Thursday, January 23, 2020

Why deifying MLK mattered

MLK as used by the modern Left
In the late 70s, when I was in elementary school, Jimmy Carter floated the idea of making the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. a national hero by declaring his birthday a federal holiday.  It didn't sit well with everyone.  In some cases, the reasons could be expected.  After all, racism was real in America.  In other cases the question was why this one person should get such an honor when there were other Americans who did great things who don't.  Others thought it should be simple: we give federal holidays for presidents and that's that.

When they began passing the day as a holiday it was shoehorned into the school schedules.   In our case, it replaced Presidents' Day, on which we then had to go to school.  Again, it didn't sit well.  But it was hard to resist.  Because some resisted due to racist reasons, any who didn't approve of the holiday were lumped in with that group and suspected of racism.  Any attempts to resist the holiday were met with boycotts, school walk outs, threats of financial repercussions for the respective states and so on.

By the mid 80s it was over and we had a new federal holiday.  Eventually most schools adjusted their schedules so MLK and U.S. presidents each had their own vacation day.  Beyond a day off, however, it was also important because it was in the 70s and 80s that the first fruits of what we now call Political Correctness and Woke Cancel Culture and such things were taking mainstream and Main Street root.

One of the things emerging at that time was a singular emphasis on the sins of America and, more broadly, the Christian Western tradition.   With that development it was increasingly considered polite manners not to do things that might trigger those (not a phrase we used, but what was meant) who were victims of the sins of America and the West's history.  One of the first things I remember was the idea that the mere mention of Jesus Christ (religiously, not as an expletive), was problematic. By the mid to late 80s, it was common to notice requests that Christians not invoke Jesus loosely, that it was no longer one choice of many when it comes to Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, and even Christian leaders praying in public were quietly asked to pray in a more vague way than the Name of Jesus.

By the time I entered vocational ministry in the early 90s, that was actually quite the thing.  There was a dividing line between those ministers willing to pray in Jesus' name publicly, and those who wouldn't, owing to current social sensitivities.

At the same time, however, I notice that MLK began to emerge as more than just a figure in America's history who is worthy of celebration. He was becoming almost a holy figure, a demigod, a religious icon for a post-religious age.  In some ways, he was becoming a discount Jesus for Christians to quote and invoke in a country that was increasingly intolerant of any other figure Christians might name.  He was that safe name to drop, that person to reference, that name that Americans could unite behind when increasingly we would allow no other name before which all knees should bow.

It didn't hurt that the literature, history, specials, textbooks, college lectures and general rhetoric increasingly lifted MLK up to levels near that of Jesus.  Along with Gandhi, who had received similar treatment in the public eye by such means as Attenborough's hagiographical film Gandhi, MLK was becoming, in place of Jesus, or Moses, or heck the Buddha, the religious icon before which all Americans could worship.

And worship we did.  Even though from the beginning vague tidbits began to emerge that he was not always the boy scout in those hotel rooms, or that his academic career might have had a checkered past, it mattered not.  In fact, researchers or academics brought up such things at their own risk. MLK was becoming the one god character Americans were allowed to invoke, and that was that.

By the late 90s, his holiday began to take on cultic trappings.  The day was celebrated with purposeful ritual and celebrations.  Feasts and decorum were beginning to be systematized, and leaders of all stripes - including vocational ministers - were expected to drop what they were doing (like tending to church needs) and attend the respective local traditions and pomp in MLK's name.  Good works were done in his, not Jesus' or God's, name.  It was nothing to hear sermons with MLK quoted more than Jesus, especially within African American messages.

Around 2004, I was VP of a regional ecumenical council in Ohio.  In the January meeting (first Thursday), several of the clergy asked what special events for MLK everyone was attending.  I shrugged and said I didn't get into the whole MLK holiday thing.  You could have heard a pin drop.  I get the feeling - especially given some of the denominations there represented - that I could have denied the existence of God and received less push-back.  I had to explain I didn't mind him and thought he did great things, I just felt we had pushed past that limit of merely honoring the man to coming near to worshiping him.  It went as well as you can imagine.

