Today marks the federal observance of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. Since his tragic assassination on April 4, 1968, King's memory has been pressed into service in highly unusual ways that King himself would not have supported.
As the nation pauses to remember the civil rights leader this year, it's a good time to take a look at what this great American figure thought about church-state issues.
First off, King was no advocate of partisan politicking in the pulpit. While the Baptist preacher spoke powerfully about issues of racial justice and equality, he did not see the need to hand out candidate endorsements in church. U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who worked with King in the '60s, has pointed out several times that King did not electioneer in church. Yet, even today some Religious Right activists claim that because a federal law called the Johnson Amendment bans houses of worship (and other nonprofits) from endorsing or opposing candidates, King would not have been able to do the work he did. This is simply untrue.
Martin Luther King did not share the Religious Right's views on social issues.
King also did not support the Religious Right's social goals. He was an advocate of family planning, for example, and once compared the struggle for civil rights to the battle to legalize artificial forms of birth control. Planned Parenthood in 1966 honored King for his work in this area.
King supported the Supreme Court's decisions striking down government-sponsored prayer in public schools. In a January 1965 interview with Playboy magazine, King was asked about one of those rulings. He not only backed what the court did, he 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."
Were he alive today, it's unlikely King would endorse the Religious Right's current crusades for teaching creationism and "intelligent design" in public schools. King saw no need for religion and science to fight. "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," he once wrote.
In one of his most famous passages, King reminded Americans of the different roles religion and government play in society.
"The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state," King wrote in Strength to Love, a sermon collection. "It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority."
King was no friend to the Religious Right. Take a moment today and celebrate his true legacy of freedom.
Note: This blog post originally ran in 2006.