Huckabee Calls For Civil Disobedience, Utterly Misreads MLK, Jr.

Image of a portion of MLK, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963. Courtesy The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University

Mike Huckabee has joined the ranks of those invoking Martin Luther King Jr. to legitimate civil disobedience in response to the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same sex marriage.

As the former Arkansas governor declared Sunday morning on ABC’s “This Week,”

“I don’t think a lot of pastors and Christian schools are going to have a choice. They either are going to follow God, their conscience and what they truly believe is what the scripture teaches them, or they will follow civil law. They will go the path of Dr. Martin Luther King, who in his brilliant essay the ‘Letters from a Birmingham Jail’ reminded us, based on what St. Augustine said, that an unjust law is no law at all. And I do think that we’re going to see a lot of pastors who will have to make this tough decision.”

I am glad Huckabee has read Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He has, however, not read it very carefully. Dr. King does begin by quoting St. Augustine, but he goes on to draw upon St. Thomas Aquinas to elaborate on what is a just or an unjust law.

Aquinas, Dr. King urges, has several criteria:

First, “a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” Of course what is specifically disputed within Christian circles is whether or not same sex marriage is moral, whether or not it “squares with the moral law of God.” Huckabee certainly doesn’t speak for all Christians. A number of churches both ordain lesbians and gay men and are ready to recognize same sex marriages, including Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Congregationalists.

As for the second of Dr. King’s criteria: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

It’s difficult to imagine just what distortion of personality a straight person may suffer from acknowledging that homosexuals are equally persons and therefore should have the same rights, including to marry, that heterosexuals enjoy.

But I am sure of the suffering inflicted upon homosexual persons through discrimination in the broader society and through their rejection and condemnation by certain churches and some people of faith. There is a long history of physical and emotional abuse of LGBT people in this country. The Supreme Court decision was greeted with great joy by those most directly affected by it, namely those same-sex couples who have sought to marry. They certainly have experienced the Supreme Court decision as an uplifting of their personalities, not degradation.

As part of this second criterion, Dr. King notes that the unjust law of segregation “distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” In the present case, the denial of same sex marriage based upon the moral judgment that same sex couples are morally inferior, as their form of sexuality is condemned and rejected, seems akin to the segregators. Denying same sex couples legal access to marriage which heterosexuals have implies inferiority to the same sex couples.

The third criterion Dr. King identifies is that

“an unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.”

For same sex couples to have legal access just like heterosexual couples is clearly sameness made legal. To deny such equal legal access “is difference made legal.”

The final criterion has to do with access to voting. Dr. King writes, “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.” This one doesn’t appear to apply, but it is interesting to note that Huckabee and his political party have been leading the way in coming up with new regulations that directly deny people the right to vote.

Dr. King was about expanding equality—Huckabee’s stance on same sex marriage is about restricting equality. It’s pretty straightforward. Huckabee will have to find some other moral support for his call to civil disobedience.