Dr. King was a clergyman and civil rights leader but, as Jeff Nall pointed out in 2005, his wisdom has too often been forgotten:
Today it’s fashionable to recall Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights hero and passionate reverend. But sadly, amidst his legacy the entirety of his intellectual prowess and vast philosophical wisdom often goes unrecognized. Particularly troubling, King has become a tool for a variety of causes wrongly associated with him, including the attack on the separation of church and state.
In 2003 George W. Bush said, “There’s still a need for us to hear the words of Martin Luther King to make sure the hope of America extends its reach into every neighborhood across this land.” But considering the president’s efforts to combine God and government, it seems that Bush himself is ignorant of King’s words and at least two of his salient ideas. King was a proponent of the separation of church and state and also one of religion’s most ardent critics.
In a 1965 interview with Playboy magazine, Dr. King was asked how he felt about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision ruling school prayer unconstitutional. In response he said:
In another clear endorsement of church-state separation, King stated that the church “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.”
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. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.
Dr. King also blamed organized religion for its support of contemporary dogma — the kind that insists on favoring creationism over evolution — at the expense of truth. He berated what he called softmindedness. “Softminded individuals,” he said, “are prone to embrace all kinds of superstitions. . . . The soft-minded man always fears change.” More specifically, King wrote in his book entitled Strength to Love (1963):
Softmindedness often invades religion. This is why religion has sometimes rejected new truth with a dogmatic passion. Through edicts and bulls, inquisitions and excommunications, the church has attempted to prorogue truth and place an impenetrable stone wall in the path of the truth-seeker….
Softminded persons have revised the Beautitudes to read ‘Blessed are the pure in ignorance: for they shall see God.’ This has led to a widespread belief that there is a conflict between science and religion. But this is not true. There may be a conflict between softminded religionists and toughminded scientists, but not between science and religion….
Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism.
His appreciation of science, though hardly acknowledged by most admirers of Dr. King, isn’t surprising. In arguing against notions of black racial inferiority, he frequently cited current anthropological research. In the same book cited above, King wrote:
Softmindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice. The toughminded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he post judges. The tenderminded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced. Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions and misunderstandings. There are those who are sufficiently softminded to belief in the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the Negro race in spite of the toughmindedness research of anthropologists who reveal the falsity of such a notion.
In his article on Dr. King, Jeff Nall concluded:
Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. was much more than just a reverend or just a civil rights champion; he was a learned philosopher who understood the importance of reason and balance in society. Unlike some of the Christian extremists who use his name for their cause and political gains, King valued the pluralism of American society, respected the U.S. Constitution, and never would have supported the corrupt motivation behind efforts to unite church and state.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1963).
- Jeff Nall, “Will the real Martin Luther King please stand up?” The Humanist (May/June 2005).