The third Monday of January in the U.S. is dedicated to the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Articles and videos appear annually, retelling his role in the civil rights movement and extolling his efforts toward racial equality and social justice.
As I reflected on this annual event, I realized how little I have read about King’s commitment to religious freedom and its influence on his thinking.
This seemed odd because King was a Baptist and, since 1993, Religious Freedom Day has been recognized on Jan. 16.
As a Baptist, he stood on the shoulders of generations who sought to ensure the right of all to worship (or abstain from worship) freely, along with the conviction that separation of church and state was essential to such freedom.
One example of King’s awareness of this historical tradition is a handwritten notecard on Anabaptists, citing their belief that “there shall be a separation of church and state.”
While King’s explicit references to religious liberty are few, in rereading some of his speeches and writings, the influence of this Baptist distinctive is visible.
The conviction is found not only in a general emphasis on individual freedom, but also in an assumed need for church-state separation.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, King shared his belief “that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality” and expressed his hope that all people would one day enjoy “dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
“Unarmed truth” implies the absence of compulsion, an essential aspect of religious freedom. “Freedom for their spirits” also speaks of an individual’s ability to make decisions without coercion.
One could interpret his closing statement in “I Have a Dream” as including religious freedom in the freedom for which he longs. “When all God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants – will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, fee at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
King equated the freedom to choose between competing options as essential to humanity in a 1963 address titled “A Challenge to Churches and Synagogues.”
After a litany of questions a truly free person is allowed to decide for himself or herself (vocation, political party, religious tradition), King declared that without the ability to make such decisions freely a person is “reduced to an animal.”
In the same address he asserted that faith communities “are called to be the thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society, not thermometers that merely record or register the temperature of the majority opinion.”
He said almost the same thing later that year in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
In other words, the church must not simply parrot the views of the government, its leaders or the general populous. The difference between a thermometer and a thermostat is a distinction, a separation between church and state.
A few years earlier, in a 1959 speech to church leaders, King made a similar point in asserting that the church was “the guardian of the morals of the community.”
This implies a necessary distance between the church and both society and government in order for a prophetic witness to be offered.
The inability of prophetic critique without a clear distance or distinction between church and state, prophet and politician, is evident in Jeremiah 14 where God criticized the court prophets who prophesied only what the leaders and general populous wished to hear.
An often-quoted statement from his book, “Strength to Love,” summarizes his views well. “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.”
In a 1957 address focused on 21st century challenges, King declared, “There is nothing in the world greater than freedom … I would rather die in abject poverty with my convictions than live in inordinate riches with the lack of self-respect.”
Though his message didn’t focus specifically on religious freedom, his other writings make it clear that this is encompassed in King’s purview.
That the freedom of which King so often spoke included religious freedom is clearly seen in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Here he wrote about just and unjust laws that are to be assessed in light of a higher moral law and stated that he “would openly advocate disobeying … anti-religious laws.”
He also listed the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther and John Bunyan – all of whom were persecuted for their religious beliefs – as creative extremists for the cause of justice.
This topic deserves greater attention than can be provided here. We would do well to reread King’s speeches and writings with an eye to how religious liberty and separation of the church and state informed his thinking and was viewed by him as essential for the church to provide a prophetic, public witness.
Too often Christians choose between two false paths – a lack of separation that identifies the faith with a particular political party, politician or government, or a complete separation that precludes public witness and moral influence on public policy.
Perhaps King can provide a middle way by upholding the freedom of conscience to believe (or not believe) and drawing a clear line between the church and state, while maintaining that religious faith has a central role to play in shaping a just society.