Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, legacy inspires pause during 2016 election season

MLKJ

By Joe LaGuardia.  This is a new take on an old blog post; reprinted with revisions from 2010.

With a new Congress taking office, political speeches becoming even more heated, and an 2016 election season already underway, the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., this weekend should give Christians pause as to their place in modern society.

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 and divisive rhetoric 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 equality 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, and sometimes public opinion can change depending on the questions asked.  For instance, a survey may show that a majority of Americans are against “Obamacare,” but may favor the “Affordable Care Act.”  Not many people realize that they are the same thing.

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.  Nor are they to be fooled by rhetorical loop-d-loops.

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 opinion can sometimes lead Christians 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 through reflection and dialogue.  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.  The church that does not embody God’s reign looks no different than a political action committee.

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.  Let us keep King’s vision ever before us as the next election season unfolds.

Changing the tone of political dialogue requires responsibility and courage

By Todd Thomason

I was out running errands on Saturday when news of the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, first began to drift onto the airwaves. Four days later we are still trying to come to grips with the aftermath: six people (including a nine-year-old-girl) dead, thirteen others wounded, and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords lying in critical condition after being shot in the head at pointblank range by a would-be assassin.

In Washington, the finger pointing began immediately after the official expressions of sympathy were issued, albeit with more subdued gestures than before the tragedy. Many, including many liberals, are blaming hardball politics propagated (if not instigated) by a sensationalist media—especially the violent rhetoric employed by some Tea Party politicians and conservative talk radio hosts. Others, including many conservatives, are denouncing the influence of secular society fostered by the “liberal agenda”, while denying any direct link between political metaphors and this all-too-real discharge of a handgun at twenty all-too-real Americans, including a member of the Democratic opposition. A crazy man committed a crazy act, they say, period. Problems with the current state of national and local politics constitute a separate issue.

Personally, I do not think we will ever be able to draw a straight line between the shooter’s actions and a particular political ad, speech, or sound bite. There is no evidence he had political motives.  A crazy man did do a crazy thing and he will be held accountable for it. However, I also find it difficult to assert that the ideological, disdainful, and at times extremist tone of our contemporary political discourse—amplified by a 24-hour news cycle and the Internet—did not contribute to this tragedy. It seems more than coincidental that this shooting occurred in Arizona, the same state in which Gabrielle Giffords’ Tea Party opponent in the 2010 congressional campaign invited voters to come fire an M-16 rifle with him, and in August 2009—in the thick of the healthcare reform controversy—a Tempe-based, right-wing Baptist minister told his church that he was praying for Barak Obama to die and burn in hell because he and the Democratic party were leading the country to ruin. A man who attends that church later turned up at a Presidential rally in Phoenix carrying an AK-47. Climate shapes what grows in us as well as around us.

Regardless of how much political rhetoric did or did not influence the Arizona shooting, I would hope we can all agree that politics hasn’t always been this way, it doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be this way. There are ways to have honest, robust political debate without demonizing those who disagree with us. That should be the way a democracy functions—especially one in which so many of the participants claim to be Christians.

So, the question then becomes: how do we change the tone? Taking personal responsibility for our political speech—and holding our elected officials accountable for theirs—is certainly an essential part of the solution. That said, politics is a game and politicians often say things they don’t necessarily believe in order to play that game. Responsibility in and of itself won’t be enough. We have to insist that they change the way the game is played.

In the wake of the horrific events in Tucson, I want to suggest (as odd as it may seem) that we, the American people, need to challenge a slate of issues all related to campaign finance reform if we want to affect truly positive political change. The Apostle Paul said that love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6.10) and I can see more than one tendril from that root climbing the backdrop of this tragedy.

The increased venom and vitriol that we’ve experienced in the last fifteen to twenty years coincides with three major changes in the way we Americans allow our politics to be conducted. The first change is the shameless partisan redistricting of voting precincts—what used to be called gerrymandering. Democrats and Republicans have both used their legislative majorities to create voting districts in which the electorate heavily favors one party or the other, virtually ensuring that party will control that precinct. In any typical election year, more than 90% of the seats in the House of Representatives are “safe,” meaning that the political party that currently holds that seat will almost certainly retain it.

The second change is a direct result of the first: elections have become more about ideology than issues. Because so many congressional voting districts are practically guaranteed to go either blue or red, the election itself is a mere formality. The real contests now take place in the primaries where Republicans and Democrats determine who will be their party’s candidate in the general election. Those primaries almost always devolve into ideological duels about who is the “true” Democrat/Republican or the “real” conservative/progressive. If you’re wondering why moderates continue to disappear from Congress, this is why.

The third change, which has correlations to both gerrymandering and the pursuit of ideological purity, is that running for office has become exponentially more expensive than it was a generation ago. Each successive political campaign costs more than the last so that running for office now requires an investment of hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. To lose is not just to lose an election, it is to lose a fortune. The stakes for the candidates have never been higher. Thus, I cannot help but wonder if the diatribes that now pass for stump speeches aren’t motivated by the need to convince one’s ideological base and one’s special interest underwriters to give generously of their money more than anything else. Personalities and ideas garner votes; but nothing generates cash quite like scapegoating, fear mongering, and brown-nosing.

These three changes, catalyzed by domestic and international crises as well as opportunistic leaders within both parties, have combined to form the political mess in which we now find ourselves. On good days business is conducted on strictly partisan lines; on most days the shouting, spinning, and name-calling drown out any substantive dialogue on even the most basic issues; and on bad days scandals are exposed, congressional offices are vandalized, and shots are fired.

Special interest politics has always existed in some form. It may well be the only political reality that has ever really existed. Nevertheless, special interest politics has never before existed on as large a scale; and with corporations now permitted to give unlimited amounts of money in undisclosed fashion, the scope of it is only going to get wider and the muck is only going to get deeper.

Unless, of course, we challenge it and change it. And we can—but only if we become as vocal, passionate, and serious about the polluting effects of money, ideology, and gerrymandering in our national political systems as we are about the polluting effects of other corporate residue in our backyard ecosystems. Politicians do still have to answer to us every two, four, or six years.

Let us honor the memory of those whose lives were ended or forever altered by the horrific events in Tucson by getting serious about the serious issues that lie at the roots of our political dysfunctions. We cannot have a civil society without a civil government. And we cannot have a civil government unless we, the people, insist that our leaders treat each other—and us—with respect and dignity. But they won’t do that as long as they are kowtowing to their donors rather than serving their constituents. I only hope and pray that the cold shower we need to finally sober up and get a move on won’t come in the form of another bloodbath.

Todd Thomason is pastor of First Baptist Church of Hyattsville, Maryland.  This article was originally published on his blog at Via Ex Machina.