Americans have a penchant for not appreciating their heroes and giants until they are no longer with us. Abraham Lincoln (various called a buffoon and a baboon), Harry Truman ("to err is Truman"), Ronald Reagan ("a madman") all found honor in the generations that followed.
Another famous American, while afforded a degree of respect these days, is still overlooked by many who have yet to understand the full depth of his intellect and world view. Sadly, where he stood on the social issue closest to his heart is either misunderstood or bent by his presumed heirs. I am going to quote from his own words. See if you can guess who this man was.
"Some things are right and some things are wrong, no matter if everybody is doing the contrary. Some things in this universe are absolute. The God of the universe has made it so. And so long as we adopt this relative attitude toward right and wrong, we’re revolting against the very laws of God himself."
"All I’m trying to say to you is that our world hinges on moral foundations. God has made it so. God has made the universe to be based on a moral law. So long as man disobeys it he is revolting against God. That’s what we need in the world today: people who will stand for right and goodness. It’s not enough to know the intricacies of zoology and biology, but we must know the intricacies of law."
"We just became so involved in things that we forgot about God. And that is the danger confronting us, my friends: that in a nation as ours where we stress mass production, and that’s mighty important, where we have so many conveniences and luxuries and all of that, there is the danger that we will unconsciously forget about God. I’m not saying that these things aren’t important; we need them, we need cars, we need money; all of that’s important to live. But whenever they become substitutes for God, they become injurious."
"And I tell you this morning, my friends, the reason we have to solve this problem here in America: Because God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind and the world. Never before in the history of the world have so many racial groups and so many national backgrounds assembled together in one nation. And somehow, if we can’t solve the problem in America, the world can’t solve the problem, because America is the world in miniature and the world is America writ large. And God set us out with all of the opportunities. He set us between two great oceans; made it possible for us to live with some of the great natural resources of the world. And there he gave us through the minds of our forefathers a great creed:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
"America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about ‘improved means to an unimproved end.’ How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances."
"I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. . That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. They live by some such principle as this: ‘everybody is doing it, so it must be all right.’ For so many of you Morality is merely group consensus. In your modern sociological lingo, the mores are accepted as the right ways. You have unconsciously come to believe that right is discovered by taking a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion. How many are giving their ultimate allegiance to this way?"
"’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ This is a dream. It’s a great dream. . [T]hat dream goes on to say another thing that ultimately distinguishes our nation and our form of government from any totalitarian system in the world. It says that each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred by the state. In order to discover where they came from, it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity. They are God-given, gifts from His hands. Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us, and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day, that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth."
I would think that many Americans would be surprised to learn that the above words were spoken from the pulpit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We can’t know what he would think of those who expropriate his name while ignoring his message, but it is curious indeed that such statements today might disqualify him from serving on the federal bench. It should also be a reminder not to believe the propaganda we are often fed about history and public figures.
For more words of Martin Luther King, Jr., visit Stanford University’s research project.