Where Do We Go from Here?

January 17, 2011

Today, we honor the service and sacrifice of Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr. Not only did he help America more fully reach its democratic ideals, but his civil rights movement--and to a lesser extent the anti-Vietnam War movement that he was also part of--helped transform the relationship between religion and politics. As a result, I devote several pages to King and the civil right movement in the chapter on important societal religious-political shifts in my new book (Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics). The picture is of a statue of King in the U.S. Capitol with a painting of the Puritans behind him, which seems appropriate since King clearly borrowed from the heavily religious rhetorical tradition of the Puritans.

As we reflect on King and his continuing influence, I am drawn not merely to his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, but even more to one entitled "Where Do We Go from Here?" During the Baptist Border Crossing in 2009, Wallace S. Hartsfield II, pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, powerfully read part of the speech. Since then, I have been challenged by King's arguments in that speech. In the speech, King talks about the need for greater systemic changes in American society regarding problems of racism, poverty, and war. King argued:

Jesus looked at him and said, "Nicodemus, you must be born again." He said, in other words, "Your whole structure must be changed." A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them--make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, "America, you must be born again!"
King's message echoing still today is one calling for radical changes in American society. Let us not focus just on how far we have come, but also on pondering the question: where do we go from here?


UPDATE [1/18/2011]: The U.S. Department of Defense put out a press release about comments by their general counsel saying that King would support the wars the U.S. is in today. It is almost like they have never even heard a word he said! The powerful are always trying to co-opt those who threaten their power.

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