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Martin Luther King Jr and Moral Law

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Birmingham Jail

Today we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was arguably the greatest defender of the moral law in modern American history. Those of us who are now standing for religious freedom and against “gay marriage” can take great inspiration from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps the best example of this is his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

At the same time, Dr. King emphasized the importance of moral consensus that protects the minority. It is unjust for an immoral majority to oppress a moral minority, such as the State forcing Catholic institutions to materially cooperate in things the Catholic Church teaches are sin. That is a “sameness made legal” that Catholics cannot comply with. Catholics cannot, in good conscience, say that “gay marriage” is the “same” as one-man, one-woman marriage. Because we cannot comply with that, and it causes our adoption agencies to shut down as a result, “gay marriage” law is unjust law.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

There are those who compare voting to marriage, but voting and marriage have completely different purposes. Further, voting is a civil act whereas marriage is a social institution. Voting is also not a religious ceremony, whereas marriage is. One cannot participate in civic life without the right to vote. One can participate in civic life if one is unmarried. The right to participate in civic life is a moral right, so it is both a civil right and a moral right, which is why laws giving blacks the right to vote, and laws ensuring that they have the same access to voting as whites have, are just laws. There is no moral right to marriage between people of the same sex, and there is no moral right for anyone, particularly the government, to discriminate against Catholics or others who object to such “unions,” therefore “gay marriage” is unjust law.

Dr. King goes on in his explanation of what makes a law unjust.

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

So it is when “gay marriage” is used to discriminate against Catholic adoption agencies in the issuance of grants. There is nothing wrong, per se, with the government denying a federal grant, but when the denial is given because the agency is Catholic, that is unjust because of our right to religious freedom. Denial of grants is not the same as a verbatim ban on Catholic adoption agencies, but it has the effect of forcing Catholic adoption agencies to close. One in every five Americans is Catholic. Likely, then, one in every five taxpayers is Catholic. If the government takes billions of dollars from Catholic taxpayers, then the government has no business denying grants to a Catholic adoption agency because it is Catholic.

Thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for standing up for moral law and for helping America to understand what unjust laws are. All laws that are opposed to moral law are unjust laws, as Dr. King said. Unfortunately, too many have forgotten the most important part of Dr. King’s ministry — upholding the moral law in the face of unjust civil law.

Dr. King had this to say of those who would sit back and say nothing in the face of injustice, and also those who sought to ambush the civil rights movement for evil purposes.

I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

It is my hope and prayer that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., will be remembered as the great Christian civil rights leader that he was, and that his memory will not be invoked by those who reject moral law for the advancement of immoral laws in America. I trust that today he looks down upon the Church Militant from his place in heaven and intercedes for us at the throne of God, not for those who would reject his core message – that we are all created in the image of a loving God, and that to deny Him is to deny true justice.

Please read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It is one of the most important documents in American history. I would argue that it is even more important to the current political debate in America than his “I Have a Dream” speech.

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