The "Christian America" of Martin Luther King, Jr.
King rejected this kind of parochialism. He fought for moral and religious ideas such as liberty and freedom that were universal in nature. Such universal truths, King believed, should always trump local beliefs, traditions, and customs. As he put it, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here." Justice was a universal concept that defined America. King reminded the Birmingham clergy that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had defended equality as a national creed, a creed to which he believed the local traditions of the Jim Crow South must conform. In his mind, all "communities and states" were interrelated. "Injustice anywhere," he famously wrote, "is a threat to justice everywhere." He added: "Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds." This was King the nationalist at his rhetorical best.
King understood justice in Christian terms. The rights granted to all citizens of the United States were "God given." Segregation laws, King believed, were unjust not only because they violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence ("all men are created equal") but because they did not conform to the laws of God.
King argued, using Augustine and Aquinas, that segregation was "morally wrong and sinful" because it "degraded "human personality." Such a statement was grounded in the biblical idea that all human beings were created in the image of God and as a result possess inherent dignity and worth.
He also used biblical examples of civil disobedience to make his point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego took a stand for God's law over the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. Paul was willing to "bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." And, of course, Jesus Christ was an "extremist for love, truth, and goodness" who "rose above his environment."
In the end, Birmingham's destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a "sacred heritage," influenced by the "eternal will of God." By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for "what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence." (italics mine)
It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.
John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). He blogs daily at philipvickersfithian.com.