For many years and political cycles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and works have been selectively remembered according to which passages and sound clips work for the advantage of a political agenda.

It’s been more heat than light in public debates over civil and human rights, and we can’t rely on activists or media to generate the light, so it’s up to us. So say the co-authors of the Public Discourse article about MLK’s Philosophical and Theological Legacy, in a radio interview I did with them on Martin Luther King Day. They focus on King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to show the civil rights leader’s grounding in natural law as a deciding influence.

For a key reason:

King faced vexing moral and philosophical questions from the outset: how did he know whether a law was just or unjust, and when, if ever, was it morally permissible to disobey? In his now-celebrated “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” King’s answer was that “a just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” “To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas,” King explained, “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”

Those who praise the modern civil rights movement, but who also want to keep morality and theology absent from public discourse, seldom mention King’s reliance on natural law in his justly famous letter.

Some who are quick to revile slavery and racism as the nation’s greatest sins are blind to its  moral parity in the movement to defend abortion on demand as “reproductive rights”, though the analogy is jarringly clear. In both causes an entire class of human beings are deemed unworthy of rights, even to the recognition as persons with inherent dignity. So Dr. King is claimed by abortion activists, as absurd as that is.

His niece, Dr. Alveda King, speaks to this all the time.

Don’t accept what the media say about what Dr. King said. Read it yourself, engage the eloquent philosophical and theological reasoning of a well-educated and committed Christian. On his national day of honor, The King Center archive site was officially launched, making his writings more available than ever.

And don’t miss the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

As Justin and Kevin summarized:

King is of course the kind of historical figure that practically everyone wants to claim as his own. Reality, however, is often complex, and the truth about King is that his primary motivations, his most fundamental commitments—the very core of his thought—were rooted in a worldview repugnant to many of those who now claim his legacy.

The irony and disonesty of that is important to understand, because it’s based on religiously informed convictions that pre-date the state, convictions the state is increasingly driving out of the public debate and battle over civil rights.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....