Some may call it rich, but I’m happy if Glenn Beck wants to spread the message of Martin Luther King Jr a half-century after the March on Washington. Beck is right when he asserts that King’s message belongs to all of us, all 310 million Americans, indeed all 6.5 billion people on the planet.
And Beck is also right that King’s message was revivalist in nature, a call to return to God’s plan for humanity. He was, after all, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
But King’s views about God’s plan and Beck’s views – or at least the views of many of his invited speakers – have sharp differences. John Hagee, in his closing prayer at Beck’s event, claimed that one of America’s “sins” was embracing “the banner of pluralism.” David Barton went even further and said that America is a Christian nation and that Christianity had long been at war with Islam. The implication seemed to be that religious diversity is wrong and leads to conflict.
That is the exact opposite of King’s message. King carried the banner of religious pluralism high and proud. Encounters with leading figures of other faiths deeply enriched King’s own life and work. It was his study of Gandhi’s Hindu commitment to the concept of satyagraha – soulforce – that helped King develop a Christian theology of nonviolent social reform. And it was the Buddhist formulations in the letters he received from the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh that encouraged King to turn against the Vietnam war.
While always clear about his own Christian commitment, King recognized the full and powerful faith lives of others. After returning from a trip to India in 1959, King offered the following prayer from his pulpit in Montgomery:
“Oh God, our gracious heavenly father, we call you this name. We know some call you Allah, we know some call you Brahma, we know some call you Elohim, we know some call you the Unmoved Mover.”
And he recognized the enormous power of people of different faiths working together for social justice, whether it was he and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching for civil rights in Selma, or Gandhi and the Muslim leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan working together to liberate India.
In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King wrote: “The great new problem of mankind (is that) we have inherited … a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu … Because we can never again live apart, we must somehow learn to live with each other in peace.”
King’s emphasis on religious identity was prescient. If the color line was the problem of the twentieth century, as one of King’s intellectual heroes W.E.B. DuBois stated, the faith line is shaping up to be the challenge of the twenty-first.
America is the most religiously diverse country in ‘the world house.’ That diversity can move in the direction of conflict or cooperation. We know the side King chose. Which side is Beck on?