Preaching Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” in the Trump Era

What might Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. say to Donald Trump, the “drum major” in chief?  What does Dr. King model for preachers in the political landscape of the Trump era?

martin luther king, drum major instinctSince the 2016 presidential election, some pastors have expressed reticence in engaging in controversial justice issues.  They fear “stirring the pot” and create unnecessary tension in the church by addressing topics that some deem “too political.”  The temptation is to play it safe and rationalize such a decision by deciding that the church is where people go to escape the world, not to further engage it.

Insular preaching = vapid preaching

But insular preaching ignores the reality that many parishioners are dealing with a world that is increasingly fractious, confusing, confounding, and even hostile to their values as Christians.  Hunkering down each week in the hopes of avoiding controversy leads to vapid preaching. Without clear instruction on how to relate our values to our work in the world, preachers only continue churches on their path to dwindling relevancy.

Political, not partisan

Fortunately, Dr. King provided us with a model of preaching that can engage with current events and the timely concerns of our parishioners. His preaching encourages, even urges, us to bolster our courage and speak a prophetic word.  Remember – there is a way to preach about politics (literally, the concerns of the citizenry, the polis), without being partisan (siding with a particular party or group).  The key is to identify the biblical themes and theological values that underlie the contemporary situation in question.  Dr. King was an expert in this, and we would do well to learn from his strategies.

"Drum majorette (Tyler)"; Photo credit: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University. https://www.flickr.com/photos/smu_cul_digitalcollections/ No known copyright restrictions.

The Drum Major Instinct

One sermon in particular – “The Drum Major Instinct” – is especially apropos to this moment in history with our current president, Donald Trump.  King’s sermon is a virtuosic example of preaching that takes a commonly understood image – that of the drum major for a marching band – and refigures it to represent the ego hidden within us that seeks its own ends and power.

It is especially illuminating to view Donald Trump’s words, Tweets, and actions through the lens of Dr. King’s sermon:

And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. . .There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. . . If this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted. I guess that’s the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality. If it isn’t harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people that—you know, and I’m sure you’ve met them—that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves. And they just boast and boast and boast, and that’s the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct . . .

And then the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. So the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. 

Prophetic critique of the drum major instinct in politics

As a teacher of preaching, I encourage pastors to engage in prophetic critique of the “drum major instinct” that we’re seeing writ large in politics, and infused into racist, xenophobic, misogynistic rhetoric of our citizenry. (All of which is fed by the intoxicating reach and anonymity of social media).  Now is the time to extend our preaching beyond the confines of the church.  Because both Scripture and Christian history show us that preaching does indeed have a place in the public square (witness Paul at the Aereopagus [Acts 17:16-34], or Dr. King speaking at the Lincoln Memorial, just to name two examples).

Whether you support or oppose the president, there can be no denying that his “drum major instinct” goes wildly out of control.  This is appealing to some – especially those who feel their own drum major instinct satisfied by attaching themselves to such a figure.  But most reasonable people recognize that the kind of out-of-control egoism demonstrated by the man who occupies the highest, most powerful office in the world poses a radical danger this country has never before seen.  And in the spirit of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church in Nazi Germany (which served as a source of inspiration for Dr. King), preachers must speak a prophetic word that critiques the abuses of power being exercised by elected officials.  Otherwise we risk kowtowing to – and being complicit with – the forces of evil.

We are accountable to “the least of these”

This is not to say that we should abandon the meaningful traditions of the church and abdicate our pastoral responsibilities to our parishioners. Rather, I suggest juxtaposing an understanding of our liturgical and pastoral commitments alongside contemporary concerns of public ethical engagement around those issues that are most threatening to “the least of these.”  In other words, our preaching is accountable to those most vulnerable in the Trump era who have little power, decreasing access to health care, education and economic security, and heightened levels of anxiety over their safety due to their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity, or socio-economic status.  Preaching that engages on this level would create a “new thing” in the best biblical sense of the word, and enhance the level of relevancy for our churches in the midst of a world that often seems to be spinning apart.

Redirecting the drum major instinct

Regardless of one’s political leanings, the object lesson on the drum major instinct provided by the president begs engagement (and if you’re looking for a good book for that kind of engagement, try Preaching in the Age of Trump by my colleague Wes Allen).  We have much to learn from Dr. King’s preaching, not the least of which is how to redirect the drum major instinct to be harnessed for good.  In explaining how Jesus responded to the disciples James and John (Mark 10:35-45) who requested to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand (demonstrating their drum-major egos), King makes this brilliant rhetorical move:

What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It’s very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, “You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?” But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.”

But he reordered priorities.

And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”

And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, “Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first.” This is what Jesus said to James and John. “You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared.”

Did you notice how King encourages the instinct to greatness, but redirects it toward the highest ideals of our faith?  This is what we are called to as Christians.  And this is what Christians must be calling our leaders to exemplify.

Moral and ethical greatness

To be clear, this does not mean that a “Christian agenda” is to be imposed on the citizenry.  Rather, we must hold ourselves and our leaders to the highest moral and ethical standards.  This is what we must name and claim as Christians who live in the world and have a responsibility for that world.

May your life, your voice and your actions seek greatness in yourself and those who represent you – greatness in generosity, honesty, compassion, moral excellence, integrity, and love.


The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (KY) and an ordained Lutheran minister (ELCA), though the views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect the institutions she serves.  She is the author of the book Creation Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).  

You can follow Leah on Twitter at @LeahSchade, and on Facebook at  https://www.facebook.com/LeahDSchade/.

For the full text of King’s sermon click here:  http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/

Photo credit of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking.], 08/28/1963; U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: NWDNS-306-SSM-4D(107)16;  catalog.archives.gov/id/542069. Public domain.

“Drum majorette (Tyler)”; Photo credit: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University. https://www.flickr.com/photos/smu_cul_digitalcollections/ No known copyright restrictions.

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