Christian Worldview

One Nation Under Whom?

Today is the holiday in which we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, and all over the country millions of children are studying his life and his work. They'll learn that his Letter from a Birmingham Jail is one of the most eloquent defenses of the law of God that must undergird our nation's laws. How astonished King would be, were he alive today, to hear the shrill claims from secular ideologues that America was founded as an explicitly secular nation. In the New York Times recently, Susan Jacoby argued that it's a "misconception, promulgated by the Christian right, that the American government was founded on divine authority rather than human reason." Nonsense, Dr. King would have retorted; after all, his entire campaign to abolish unjust laws was predicated on his belief that civil laws must square with the lawgiver God. As King knew -- and most scholars agree -- for the first time in history, two ideological streams partially converged in America, one coming from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the other from Enlightenment thinkers. Adherents to both traditions agreed (for different reasons) that the new government should neither establish nor interfere with the church. But this certainly did not mean that America was to be a nation free from religious influences. George Washington was explicit: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." In his marvelous book On Two Wings, theologian Michael Novak contends that the faith of the founding fathers was deeply rooted in the writings of ancient scripture, especially the Jewish covenant. As he put it, secular writers typically cut off "one of the two wings by which the American eagle flies" -- the one that is America's "compact" with the biblical God. They understood, with Thomas Jefferson, that "no nation has ever yet existed or even been governed without religion. Nor can be." Why? Because, in the founders' estimation, virtue was the precondition for liberty. While the founders admittedly did not use the word God in the Constitution, they didn't need to. The "laws of nature and nature's God" had already been appealed to in the Declaration of Independence, which provided the context for the constitutional debate. No one made the case better than Martin Luther King, Jr., that America's founders intended religion to undergird America's laws. "One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws," King wrote. "But conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? The answer would likely make Jacoby, Barry Lynn, and secular ideologues cringe. "A just law," King said, "squares with the moral law of the law of God. An unjust law . . . is out of harmony with the moral law." As we celebrate King's birthday and his success in advancing the civil rights cause in America, let's remember that without his defense of the law of God, we would still be a segregated nation today. We need to learn from his stirring Letter from a Birmingham Jail that it is the moral law that undergirds the nation's law. America is a purely secular state? Don't tell that to the gentlemen farmers who founded America -- nor to those who today honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. For further reading and information: Susan Jacoby, "One Nation, Under Secularism," New York Times, 8 January 2004. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963. (Adobe Acrobat Reader required.) Read President George Washington's farewell address, 1796 [taken from J.D. Richardson, ed., Compilation of Messages and Papers of the Presidents, vol. 1 (1907), 213]. Mervyn A. Warren, King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (InterVarsity, 2001). Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter, 2001). BreakPoint Commentary No. 030828, "King's Dream: The Good Society and the Moral Law." BreakPoint Commentary No. 030117, "Fighting Unjust Laws: Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr." BreakPoint Commentary No. 020121, "The Duty to Disobey: Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr." Mark Gauvreau Judge, "The Division of Black America," BreakPoint Online, 8 August 2003. Rev. Thomas A. Tarrants, III was a former Klansman who nearly died from multiple bullet wounds when he was arrested. In prison he came to Christ and now speaks out against racism and for the superiority of the Christian worldview. Call 1-877-322-5527 to request a CD ($10) of his testimony, "How a former Klansman rejected racism and came to Christ."


Chuck Colson


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