The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of my heroes of the faith. For me, King’s heroism resulted from his ability to stand up against the tidal-wave of public opinion in order to uphold the values and convictions he held so dear.
During King’s day, there were several major impediments to furthering the goals of the Civil Rights movement. One impediment originated from the many local and national policies that upheld a “separate but equal” status quo. The other impediment was the subtle, yet loud voice of public opinion opposing greater equity for minorities in society.
Public opinion, usually expressed in opinion polls, is a necessity in politics. It measures public sentiment; however, what the Civil Rights era proved was that public opinion—especially of the majority—does not necessarily reflect a biblical worldview.
Politicians and pundits rely heavily on public opinion to shape national debates. Several months ago, Republican House leader John Boehner declared, “Americans are against healthcare reform.” That is a bit misleading because most polls show that just over 60% of Americans are opposed to healthcare reform. That’s a majority of Americans, but not all of America.
When Dr. King faced majority opinion in opposition to the Civil Rights cause in the mid-1960s, he noted on more than one occasion that Christians rarely walk to the beat of the populist drum.
One of King’s most moving sermons, “Transformed Nonconformist,” claimed that Christians are citizens of two worlds but ultimately answer to the heavenly realm. He said that conformity to public, majority opinion can sometimes lead us away from Christ.
He opined, “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”
For King, conformity to public opinion was simply another form of slavery: “Any Christian who blindly accepts the opinions of the majority and in fear and timidity follows a path of expediency and social approval is a mental and spiritual slave.”
He also recognized that churches can also fall prey to conformity if they do not critically assess how God might be bringing about aspects of His Kingdom on earth. Sometimes God’s way of doing things looks very different than what a crowd might advocate.
Churches that simply fall in line with the rest of America without a sense of moral discernment and prayer can easily blur the line between prophetic engagement and partisanship.
King’s sermon rings with a certain poignancy: “Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church, an institution which has often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the patterns of majority opinion…Have we ministers of Jesus Christ sacrificed the truth on the altar of self-interest and, like Pilate, yielded our convictions to the demands of the crowd?”
Going against public opinion for its own stake was not what King was all about; rather, he challenged his audience to consider how convictions shape civil discourse. In other words, King never went rogue; his convictions were born out of a strong and consistent sense of righteousness. In spite of public opinion, which changes from day to day, King kept in mind the bigger picture of God’s unfolding history.
I do not doubt that opinion polls are extremely useful in many situations; nevertheless, they are not necessarily designed to determine what Christians are to believe about public policy. Aside from making great strides in social justice for African Americans, this profound lesson is—in my mind—one of the greatest contributions that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement as a whole made to American society.