Would King choose Clinton, Edwards, or Obama? Or would he have chosen McCain, Romney, or Huckabee?
Naturally King would not have endorsed any candidate, although many candidates seemingly acknowledged or endorsed him. Yet he undoubtedly would have had an opinion about where the nation is going. Before we attempt to answer the hypothetical question about his vote, let’s look at where we are in history. King’s choice of a leader would be affected by how he viewed the needs of the culture.
If he were here today, King would understand that the black church once again needs to be a conscience to the nation. This institution must first police itself and then bring the nation into accountability. Both major political parties have serious flaws. These flaws are not simply in party platforms, but they have to do with the use and abuse of power and opportunity. The black church may be the only force that still has enough social credibility to bring us together.
King, a great believer in the local church, would no doubt be concerned about religious liberty, the protection of families, continued racial reconciliation, and the problem of illegal immigration. In my opinion, he would be concerned about the Democratic Party’s historic rejection of faith up until the last few years. Until this presidential election, the Democratic Party had consistently begun to tack in an anti-faith direction. He would probably applaud the Democratic attempt at a religious revival, while questioning the Republican “corner” on righteousness and faith.
Perhaps King would be simultaneously delighted with Huckabee’s evangelical stand and the religious freedom that Romney’s candidacy represents for the nation. The Republican outreach to black churches during the last few years would have undoubtedly brought a wide grin to his face. This unity strategy was one of the keys to Bush’s election in 2004. He won black support in both Ohio and Florida that was double the “normal” black vote in these states. Although Karl Rove was labeled a genius for the victory, it was actually an organic strategy born out of newly formed relationships between black and white pastors. These 21st century freedom riders mobilized the grassroots evangelical community to support a moral values agenda that transcended traditional party lines. King would be wise enough to realize that a new unity based on faith, which overrides race and culture, may be the new social glue needed in America.
I believe King would be pleased by the fact that faith continues to have a strong impact on the mainstream U.S. media. I am sure that he would view the multiple discussions about faith in most political debates as positive signs of a potential spiritual awakening in the entire nation. He would be quick to state that U.S. history is filled with stories about how the faith community steered the country from social and/or cultural destruction. After all, the Civil War would never have been fought to abolish slavery if faith had been forced from the public square.
Last year I wrote a piece entitled: “King: Conservative or Liberal?” I concluded that King’s core beliefs matched those of most conservatives with the exception of his sentiments about war. Just three months before I wrote my op-ed (October 2006), a group of black conservatives ran a radio and television commercial in DC, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania which stated that Dr. King was a Republican. Even though their assertion was based in fact, the ads were seen as divisive, pieces of propaganda. To my surprise many black civil rights leaders got upset at the assertion that King had Republican roots. They felt that even if King were a Republican at one point in his life, this would imply his approval of the current agenda of the party.
Let’s return to the question of who would receive Dr. King’s vote. If King voted Republican in the primary he would have been equally likely to vote for Huckabee, Romney, or Thompson because of their pro-life stands and their views of religious liberty. On the Democratic side, he would probably see no substantive differences in the policy recommendations of any of the top Democratic candidates. It would be difficult, however, to determine whose character and experience would qualify them to be the most powerful leader in the world.
Yet the ultimate question might be whether King would play the race card by voting for the leading black candidate, Obama, simply because he is African American. King would find it fitting that South Carolina, a southern state with 50% black voters, would be given a chance to test America’s changing social order. At the end of the day, he would probably not publicize his personal vote. He would, however, publicly encourage South Carolina voters to abandon identity politics of race, class, and gender - setting a new standard. This might imply a vote for Hillary Clinton.
Let me end this discussion of how King would vote by making an interesting observation. Taylor Branch, the famed author of the King trilogy, has done the nation a great service by writing about the man, his ministry, and his message. His latest book At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 is nothing short of brilliant.
Branch insists that the net result of Dr. King’s work was not only greater social equality for blacks, but greater social freedoms for all Americans. In a rare discussion of this work carried on Book TV on C-Span2, Branch explained that white women were perhaps the greatest recipients of the changes made in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Regardless of the outcome in the Democratic or Republican primaries, the diversity of race, gender, class, and faith reflects a tremendous social maturity that is developing in our nation. And this would get King’s vote.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.