A new world through faith

By Eric Zahnd 

Why was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. one of the greatest leaders in the history of the United States? 

On one level, Dr. King succeeded because he was able to articulate the core principles on which this nation was founded.  He reminded Americans of their values and urged them to apply those values for the benefit of people who had been left out of the American dream. 

Dr. King’s gift for recalling the ideals of the nation’s founders and utilizing them for his great cause is evident in the climax of his most-remembered speech.  He said:

I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.  I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Dr. King’s words challenged Americans to live up to their long-held beliefs.  He quoted Jefferson’s stirring words from the Declaration of Independence.  Words that roused the American colonists in their fight for freedom.   Ideals that became the foundation upon which the nation was built. 

But the ideals of the founders were lost when applied to black Americans.  For that reason, Dr. King challenged people to live out the founders’ ethic in the cause of freedom for those who had been denied equality.  One of Dr. King’s greatest gifts was his ability to motivate people to apply settled principles in unexpected but essential ways.

Yet Dr. King himself was motivated by something deeper than the words of the founding fathers.  He was not merely a leader of the civil rights movement who understood the importance of history.  He was, first and foremost, a man of God.  “Before I was a civil rights leader,” he said, “I was a preacher of the Gospel.  This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment.”

No doubt, many of those who were led by him during the civil rights struggle did not share his religious beliefs, just as many of those who are inspired by him today do not.  But to Dr. King, his civil rights message was merely an extension of his ministry.

Just two months before he was assassinated, Dr. King delivered a powerful sermon at his home church, Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.  He closed the sermon with these words: 

Jesus, I want to be on your right or left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition.  But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.

In that sermon, and many others, Dr. King made it clear that his role as a leader of a very public movement was rooted in a very personal faith.

Dr. King was an exceptional leader because he tapped into widely-accepted American ideals for a just and noble cause.  But he was moved to pursue those ideals because of a deeply personal faith.  That does not mean a person must share his religious faith to share his political beliefs.  But it does mean that Dr. King’s political beliefs would not have been what they were without his faith.

Put simply, Dr. King showed that universal political ideals can be inspired by profoundly personal faith in a way that is completely acceptable to—and even welcomed by—those who do not share that faith.

As such, Dr. King’s legacy calls on us all to draw upon our individual values and translate them into words and actions that will be accepted by others. 

And Dr. King’s legacy calls on us not to banish from the public square those ideas that are founded on faith or another personal worldview that is not shared by all.  Were it not for a committed group of Southern ministers led by Dr. King and motivated by their faith, the great achievements of the American civil rights movement never would have occurred. 

Indeed, Dr. King’s legacy proves that personal faith or other uniquely individual values can be translated into civic action in a way that is politically powerful, morally just, and publicly acceptable. 

Without such convictions, it is unlikely that we will succeed, as Dr. King put it, in making of this old world a new world.  But when we permit personal ideas to illuminate our nation’s principles, as Dr. King’s did, mountains can surely be moved.

Eric Zahnd is Platte County Prosecuting Attorney.

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