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The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaks in Eutaw, Ala., in this June 1965 photo. (The Associated Press — AP)
Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s profound reflection on true freedom and the role of people of faith in securing it, his Letter from Birmingham Jail. The influence of the letter, which has been published in dozens of MLK anthologies, continues to grow because it is not a mere historical artifact of our country’s pursuit of racial justice. Rather, Dr. King’s epistle is a tour de force on the proper relationship between God and government—and the relationship between people of faith and the governments they form. This is just one of the reasons it has such vast resonance today for Americans of many faiths who are fighting for justice.
In particular, Dr. King’s words are a manifesto for a growing, diverse religious freedom movement. This movement involves our fellow countrymen who are defending believers of all faiths against an onslaught of secularism that makes impossible, irresponsible demands. This hyper-aggressive secularism says to religious Americans: “Keep your religious views and practices and consciences out of public and out of sight.” In response, I agree with my fellow Californian, Pastor Rick Warren, who recently proclaimed religious freedom to be the “civil rights issue of the next decade.”
Though I have had the honor of standing in Dr. King’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, I can’t pretend to fill his shoes. However, I would like to suggest that secularist forces have systematically if, perhaps, unintentionally misinterpreted and misrepresented the legacy of Dr. King and the meaning of his letter.
Americans of faith—and according to Gallup that includes 92 percent of us—thus must face unflinchingly the question of who are Dr. King’s rightful heirs.
Powerful critics argue that Americans should not tolerate public advocacy on “social issues” by my fellow Christians and by individuals and communities of faith according to our understanding of our sacred texts. In his letter, Dr. King wrote that he too was assailed by critics—including white Christian clergy—who claimed that a minister of the gospel had no legitimate business advocating on social issues.
Other powerful voices argue that social changes that violate traditional and biblical values are inevitable and that those who oppose such changes will end up “on the wrong side of history” and thus should be swept aside. Dr. King, however, wrote to his critics from jail that such views grow “out of a tragic misconception of time,” including the “strangely irrational notion” that time inevitably progresses toward good, never toward evil. The truth, he wrote, is that “time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively.”
His letter from jail thus exhorts America’s faithful not to stand idly by but to work tirelessly for every law that “squares with the moral law or the law of God.” Much like Dr. King’s many opponents and detractors in his own day, secularists today attempting to claim his legacy label any leader who appeals to God’s law a religious fanatic. In their view, such religious voices should, at best, be deemed illegitimate and disregarded and, at worst, be censored by private lawsuits and government regulations.
They would probably shake with indignation if they heard Dr. King describe himself in public as preaching the “gospel of freedom,” following in the steps of the Apostle Paul and the Old Testament prophets and calling America not just to social justice but to true righteousness.
Nowhere is Dr. King’s legacy of faith-based freedom for all Americans more important to defend than in the struggle to fulfill America’s promise of robust religious liberty for all people of all faiths. Not only are Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus—along with any American whose beliefs do not please the forces of secular orthodoxy—increasingly subjected to threats, ridicule, and other social hostility.
Overreaching government officials and regulations are beginning to deprive Americans of the freedom to practice the dictates of their faith. Secularists increasingly demand that if the faithful want to be pharmacists, counselors, or attorneys—or if they just want to pursue the American dream by owning their own small businesses—they must participate in practices their beliefs prohibit and violate their religious consciences.
Ironically, this deprivation of long-cherished rights is beginning just as millions of immigrants with widely varying religious beliefs are calling America home. These new Americans should be entitled to all of the same rights and freedoms that members of majority religions have enjoyed since America’s founding.
My keynote address at the National Religious Freedom Conference in Washington, D.C., followed remarks by one of Dr. King’s heirs in the Black Protestant church—as well as leaders of the Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, and Orthodox Christian faith communities. Each of us is firmly committed to our own faith tradition. But we are united in our firm, yet civil defense of religious freedom for all.
We live in a world that needs diverse leaders—including diverse religious leaders—whose hearts burn with passion for justice, and who do not have to renounce their deepest beliefs and practices in order to pursue it. Such diversity and passion is the foundation of the religious freedom movement. In my view, no movement today better exemplifies Dr. King’s commitment, expressed 50 years ago from a lonely Deep South jail cell, to inspiring leaders and members of all faith communities to achieve justice that squares with eternal law, eternal truths.
Rev. Samuel (“Sammy”) Rodriguez of California is the president and founder of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and serves on the board of advisors for the American Religious Freedom Program.