DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING'S CONSERVATIVE LEGACY

September 17, 2010

It is time for conservatives to lay claim to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was no stalwart Conservative, yet his core beliefs, such as the power and necessity of faith-based association and self-government based on absolute truth and moral law, are profoundly conservative. Modern liberalism rejects these ideas, while conservatives place them at the center of their philosophy. Despite decades of its appropriation by liberals, King's message was fundamentally conservative.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott, triggered by Rosa Parks' refusal to abide by local segregation laws, sparked King's rise from ministering a small church in Montgomery to national renown. King's primary aim was not to change laws, but to change people, to make neighbors of enemies and a nation out of divided races. King led with love, not racial hatred. From a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his message inspired the nation. And his message and achievements inspire us today.

Dr. King believed in the principles of the American Founding. He maintained, "We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom." Throughout American history, racism has posed a peculiar obstacle to the achievement of that goal. However, Dr. King believed that the Founders had set the nation on the right course. He did not reject the principles of our nation because contradictions existed; instead he hoped that racial groups would put aside their differences and acknowledge the principles that unite all Americans. Today, it is conservatives who seek to unite. In a nation divided by cultural diversity, conservatives defend and celebrate the characteristics that we share as Americans. As America drifts from the ideas and ideals of the Founders, conservatives stand with King as believers that the principles of the American Founding are as relevant today as in 1776.

Dr. King believed in a fixed moral law, an anathema to moral relativists espousing subjective values. For King, a just law was "a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God." Dr. King required that his followers lead moral lives, and he emphasized the importance of faith in the face of adversity. Modern liberalism has rebuffed this teaching, dedicating great effort to silence religion and morality. Again, conservatives are the standard-bearers here.

For Dr. King, individual freedom depended upon civic responsibility. He proclaimed, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Racial judgment is inherently unjust, but judgment based on moral character is essential. King wanted his children to live in a colorblind society but not a value-neutral society that rejects all standards of judgment. Today, this is the Conservative message. Moral character as expressed in our social interactions is at the center of self-government, which in turn is the sustaining force of American democracy. Conservatives know that without a morally-informed sense of social obligation, we would be rudderless.

In today's parlance, Dr. King's movement would be called "faith-based." Unlike the doggedly secular groups that now campaign for government action in the name of "social justice," King's coalition was explicitly religious, rooted in churches and Christian morality. King's ever-growing congregation labored for reform in Montgomery, in Alabama, and then all across the country. The Montgomery Bus Boycott testifies to the strength of churches and local institutions to make a difference. The heart of the conservatism has always been grassroots movement, from the bottom up rather than from the top down, focused on faith-based and community associations. While liberals who claim King's legacy seek to mandate social change from the nation's capital, conservatives seek to empower communities, associations, and congregations to carry out moral ends.

King aimed to unite a divided America behind the goals of the Founders, not to shift fundamentally unjust public policies to favor different groups. Affirmative action stands outside King's legacy because it requires the government to see Americans as members of privileged and disfavored racial groups, not equal individuals. This is also the Conservative view.

It is not a coincidence that conservatives share Dr. King's core principles, as they are the principles of the American Founding and continue to guide us today. Dr. King's dream echoes that of the Founders: "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." King's dream is rooted in the ideas of human equality, individual freedom, and the consent of the governed. These ideas depend on absolute truth and moral law, and they are supported and affirmed by religion and religious association. This dream, Dr. King's Conservative message, is nearly lost amidst the worship of cultural diversity and moral relativism. It is still a dream worth pursuing.


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