls and stood for transcendent truth, goodness and beauty.