Obama, MLK, Not “Nice” Enough to Moderates?

Last fall, Wall Street Journal editorialists such as Peggy Noonan and Karl Rove were full of confident predictions about the election. Rove had his polls, Noonan her “vibrations,” each telling them of the near surety of a Romney victory. Their post-election analyses didn’t even include an “oops” or “my bad.” They instead immediately moved on to dissecting how terrible Obama’s second term was (before it started).

The Journal’s political analyses and prognostications have now moved into the past, and back into the future. This time, strangely enough, it has to do with Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I thought that King had entered the pantheon of American heroes (albeit in his completely neutered, de-radicalized form), complete with statue in D.C., that meant all Americans, whether red-stater or blue-stater, conservative or liberal, had agreed on his status as an icon. And “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” too, had entered American scripture.

Not so fast. In reviewing Jonathan Rieder’s work Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation, the historian Barton Swaim gives King’s letter ritual praise but in the end finds it too full of self-pity (this from a man in solitary confinement at the time, and spied on relentlessly by the federal government), self-aggrandizement, and name-drops of liberal theologians.

He concludes that the letter, though written by a courageous man, nonetheless may not have “actually helped achieve its aim.” That’s because it was intended to “bedazzle and belittle.”

The problem, as he sees it, is that King didn’t try to preach the gospel of freedom to Southern evangelical folk, instead coming across as a “highfalutin’ liberal” who wanted to impress mainstream churchmen and liberals. He concludes:

Here I encounter what has long been, for me, a troubling aspect of King’s leadership of the civil-rights movement. He made little or no appeal to the mass of white Christians in the South—the Baptists, the evangelicals of Southern Presbyterianism, the growing numbers associated with the Pentecostal and Holiness movements. Instead he threw his energy into attracting mainline and socially liberal churchmen: Methodists, various Lutheran denominations, moderates and liberals in the Southern Presbyterian church and, especially, the Episcopalians.

… [In] the “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” … the reader will find knowing references to Thomas Aquinas, T.S. Eliot, Socrates, the theologian Paul Tillich and the political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr… All this gliding and riffing played well outside the South and among the very small number of Southern liberals already aware of the sins of segregation, but it seems almost calculated to make the vast majority of white Southern Christians dismiss King as some highfalutin’ liberal with grandiose ideas, rather than a minister of their own Christian faith calling attention to laws that contradicted the spirit of the Gospel.

This, about a man who led doubtless the most religiously-inspired social movement in American history; about someone who staged revivals with Billy Graham, preached at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, praised Southern schools (including denominational ones) that had opened their doors to black students, and penned advice columns in which he took, and answered, heartfelt questions from evangelical inquirers. This, from a man who spoke frequently of how a “conversion experience” at his kitchen table in Montgomery steeled him for the tumultuous days of struggle to come.

Of course, his rhetoric was not just confined to the evangelical kind; he moved in different modes, playing both the diplomat and the prophet in a way entirely characteristic of African American freedom fighters of the past (as Jeffrey Snyder points out in his insightful review of Rieder’s work).

To suggest that King made no effort to appeal to white Southern evangelicals, that he didn’t try to preach to them specifically in language they could understand, is maybe the most astonishing critique of King I have heard since Ronald Reagan once said that we would have to wait and see (when his FBI files opened) if King was a communist. (This in reaction to his initial opposition to a King holiday—an opposition he later relented on in signing the King Day bill.)

Asking for the Moon?

But it’s a critique eerily echoed in another piece this week, about the recent failure of the gun control measure in Congress. This time, it’s (predictably) Obama who failed to appeal to that mysteriously always-present but never-active moderate sentiment just waiting to hear the clarion call (in their own language) to do the right thing.

In this case, it comes from Megan McArdle, a normally provocative economist and writer for The Atlantic. McArdle argues that the Obama team botched their post-Newtown strategy by “asking for the moon” instead of proposing “a modest agreement that got the public on their side without fanning too much of a frenzy among the NRA’s membership.”

Instead, evidently, they took “an unwinnable negotiating position and lost everything.” She claims to get this from an article by law professor and Second Amendment expert Adam Winkler, despite the fact that Winkler ultimately concludes that

perhaps nothing would have been different had a universal background check bill been voted on in February or even January. The NRA would still have fought hard and many elected officials would still have been hesitant to support gun control. Ultimately, most of the blame for the failure of new guns laws belongs to gun control opponents, who see every gun law as the beginning of the end of gun rights.

So let us take stock so far. King is to blame for not preaching to the choir of white Southern evangelicals—who of course would have heard his gospel of freedom if he had just preached to them in their own biblical language; and Obama is to blame for the failure of the latest gun control measure, despite the fact that ninety percent of the public supported the background check measure that was voted down, that Gabi Giffords and the Newtown parents were there to lobby for the measure, and that Obama also employed his chief arm-twister, Joe Biden, to work the floor.

Evidently, in this way of thinking, just as there was a large group of white Southern evangelicals just waiting to be persuaded by a King who stuck to a Southern-style gospel (without those confusing references to Gandhi and Niebuhr), so there was a group of fair-minded senators who would have ignored the usual NRA pressure tactics and followed the wishes of the vast majority of the American people, if Obama had just talked to them in their own language.

I’ve struggled to understand this myth of the rational opposition, which appears in both of these pieces and in so much other writing recently. Here, the parallel between these two pieces is clear: King earlier, and Obama recently, simply asked too much, and weren’t nice, or savvy, enough in doing so. King (argues Swaim) should have responded to the new administration in Birmingham which was allegedly beginning to take moderate desegregation measures, just as Obama (argues McArdle) should have watered down further an already watered-down bipartisan measure, and thus not created the “frenzy” of NRA opposition—because, you know, the NRA never goes into a frenzy any other time.

Both of these analyses could benefit from a good dose of Reinhold Niebuhr’s analysis of power politics. But perhaps in order to explain it, we can simply return to King. Some months after Birmingham, he was challenged by an interlocutor, who insisted that the key lay in changing hearts and minds, not in “legislating morality.” He responded:

Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.

On that latter point, here’s a good start: how about a law (long opposed by the NRA) to place identifying “taggant” elements used in non-plastic explosives, to make it easier to trace and track gunpowder used in explosive devices. Yes, it’s complicated, but also a no-brainer—like the measures proposed after Newtown. Or would this, too, be “asking for the moon,” and not properly appreciative of the “moderate” sentiment out there which will magically do the right thing when appealed to in the right way? 

pharvey@uccs.edu'

Paul Harvey runs the blog Religion in American History and teaches history at the University of Colorado.