I missed Dr. King’s actual birthday, because I’ve the organizational skills of an F3 tornado and the discipline of a goldfish. But at least I’ve something for the official Martin Luther King day.
While the Reverend Doctor King had a Ph.D. from Boston University in Speculative Theology, he was also (of course) a Baptist Minister. I’ll have some thoughts to share about right-wing reactions to this fact below the fold, but now I wish to point out some facts that make some atheists on the left side of the political spectrum a bit uncomfortable. First among these, not only was King a Baptist minister, but the entire American Civil Rights movement was religious to its core. A number of the noisier atheists seem to think that, after watching five minutes of Pat Robertson, they are now experts in theology and the history of religion. This presumption often leads these folks to conflate right-wing ideologues spewing twaddle clothed in a veneer of religious talk with the entire spectrum of human religious experience, and utterly oblivious to theological (to say nothing of philosophical) ideas about “god.” (See for example HERE and HERE.) But more importantly for our purposes, there is oftentimes a systematic failure amongst some secularists and atheists to understand that the American Civil Rights movement was irreducibly religious in character, in organization, and in philosophy. Secularists participated in the movement, but they played no substantive role. So these types of atheists contradict themselves when they simultaneously praise the civil rights movement and yet damn all religion wholesale.
The above errors of some secularists can mostly be chocked up to simple ignorance. But when some conservatives – who, in this instance, more-or-less universally posture as deeply religious individuals – attempt to co-opt Dr. King for themselves and the Republican party, their moves are little more than willful stupidity and outright lying. Thus, one occasionally sees a meme on social media with a picture of King overlaid with supposedly profound “did you know” claims. One of these makes a big deal out of the fact (in this case, an actual fact) that King was a Baptist minister. Well, of course he was! Fifty years ago, it was still possible to be a Baptist and stand up and embrace civil rights and social justice. President Carter stuck it out with the Baptists as long as he could, but even he finally resigned from the church for its systematic refusal to permit any such embrasure today. What the meme fails to mention is that it was because King, and other like him, were Baptists that they put in place safeguards to never allow such people to occupy positions of importance within the church again.
Pointing to King’s ministry as though that somehow meant he was a vicious right-wing extremist of today’s Baptist variety is as blatantly dishonest as contemporary Republicans trying to take credit for Abraham Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt. But some of them go further (as in the above noted meme) and claim that King was (or, at least, voted) Republican. This last claim is a bald-faced lie, not so much because it is false but because people are claiming knowledge of a subject about which no such knowledge is possible. King, for the most part, kept his voting to himself. But worse than being a lie, the claim is also irrelevant. As anyone with even a high-school grasp of history knows, Southern Democrats – the “Dixiecrats” – were some of the most viciously racist politicians around. And when Johnson lamented losing the South for the Democratic party for fifty years, upon signing the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, it was because the Dixiecrats did exactly what one would expect: they all quit the democratic party and joined the GOP. So if King ever did vote for a Republican in a state or local election, it was to avoid voting for a Dixiecrat (who eventually would become a Republican.) Any pretense that the GOP or conservatives stand anywhere within an astronomical unit of the moral high ground here is the worst sort of infantile nonsense.
Enough of the history of misrepresentation, let us take a moment to look at a bit of Dr. King’s thought, in this case his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Full as it is with exhilarating moral language and great rhetorical flourishes, the Letter also quickly presents compelling philosophical arguments for three inter-related objective ethical points. The first of these is the relational holism of the moral world. In his own words:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. (Page 1.)
The second point worth highlighting is King’s list of the “four basic steps” involved in a civil campaign. These are (1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist, (2) negotiation, (3) self purification, and (4) direct action. In our most recent history, step #3 seems to be the one most frequently skipped. “Self purification” is a matter of eliminating one’s personal ego from the issues that are being faced, so as to determine if one is acting for justice, or for personal aggrandizement. A just action cannot suffer the latter in its midst. While many actions from the political left fail this particular test, one can easily see how actions on the political right are incapable of even trying to live up to such a standard. (King describes how these rules were applied in Birmingham on pages 1 – 3.)
The third point is the one I want to give the most attention to: the determination of when a secular law is a moral law. King is unambiguous that one has a moral duty to obey a just law, but a moral duty to disobey an unjust one. So how do you tell the difference (the criteria must be objective, or they will be meaningless)? There are two generic forms of criteria that come into play: a law can be unjust in its formulation, or a law can be unjust in its application. King makes the point that, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” (Page 3.) The use of the term “personality” is unfortunate, because that has taken on purely subjective and psychological connotations. A more apt term would be “personhood,” as this carries the kind of metaphysical weight that King was arguing for. Laws that explicitly isolate one group of human beings from another, especially when this is done with no other end in view than the maintenance of institutionalized power relations, are intrinsically unjust. Thus, the laws which, in many Islamic countries, require strict dress codes for women without any such requirements for men are inherently unjust. And no amount of “Stockholm Syndrome” driven defenses by women who live under such laws will change that fact, any more than Uncle Tom’s defense of “Massa’s” privileges would serve to make slavery and racism legitimate. Alternatively, consider the Amish: They too have strict dress codes, but those codes apply to both men and women. I don’t especially approve of those codes, but neither can I denounce them: they establish a basis of community and responsibility on everyone, and are equally strict on all.
Consider, now, the case of laws equal in formulation but unequal in application. So, for example, an unarmed black man is shot dead for assaulting a white cop, and is demonized as a non-human thing. A white man assaults seven police officers and is brought in alive, even salutes in his mugshot. The statistics are unambiguous: unarmed black people are far more likely to be killed by cops than white people under otherwise analogous circumstances. Instances of lesser (and greater) violence are easily multiplied. (The fact that the town of Ferguson, MO, gained so much revenue from the citations it levied with such promiscuous abandon upon its black citizens might be mentioned, in the context of the seemingly irrational rage of Michael Brown.)
This is the world bequeathed to us after the Lorraine Motel. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that things are actually better, but they are. Fifty years ago, no one would even have noticed a black man murdered by the police, much less suggest there should be any accountability. Today we can give an account of what makes a just law and why.