We celebrate today a national holiday in honor of an ordained minister of Jesus Christ.
There are three men in American history distinguished enough that they have been honored with a national holiday – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King jr. – but only Dr. King has been honored solely for his time as a private citizen, having never held public office or military commission.
Unsurprisingly, to be so honored, all three men hold lessons for conservatives and liberals alike. All were in some sense revolutionary figures, unwilling to sit quietly on the status quo for the sake of comity and going along to get along, even at the sake of personal danger and the making of many enemies. Washington took up arms against his own government, and forged a new nation unlike any that had come before. Lincoln led a new, sometimes hard-edged political party that challenged a deeply embedded evil afoot in the nation, never backing down from his anti-slavery convictions even when accused of fomenting violence by anti-slavery radicals, nor when half the country took up arms in rebellion rather than accept his election. And Dr. King challenged, with stubborn persistence, the equally entrenched legacy of slavery in the form of Jim Crow laws. Yet by the same token, none of the three was a radical. Washington, like others of his generation, saw himself not as author of a new order but the protector of an Englishman’s traditional liberties against novel encroachments such as new and unjust taxes. Lincoln, for all his hatred of slavery, was initially willing to accept the pragmatic half-measure of stopping its spread, and only came to the drastic step of emancipation in the midst of a horrible war. And Dr. King eschewed the call to arms of the African-American radicals of his day, pushing for reform through the system and calling on his fellow Americans not to reject their heritage but to live up to the promises of America’s founding documents and answer to their Christian consciences.
America has never been an exclusively Christian country – Washington, for example, famously helped set the tone for religious pluralism with his 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation at Newport, Rhode Island – but we have relied again and again on the Christian faith of so many Americans to form an essential part of our national character. We cannot know where Dr. King’s politics would have gone had he lived past 1968, and perhaps his legacy would be more complicated today if we did. Nor do we have any illusions that he was perfect; like many famous heroes of church and of state, and even prominent saints, he had his personal failings, such as plagiarism and adultery. But we know this much: it was no public office, no earthly wealth or power, but simply his faith in the redeeming power of Christ, for sinful men and sinful nations alike, that gave him the courage and the conviction to give moral leadership to a reluctant and at times bitterly hostile nation. Let us hope and pray we never run short of such inspiration.