Uncivil Disobedience: Why Religious Right Attempts To Invoke Martin Luther King Fail

Not all forms of civil disobedience are equal.

Religious Right leaders love to invoke Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King engaged in civil disobedience to oppose Jim Crow laws in the South, they argue, and so can we to fight abortion or same-sex marriage.

The argument reared its head again when a coalition of Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant and Orthodox officials released the "Manhattan Declaration" Nov. 20. The document blasts same-sex marriage, legal abortion, stem-cell research and other right-wing targets. The document implies that since these religious traditions claim a lock on theological truth, the law should bend to their will.

Signers of the Declaration also endorsed civil disobedience and invoked King in their defense.

"Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required," observes the Declaration. "There is no more eloquent defense of the rights and duties of religious conscience than the one offered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

Declaration signers then vow to "not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family."

The Declaration's backers overlook one key fact: Not all forms of civil disobedience are equal. King built a multi-racial, interfaith movement that sought to end the injustice of government-sponsored racism, with civil disobedience as one of its tools. He sought to advance rights, not retard them.

Compare that to the backers of the Manhattan Declaration and their goals. They are drawn from a handful of ultra-conservative faith traditions, and their aim is to enshrine their narrow version of Christianity in the law for all to follow. Under their theocratic vision, rights would contract, not expand.

In the Jim Crow South, African Americans were denied fundamental rights. They could not hold certain jobs. They were denied the right to vote. They could not get service in certain restaurants or even enter some places of business. They were treated as second-class citizens.

King's program of civil disobedience challenged that evil system and helped overturn it. As a results, rights were extended to a population that had been denied them.

The only "rights" the Manhattan Declaration seeks to protect are bogus ones – the so-called "right" of a pharmacist to stand between a patient and his or her doctor by refusing to provide prescribed medications and the "right" of religious employers (even in secular businesses) to hire and fire on the basis of what people believe or don't believe about God.

This is bigotry, plain and simple. It is about as far removed from what King sought as you can get.

The Los Angeles Times made this point well in a recent editorial. Labeling the Declaration's words "irresponsible and dangerous," The Times points out that civil disobedience is a last resort and notes that conservative religious leaders have many other avenues open to them.

"The impression left is that the legal environment in which churches must operate is reminiscent of the Roman Empire that threw Christians to the lions," asserts the editorial. "Never mind that advocates of same-sex civil marriage and legal abortion have made significant concessions to believers or that religious groups have recourse to courts, which have aggressively protected the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the 1st Amendment."

The Times is exactly right. The right's nod toward civil disobedience makes for good media copy, but the threat is hollow. No one is trying to force the Catholic Church (or any other religious institution) to perform same-sex marriages or provide abortion.

What people do expect is that professionals will do their jobs. A pharmacist's job is to fill doctor-written prescriptions, not impose religion. Pharmacists who do not want to fill prescriptions should find another line of work.

The Manhattan Declaration attempts to cloak its theocratic impulses in the noble words and actions of King. The effort will fail. When all is said and done, the Declaration's backers have nothing to offer but a government that enforces the religious views of some people over others. That's not freedom – it's tyranny.

The Declaration's supporters have a vision, but it is not Dr. King's. Theirs comes from a different time. I'd say the 12th Century is about right.