Pulpits And Politics: An Overlooked Lesson From Dr. King

Martin Luther King was too smart to ever allow his movement to become little more than a device for handing out lists of endorsements on election day.

Today is the federal observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. As such, it's a good time to respond to offensive Religious Right's efforts to draft King as an ally in their crusade to promote pulpit-based partisan politicking on behalf of candidates seeking public office.

King certainly organized people to vote in churches and used the pulpit to denounce the South's practice of segregation. Nothing in the tax code prevented that. But King did not take the step the Religious Right prods pastors to take – endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who worked alongside King for many years, has stated repeatedly that King did not endorse candidates from the pulpit. Lewis opposes efforts to repeal the IRS language forbidding such partisan political intervention. He once said, "We need to maintain this strong, solid wall, this separation of church and state. I knew Martin Luther King; he was a friend of mine. He never, to my knowledge, endorsed a political candidate."

Religious Right activists sometimes argue that under current tax laws, King could not have told people to vote against Bull Connor, the thuggish public safety commissioner who was notorious for unleashing attack dogs and water cannons on civil rights activists.

But King didn't have to tell people how to vote. The people who worked with him were only too well aware of Connor's record. Everyone involved the civil rights struggle knew about Connor's tactics. King did not have to tell them that Connor was a bad man. The problem, in fact, was not deciding whom to vote for but getting access to the ballot in the first place.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn explained it well in his book Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom. "King stood up to Connor's brutality and, through non-violent means, exposed its ugly face to the world," wrote Lynn. "That tactic was far more effective than a pulpit-based partisan campaign against Connor, which merely would have expended energy saying things anyone who was paying even the slightest bit of attention already knew or, sadly, had experienced firsthand."

By remaining focused on the injustice of Jim Crow, the civil rights movement was able to achieve its goals. It united people of many different religions, races and backgrounds to pursue a common goal. It thrust the ugliness of segregation into the face of the American people and challenged them to respond. They did.

Things might have turned out quite differently had the leaders of the movement simply hitched themselves to a candidate and mobilized their churches to elect him. Once elected, after all, a candidate is quite capable of not delivering on promises made.

King was too smart to ever allow his movement to become little more than a device for handing out lists of endorsements on election day. Pastors today should follow his example: Feel free to speak out on the issues that concern you. Rely on moral persuasion and sound arguments to achieve your goals. Keep partisan politicking and advice on whom to vote for or against out of the pulpit.

By the way, it's also worth remembering that King was a strong supporter of church-state separation. He backed the Supreme Court's school prayer rulings and blasted Alabama Gov. George Wallace for engaging in demagoguery over the issue.

In one notable sermon, King observed, "The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority."

I say amen to that.