The Faith of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Imagine if news had broken this week that a large group of pastors had gathered in the Deep South to found an organization called, "The Southern Christian Leadership Conference." What assumptions would you make about an organization with such a name?

Depending on your political bent, you might imagine a gathering of golden-hearted good ole' boys, humbly praying for a better America. On the other hand, you might imagine a bunch of angry, white Republicans gathered around a burning cross, muttering dark incantations before the ghost of Jerry Falwell.

In today's political landscape, we normally think of the mixing of religion and politics as the doing of white conservatives.

But if you know your history, of course, you know that The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded by a group of black religious leaders, the most important of which was the group's first president, Martin Luther King.

The real work of the Civil Rights movement -- everything from rallies to bus boycotts -- was carried out through the organizational infrastructure of the black church. And the words that inspired the movement were mostly the words of preachers. Without religion, and Christianity in particular, it is not certain that the Civil Rights movement would have taken place at all.

In the aftermath of 9/11, many are eager to point out the pernicious and violent effects of religious extremism, going all the way back to the Inquisition and beyond (see Hitchens, Dawkins, et al).

But King's commitment to non-violent resistance was motivated by his faith. In particular, he cited Jesus' command to "love your enemies" as a guiding principle in his political life. One of the most important political movements of the 20th century -- the Civil Rights movement -- was, in essence, also a religious movement.

King's life challenges conventional wisdom on both the political right and left about the proper relationship between faith and politics. First of all, Christianity is not necessarily politically conservative. Secondly, America's political history would evidently be worse if Christianity had played no part in it.

King believed that religion and politics must remain distinct from one another, yet not entirely separate. He wrote the following: "The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool."

King's view bears repeating: The church must guide the state (listen, ye followers of Hitchens), but never become a mere political tool (hark, ye followers of Falwell).

Strictly speaking, King did not believe in the separation of church and state.

The influence of religion on American politics today is undeniable. A 2004 Pew Research survey found that 60 percent of Americans believe it is important for a U.S. President to believe in God and be "deeply religious."

Whether religion ought to play a role in politics is almost beside the point. It does. And it always will. Meanwhile, the birthday of Martin Luther King offers a good opportunity for both liberals and conservatives to reevaluate their preconceptions of what that relationship looks like, and what it ought to look like.

I once heard a preacher say to an appreciative, liberal Manhattan congregation: "God is not a Republican." His remark elicited a hearty round of applause. But the preacher quickly silenced the audience by adding: "And He sure as heck isn't a Democrat." Nevertheless, religion has shaped the political history of both parties.

When religion becomes a mere political instrument, the results are not pretty. But the positive influence of faith on American politics is a historical fact. King's life proves it.

Today, as we honor his memory and consider his legacy, we would do well to remember that there was a "Reverend" in front of the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.

We obscure his true legacy otherwise.