Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today we honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. Just days after we marked his birthday a year ago, political operative Donna Brazile invoked his words in a speech -- not about civil rights, but about abortion.
Before a gathering of NARAL, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Brazile declared that freedom would reign only when all women have the right to safe, affordable, legal abortions. By invoking King, Brazile seemed to suggest that King, were he alive today, would be hand-in-glove with the abortion lobby.
Brazile is dead wrong. I believe King would be on the pro-life side, demanding protection for unborn children. I believe this, because King was a fervent believer in natural rights. He penned the most powerful defense of natural law -- the body of moral truths that must undergird our nation's laws -- written in modern decades.
In 1963, King was arrested for leading massive non-violent protests against the segregated lunch counters of Birmingham, Alabama. While in jail, King received a letter from eight ministers. They agreed with King's goals, but they thought he should call off the demonstrations and obey the law. King disagreed, and his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail explains why. "One may well ask," he wrote, "how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer, he said, "is found in the fact that there are two kinds of laws: just laws . . . and unjust laws."
"One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws," King affirmed, "but conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."
A just law, King wrote, "squares with the moral law of the law of God. An unjust law . . . is out of harmony with the moral law."
In saying this, King stood squarely within a long tradition dating back to Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. But today, the whole concept of natural law has fallen out of favor. As Princeton legal philosopher Robert George writes in his book, The Clash of Orthodoxies, many secular ideologues teach that "moral rights cannot come as a divine gift because there is no divine giver." According to this faction, moral rights "exist only in the sense that certain people . . . happen to believe . . . subjectively -- that rights exist and are willing to honor them. Where people . . . do not happen to believe in their existence, rights simply do not exist."
Confronted with such thinking, Dr. King would have been appalled. As George writes, he knew that without enduring, objective standards of justice, then, as Nietzsche put it, "all things are permitted" -- including segregation and slavery.
"When Christians insist that human laws line up with moral truth," George writes, "we are not 'imposing religion.' Instead, we are making the entirely reasonable demand that reason be given its due in human affairs. Unjust law fails to bind the conscience and must be opposed by people of faith."
On the anniversary of the birth of the great civil rights leader, we ought to teach our children about King's eloquent defense of natural law -- a law that, Donna Brazile notwithstanding, demands that all God's children be set free, not only from the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination, but also from the unspeakable horror of abortion. King's memory demands nothing less.
For further reading:
This year's March for Life in Washington, D.C., will take place Wednesday, January 22, 2003.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 020121, "The Duty to Disobey: Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr."
Mervyn A. Warren, King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (InterVarsity, 2001).
Robert George, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis (ISI Books, 2001).
Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963 (free Adobe Acrobat Reader required ).
Peter Kreeft, Three Approaches to Abortion (Ignatius Press, 2002).
Learn how you can make a difference in the culture with the "BreakPoint Culture of Life Packet." It includes the booklet "Building a Culture of Life: A Call to Respect Human Dignity in American Life" and a "BreakPoint This Week" special broadcast CD that includes an interview with Wilberforce Forum Fellow William Saunders, Human Rights Counsel and Senior Fellow in Human Life Studies for Family Research Council, along with a speech, "Bioethics and the Clash of Orthodoxies," by Dr. Robert George.