Letter from a Birmingham Jail Part VIII: Separation of the Sacred and the Secular?

April 12, 2009

I haven’t posted about MLK in a while (click here to see some of my earlier posts in this series).  But continuing that series…this part of the Letter includes a somewhat provocative idea:

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality.  . . . .

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I find those last sentences most interesting.  It appears that MLK is criticizing the religious leaders of invoking a type of “separation of church and state” as an excuse for inaction and deference to unjust laws.  In other words, the religious leaders were suspending their moral sense and blindly following the human law without evaluating the (im)moral force of that law. 

It is indeed interesting that MLK impliedly blasted the supposed “separation of church and state”, as it is popularly (though not constitutionally) conceived, noting that it serves as a convenient excuse for covering up injustice and immorality. 

I won’t get into the legal problem of the “separation of church and state” here (but I will note that if you think the phrase is in the United States Constitution, or if you think the popular idea by the same name was invoked by the framers of the United States Constitution, further investigation might be warranted on your part).  Nevertheless, the divorce of moral truth and civil law has occurred on various occasions over the years, and it is a common theme in our current societal discourse on morally controversial topics.  When someone invokes the phrase, look to see if there is a moral question being swept under the rug, and think about whether that question deserves an answer before political decisions are made.

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2 Responses to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail Part VIII: Separation of the Sacred and the Secular?”

  1. Sara Says:

    It was amazing to me when I learned (only a year ago, actually) that “Separation of church and state” was from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to someone, and not from any of our important national documents like the Constitution or the Declaration. And yet I bet this is touted more than any line from those as a sacred premise we should follow as a country.

  2. thenaturallawyer Says:

    Indeed. This is an excellent explanation of the source of the phrase. I highly recommend the Wallbuilders website as a source for learning about our American heritage. I have met the founder of Wallbuilders and was privileged to peruse his exhaustive library in Texas. The man has a serious love of history and his dedication to primary sources is unmatched in academic circles.


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