Today marks the federal observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. As the nation pauses to remember King and his achievements, it’s a good time to take a look at what this towering American leader thought about church-state issues.
First off, King was no advocate of partisan politicking in the pulpit. While King, a Baptist minister, spoke powerfully about issues of racial justice and equality from pulpits, he didn’t see the need to hand out candidate endorsements in church. The late U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who worked with King in the 1960s, pointed out several times that King did not electioneer in church.
“Ministers who led the civil rights movement did not select political candidates and operate our churches like political action committees," Lewis said during an Oct. 1, 2002, debate on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. "Although their churches and leaders faced violence and hatred for their efforts to protect human rights and human dignity, they were free and even protected by the Constitution to speak out on these issues. At no time did we envision or even contemplate the need for our houses of worship to become partisan pulpits."
King also did not support the Religious Right’s attack on reproductive rights. He was an advocate of family planning. For his work on this issue, King in 1966 was given Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award, which the organization presents annually to leaders who support reproductive justice.
Accepting the award on his behalf, King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, read a statement from King, during which he remarked, “Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her.”
King supported the Supreme Court’s decisions striking down government-sponsored prayer in public schools. King was asked about this issue during a January 1965 interview with Playboy magazine written by Alex Haley. King not only backed the high court’s rulings, but he also noted that his frequent nemesis, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, stood on the other side.
“I endorse it. I think it was correct,” King said. “Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision. They have been motivated, I think, by little more than the wish to embarrass the Supreme Court. When I saw Brother Wallace going up to Washington to testify against the decision at the Congressional hearings, it only strengthened my conviction that the decision was right.”
King would have been highly skeptical of the Religious Right’s crusade for teaching creationism and “intelligent design” in public schools. King saw no need for religion and science to fight. Strength to Love, a collection of King’s sermons, contains this King observation: “Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.”
In one of his most famous passages, which comes from a sermon that was also printed in Strength to Love, King reminded Americans that the church "must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state." He called on the church to be critical of the government when necessary but never to become "its tool."
Christian nationalists sometimes try to claim King, but he was no friend of their views. Take a moment today and celebrate his true legacy of freedom.