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Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. Headshot

The Civil Rights Movement and Public Religion

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I'm watching some public officials, (Congressman Darrell Issa, Senator Roy Blunt, Senator Marco Rubio and former Senator Rick Santorum) trying to transform freedom of religion into freedom to impose religion. They seem to imagine that their religious beliefs or moral conscience is superior to those of others, and trump matters of settled law, i.e. Roe v. Wade, and the professional judgment of the medical community by trying to deny women access to healthcare for which they do not care, or more specifically to which they object on the basis of their personal ideological and religious beliefs. I believe our Senators, Representatives, presidential candidates and other politicians would do well to take a lesson on the use of religion in the public square from the Civil Rights Movement.

The Movement emerged from the Black Church and was based on principles articulated and affirmed in Christianity and its scriptures, including the inherent dignity of black men and women (sadly in that order for some) as human beings having been created in the image God, and the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet when the Movement pressed for legal remedies to the social and statutory marginalization of persons of African descent, the Movement appealed to the founding documents of the United States and our Legislative, Judicial and Executive branches of government. The tireless Civil Rights workers and their leaders did not seek to impose their vibrant, transformative, egalitarian Christianity on the public square. Rather they were fueled by their faith to work through the legal and political systems. By not specifying a normative Christian practice for those who would advocate for the full enfranchisement of black people, the Civil Rights Movement was home to persons of a variety of faith commitments.

However, neither the stalwarts of the Movement nor, as recently claimed by Rick Santorum, President John F. Kennedy, believed that there was no place for persons of faith in the public square. In each boycott, beating, arrest and in the aftermath of the murders of Emmett Till, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Medgar Evans, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just to name a few, the faithful witness of the Black Church was on display to the world without ever asserting a call to capitulation or conversion, to which the life and death of the Jewish Mr. Schwerner bears testimony. Far from shying away from faith-claims, the Movement sought to hold only those who claimed that they were professing Christians to the standards of the Gospel life, teaching and the death-transcending resurrection power of Mary's Child, Jesus, of Nazareth. There is perhaps no more eloquent example of intra-Christian call to conscience than Dr. King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," written to white clergymen who opposed and denounced him and the Movement.

Freedom as an American cultural value and freedom as a religious value are related but they are not the same. Freedom of religion is also freedom from religion. No one has the right to impose their religion on another person, on or in her body or to deny her medical treatment -- whether she pays her own insurance premiums or not -- or to use medical professionals and technology to intimidate women or men into making choices in accord with someone else's religion.

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

-- the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have A Dream," 23 April 1963