Reno on MLK's necessary piety and patriotism
Excerpts from an R.R. Reno essay in First Things on MLK Jr. and the piety and patriotism of his classic piece, "Letter from Birmingham Jail"-- on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in Summer 2013. Reno argues that his piety and patriotism were necessary, although they are not particularly welcome in public discourse these days (especially among his biggest fans).
(FWIW, here is my blog post on a book of writings by King with a link to a brief discussion of the national historical site dedicated to him in Atlanta.)
...Eight white Birmingham pastors wrote an open letter criticizing King as an “outsider” and his leadership as “unwise and untimely.” It was a provocation to which King decided to respond, and beginning with small scraps of paper he composed Letter from Birmingham Jail . Words of determined protest make up most of the letter, and they make no peace with “moderation.” A page-long sentence itemizes the evils of racism: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over.” But it’s the patriotism and piety that gave King’s words their unique power and influence, making his prison manifesto an American classic...
...this place is ours, King is saying, and as he and his followers march in the streets they are “bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy.” This patriotic ardor, which has a strong tinge of Southern pride, works in tandem with an even more pervasive piety. King interweaves biblical figures, themes, and phrases with his words of protest...
King’s patriotism and piety strengthened his words of protest. But do they do so today? Our critical educations (all the failures of America in full view) and ironic sensibilities make King’s warm patriotism remote and inaccessible. Our official secularism keeps piety in the background. Few these days have time for King’s style of American public theology. At a crucial juncture, he writes: “The sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” Even Christians will ask: Isn’t that a dangerous fusion of God and nation, a Constatinian temptation? Aren’t appeals to Scripture sectarian and theocratic?
That’s our loss. I’m not a fan of King’s theology...But his basic thrust as a public theologian is sound...the biblical and patriotic gestures of his Letter and famous speeches allow him to conjure an atmosphere of love and loyalty-- love of God, love of neighbor, loyalty to country, loyalty to place-- even as he spoke forcefully about the need to resist evil. That’s something the language of justice can’t do...We can be demeaned, diminished, and degraded by injustice. This Martin Luther King Jr. certainly knew. What he also knew was that man cannot live on justice alone.