By Charles Watson Jr.
I moved to Washington, D.C., in 2013, and was blessed to be there on the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. I had seen pictures and heard stories about the 1963 march and the role it played in the civil rights movement.
Yet, being at the commemoration in 2013 was a chance to look back at history and be a part of history simultaneously. I was standing in the footprints of giants such as Diane Nash, A. Phillip Randolph, John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others.
As I celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20, I find myself connecting to Dr. King in a new way. This year, I am reflecting on his understanding of religious liberty. Working for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has inspired me to take a deeper look into King’s informed understanding of this unprecedented freedom in our First Amendment.
Dr. King understood that we live in a pluralistic society that continues to change. King’s work as a civil rights activist involved fighting against the oppression of minorities, including religious minorities. Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu, influenced King’s strategy. He was able to use Gandhi’s spiritual concept of nonviolence to combat the abuse of the oppressed in America.
For King, the impact and influence of Gandhi served as a reminder of the benefits of a pluralistic society and the importance of protecting each individual’s voice. This is why he supported the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling that found that official state-sponsored prayer had no place in public schools.
King stated, “I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right.”
Dr. King’s insight on religious liberty went far beyond the protection of individuals’ conscience from governmental influence. He understood that the separation of church and state protected both the church and the state, making each stronger. His mastery of this concept is a model educational tool for teaching our next generation of advocates the importance of protecting religious liberty.
The Constitution gives us the right to go before our elected officials and voice the concerns of our conscience, faith group and community. King was able to use his voice, fueled by his faith, to petition the government for better treatment of oppressed citizens. His actions were the catalyst to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Although Dr. King would work “with” the government on issues where faith coincided with the equal treatment of all, he did not work “for” the government. It was this distinction which allowed him to speak a prophetic word to the government.
A prime example is his sermon at The Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, in which he condemned the Vietnam War. His critique was not popular among many who supported him. They felt his words against the government would hurt his petitioning efforts with the administration.
King’s decision was defined by his principle concerning church and state separation: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”
Separation of church and state enables the church to keep its prophetic voice.
On this day celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., I am honored to continue his legacy through the work of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. We should take pride in the religious liberty efforts of this Baptist minister. Let us also be humble enough to receive truth, through a different voice, as King did through Gandhi, and may we have the courage to be advocates for those voices in their pursuit of religious freedom.
I pray the church is a reflection of King’s words: “It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.” I believe, as King did, only through the separation of church and state is this truly possible.
Charles Watson Jr. is the Education and Outreach Specialist of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
This column is Part 3 of the Dr. King and Beloved Community series here at CBFblog. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 below:
Part 1 — “Dr. King and Beloved Community — A CBFblog series” (by Aaron Weaver, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship)
Part 2 — “The The Spiritual Discipline of Martin Luther King Jr.” (by Doug Weaver, Baylor University)