RDPulpit: On the Betrayal of King’s Legacy and Culture Wars

On this day occasioned by the birth of a great American prophet, I am saddened by the cowardice of religious leaders and their betrayal of the best of the democratic tradition. Third Way’s putative call for reconciliation, “Come Let Us Reason Together: A Governing Agenda for the End of the Culture Wars,” is nothing less than the continued blessing of the religious right’s cultural politics. The substitution of gay marriage, reproductive justice, amnesty, and an end to the ambiguous “war on terror” with workplace rights for gays, abortion reduction, immigration reform, and an end to torture, is yet another articulation of the religious right’s victory in public discourse and policy.

Setting aside this dubious compromise for a moment, the document’s supporters come dangerously close to participating in a racist project, given the dearth of African-American religious leaders at the table and, more importantly, issues of concern to communities of color. With nearly one million black and brown (mostly) men languishing in prisons, forty-five million Americans without health care, an immoral, illegal, unjust war on the people of Iraq, alarming infant mortality among women of color, and the continued denial of civil rights to queer families, the continued privileging of white, straight male leaders of the evangelicals continues to deny the presence of progressive people of color, women, and queer folks in the democratic project.

While some voices inside the beltway see the “Reason Together” document as a victory and will respond to my words as divisive and untimely, this occasion reminds us that those religious leaders who side with the powerful always make the claim that the powerless are divisive and untimely. In 1958, Martin Luther King and 2,000 other Baptist ministers were expelled from the National Baptist Convention because of their commitment to civil rights. Moreover, of the nearly 500 black churches in Birmingham in 1963, only nine participated in the Civil Rights Movement. Nine. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was partly written in response to local clergymen who found King’s presence to be “untimely.”

The evangelical stream of the religious right is part of a tradition that opposed King and one that now stalls queer rights, supports a ban on abortion, and sanctified the war in Iraq. Historically, only the defeat of this stream has served to expand democracy. There have always been religious forces that promoted or opposed democratic expansion. The prophetic forces concerned with democratic expansion hold the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. The Bible may have been used to justify slavery and segregation, but those who participated in the Underground Railroad had a different reading of scripture. Other times it has been simply used to justify the status quo, or to do little or nothing in the face of oppression. We can see this in the experience of the women’s movement, and any other movement for democratic expansion. We certainly see it in the contemporary struggle over marriage equality. The reproductive rights movement traces a part of its lineage to United Methodist Women meeting in a church basement in Dallas, Texas. What has moved history and expanded democracy has been prophetic minorities willing to risk life and limb to seize the public’s imagination and transform politics and public policy. The thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act are all testaments to this tradition. The “Reason” document, in contrast, betrays this tradition and denies the continued expansion of democracy.

Most of the signers of “Reason” and organizations like Sojourners, Matthew 25, Faith in Public Life, and The Third Way are more interested in negotiating with the religious right than in expanding democratic freedom. A narrative that eulogizes the religious right or claims a negotiated settlement between progressives and evangelicals is weak at best. To claim King’s legacy without his sacrifice is childish; to bear witness to his courage but lack his conviction is cowardly. They betray King’s legacy, hinder democracy and make a mockery of the tradition that afforded me the right to write these words as free man.

But there is hope.

In the prophetic tradition that King embodied, there is much that the signers of “Reason” can learn from. It has only been by reading the Bible in one hand and the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in the other that democracy has been expanded. The reading of scripture in close proximity to the sacred texts of American history and government provides us with a narrative of religious and civic discourse that is centered on the expansion of democratic opportunity.

This is central to the story and struggles of African Americans, and is widely accessible and resonant in our culture along with the stories of Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, and my beloved grandmother. I believe if we tell that story, a revival of the best of the prophetic tradition will break out. This narrative is so powerful, so integral to our nation’s history and to our highest aspirations as a society that it has played such a profound role in the boldest, most successful movements for social justice of which even our most conservative brothers and sisters praise and accept. So powerful that it can salvage our democracy and inspire social movements with an authenticity worthy of the founding of Christianity and on a scale that could exceed the Protestant reformation.

And on the day that eyes have seen and ears heard LGBTQI folks sitting at the expanded table of democracy with equality and justice on the plates, preemptive war will be no more, reproductive justice will be the norm, and the phrase “illegal immigrant” will be obsolete. And on that day, King will lean over heaven’s balcony and say of us: “Well done, Well done, Well done…”