Jerry Large / Times staff columnist
King, civil-rights movement moved by faith
We'll be talking about Martin Luther King Jr. and the modern civil-rights movement this week, talking about the struggle mostly as history, marveling at the sacrifices people made and honoring the commitment they felt.
A colleague of mine suggested we might be overlooking something, particularly when we think about King. He was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a minister, son and grandson of preachers.
She's right. We don't talk much about the role faith plays in anyone's life. Political figures often feel compelled to announce their faith, but not necessarily to act on it. Journalists are made nervous by the fact-defying nature of faith, to say nothing of the volatility of some believers.
But religion is part of the story when it affects people's actions.
It was his belief in God and his study of the scriptures that educated, nurtured and comforted King. His wasn't a blind, emotional adherence to what he was taught. He questioned doctrine and welcomed the influence of other faiths as he armed himself with a sense of justice rooted in morality and ethics.
His beliefs compelled him to wrestle with the shortcomings of society, even as he confronted his own failings.
Religion makes the news when someone decides to deny that evolution is real. It makes the news when someone does wrong while cloaked in his faith. This past year we've read plenty about Muslim fanatics and pedophile priests. None of that should be off-limits, but there is more to examine than that.
Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. His faith is alive in his life, not just in his rhetoric, and so it was with King.
Of course, the absence of religion does not preclude a moral and ethical life any more than embracing a religion guarantees it. Indeed, not everyone in the civil-rights struggle was motivated by religious beliefs. And most people who claimed some faith were not involved in the civil-rights movement.
If most religious Americans had shared the values King saw in the scriptures, there wouldn't have been a problem to begin with.
People often note that the church played a crucial role in the struggle because it was one of the few places in this society where black Americans had power and control. That's true, but the church was more than a logistical necessity for King. His speeches and sermons are full of his religion.
His mix of social and spiritual messages was evident early and often. In a 1954 sermon at a Baptist church in Detroit, King spoke of the world's troubles, and said, "The trouble isn't so much that we don't know enough, but it's as if we aren't good enough. The trouble isn't so much that our scientific genius lags behind, but our moral genius lags behind. The great problem facing modern man is that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live."
King told the congregation it wasn't enough to come to church. "We must remember that it's possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and deny his existence with your life."
In another sermon, he said, "This is what God needs today: Men and women who will ask, 'What will happen to humanity if I don't help? What will happen to the civil-rights movement if I don't participate? What will happen to my city if I don't vote?' "
He told them God won't want to know about their popularity or their degrees or their money, but he will ask what each person did for other people.
That's a philosophy that was bound to result in action of some kind.
King happened to be a Christian, but whatever we believe should show itself in our actions.
Most Americans claim some kind of religious belief. Last month, an international poll found that 59 percent of Americans say religion is very important in their lives, a higher percentage than in any other wealthy country. In France, only 11 percent say that.
The number was highest in places where people need hope most, in Africa and Latin America. It was 97 percent in Senegal.
The prosperous and powerful United States clings to the idea of religion, but does it live out the more noble ideals of religion?
The civil-rights movement made the United States a better place, truer to its ideals, but it did not put an end to injustice.
There is plenty of struggling left for people who believe it is good for the soul.
Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.