For his part, MLK played the important role of keeping America's sins great again. And again.  And again.  Each late December through February (Black History Month) is just ripe for thrice-daily stories reminding us of American racism yesterday, today and forever.  And with MLK, who was railing against real expressions of American racism and racist policy at the time, it became a legitimate reason to keep up that focus.

Eventually, we elected our first black president, in which racism reemerged on all sides - from those racists upset at a black man being president to the Left eager to find ways to continue using racism as the prime club with with to browbeat America.  With Hate Crime legislation doing its part, we were becoming a post-human society and world in which we no longer felt we couldn't judge people based on skin color, but rather that we should first and foremost judge based on skin color and a growing list of demographic label identities.

Which brings us to today's post-human era celebrating a man who worked to put such divisions away and judge all humans on the content of character.  Of course it's all part of the modern hypocrisy.  We know it.  We know MLK is nothing but an old banner we drag out of mothball to wave around and check our yearly to-do list.   In an age where people think nothing of judging, condemning and even crowing over the misfortunes of someone based purely on skin color, I think it's fair to say we honor MLK more in a shallow than a meaningful way.

In fact, last year I blogged over how recent FBI documents suggest that MLK went well beyond mere sexual exploits (now almost universally accepted) in those hotel rooms, but that they also included sexual assault.  Now, that's not enough for me to say guilty as charged.  And evidence from something so long ago would be tough to pin down.  Nonetheless, in our #MeToo era you would think this would have created at least a stir within the media.  I mean, this is #MeToo, when even telling a woman to smile is akin to full out sexual harassment.

And yet nothing.  A couple news outlets mentioned it.  A few pointed out that the currently heroic FBI was, like all things then, a racist organization filled with white racists.  Some mentioned it somewhere behind the grocery ads.  On the whole it was ignored.  And why not?  Do we think that the same movement insisting we judge people based on skin color while deifying MLK is any more concerned about women's rights, protection or safety?

Hardly. I remember years ago that Mark Shea wrote there would be a time when MLK Day would be reduced to Presidents' Day, where the only thing important would be the latest furniture sales.  I don't know if it's even going to be that.  In fact, I saw that Mark used his celebration of King's legacy this year to let fly his typical broadside, spewing hatred and unhinged rage at white conservative Trump supporters who don't vote the way Mark votes.  Those, that is, who are white, since Mark has nothing to say about various minority groups who seem to support President Trump.  This he does while tipping a hat to that precious legacy of MLK.

So there you have it.  Christians, who long ago lost the nerve and courage to keep being Christians in the face of the emerging Left, replaced Jesus with Martin Luther King, Jr., because that's who we were allowed to name publicly without push-back.  Eventually the nation deifying him and worshiping him chose to do what worshipers often do, and that is use the name and destroy the message.  MLK had served his useful purpose.

And nothing shows that better than Mark's screed of partisan and fanatical rage all in the name of MLK's messages of peace and unity.  The only thing worse is celebrating him in an age in which protesting the idea that people should be judged based on skin color is called a form of racism.  I would say at this point, it's fair to concede that MLK has passed his sell-by date in terms of a meaningful figure, at least for the present age.  Perhaps future generations will sift through the good, bad and human of the man and place him in his proper role as an important historical figure who did great things despite his human imperfections, foibles and sins.

Until then, pardon me if I walk away from the hypocrisy and the somewhat disturbing use of MLK for those not courageous enough to invoke Jesus' name in an orthodox manner.  His deification was useful in convincing us that the whole of the Christian West, especially the American experiment, was a great evil defined only by its racism.  He also was a salve, an ointment that Christians could use to be acceptable to the modern, post-Christian nation while maintaining a sense of religion and religious devotion.  But all for naught.  Since those forces calling for the eradication of the West are not far from doing the same for the Christian religion as well.

So rather than join in the hypocrisy, if not heresy and violence against the heritage of the Christian faith and its contributions to Western civilization, I chose to do something different that day.  I chose to set out a cheese plate in honor of  National Cheese Lovers Day.

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