The other day, someone wrote that I was being inconsistent when I affirmed the work of Dr. King, but criticized the actions of the religious right. The writer asked, “Why it isn’t hypocritical to praise Dr. King as prophetic for putting his faith in action, and then turn around and criticize the religious right for doing the same thing?”
It is an excellent question. It seems to me that Dr. King and the religious right aren’t doing the same thing at all, so, I would like to point out what I take to be the differences, and then hear what others have to say. To attempt to illustrate those differences I will paraphrase MLK’s 6 principles of non-violent activism:
Difference 1: The religious right plays on our fears, Dr. King called us to courage.
Whether it is homosexuality, feminism or immigration, the religious right is never without a feared scapegoat. Their opponents are pictured as a cancer eating at the American Dream, or as sinners infecting a Christian nation. Dr. King called us to end all such scapegoating and find the courage to make room for the stranger in our midst.
The religious right bases its activism on fear of the stranger, fear of change and fear of an angry God. To walk the path of nonviolence one must be willing to suffer violence rather than inflict it. This requires a kind of fearlessness. Dr. King was so serious about eliminating fearful reactions that he tested activists to make sure they were not too angry or fearful to represent the cause.
Difference 2: Whereas the goal of the religious right is the defeat of one side by the other, Dr. King sought reconciliation with all.
Dr. King was as concerned for the fair treatment of his opponents as the people for whom he marched. He sought not to defeat his opponents, but to bring about a new level of dialogue that would clarify the principles by which all parties might find justice. His goal for the struggle was not political victory, but the “beloved community” which included all sides of the struggle. So, even though Dr. King entered the political process, he never sought to hold office. His goal was not power but understanding.
Difference 3: The religious right tends to see our problems as stemming from bad people, Dr. King saw our problems as a result of bad systems.
The nonviolent struggle recognizes that the jailer is caught in the same prison as the inmates. Dr. King believed that oppressors were also victims of a bad system. His struggle was against bad ideas and unfair hierarchies, never against specific people. Unlike the religious right, Dr. King never used religion to get special rights for one group that would be withheld from others. He quoted scripture, but not as an unquestionable authority to be imposed on everyone. When he quoted scripture, it was primarily to people who claimed to be Christian, but were acting in ways which were inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.
Difference 4: The religious right keeps a score card of every time it has been slighted or mistreated, Dr. King called us to take on suffering rather than inflict it.
Every male ever mistreated by a female, every white person ever been mistreated by a person of color, every Christian ever slighted by a Jewish or Muslim, becomes a case study used by the religious right to justify the mistreatment of the targeted group. Dr. King called his followers to take on suffering as a way of revealing to the oppressors the violence hidden in their systems of power. His goal was not to restore an imagined past, but to work for a just future.
Difference 5: The religious right plays off our frustrations and hatreds, Dr. King trusted the power of love.
I understand that no one from the religious right thinks of themselves as hateful, but one does not have to feel hatred to be its captive. The essence of hatred is not a feeling of anger, it is a perception that the other is inferior to oneself or one’s group. Hateful persons use themselves or their group as the norm, and then treat difference as a degeneration from what they claim to be the God given norm. So while hatred seems like a sensible emotion toward our enemies, Dr. King constantly reminded us that love is the most durable force in the universe.
Difference 6: Dr. King believed the universe is on the side of justice, the religious right believes everything will fall apart if we do not intervene on God’s behalf.
It is very difficult to muster courage or love if we feel we are going to be cheated. The religious right calls us to hyper vigilance on God’s behalf. Dr. King famously believed that we should live in trust that the universe tends to justice. It would be foolish to believe that love will necessarily deliver justice to us within our own lifetimes. Instead, our trust is that love will make us the best possible ambassadors for justice for future generations.