August 28 marks the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech.”
On that steamy summer day in 1963, hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, converged on the mall in Washington and heard this black pastor deliver what was essentially a sermon for freedom.
Compared to the unrest then on university campuses, violent outbreaks in urban areas, and the protests of the civil rights movement, today’s turmoil seems relatively sedate.
Nevertheless, we do live today in a deeply troubled nation and it’s instructive to think about what has changed since the sixties and what hasn’t.
One constant is the turmoil. It’s tempting to think that normal is times when things smoothly buzz along - but this is an illusion. The beauty of freedom is openness for dissent and discussion of life’s endless problems and ambiguities.
What changes is what we argue about and how we define our problems. And one notable contrast between today and the sixties is our sense of religion and its relationship to the freedom we so cherish.
To appreciate this, we need look no further than Dr. King’s famous speech.
Today we commonly view freedom as exclusively in the arena of politics, separate and apart from – for some the antithesis of – religion.
Reading Dr. King’s words, we can appreciate that for him religion was the handmaiden of freedom, not its adversary.
King said that his dream was “deeply rooted in the American dream,” and he quoted Isaiah, saying “…the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…”
“This will be a day when all of God’s children,” he said, “will sing with new meaning, ‘My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty…”
It is reported that when King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, it was suggested to him that he drop the “Christian” label, for fear that it might alienate northern liberals. He refused.
By one report, King said at one point, “In all too many northern communities a sort of quasi-liberalism prevails, so bent on seeing all sides that it fails to become dedicated to any side.”
The moral relativism that concerned Dr. King then has come to define civil rights today and has widely captured popular perceptions among Americans about what freedom means.
The sense of freedom as the pursuit of Godly ideals has given way to a sense that freedom is about meaninglessness and acceptance and legitimization of all possibilities. The idea that the need for freedom flows from humility that no single man can grasp truth in its totality has given way to a conviction that there is no truth at all.