America has been on the brink before—and not so long ago.
If you were a forty-year-old in 1955, your life would have already spanned most of World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic, the convulsive birth of the Soviet Union, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, World War II, the communist takeover in China, and the Korean War; closer to home, you would have witnessed McCarthyism and the growing pressures for remediation of ongoing and unresolved racial injustice—for all of the manifest good of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. During those four decades from 1915 to 1955, the nation had faced crisis after crisis, and, had this been your life, you would have known little else but a nation on the brink.
Then, as now, these national trials were rightly recognized as existentially momentous, and then, as now, there was wide and deep controversy over how to make sense of them. Over this span, sensible voices across the political spectrum—John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, Richard Weaver, Peter Viereck, and Russell Kirk, among others—simultaneously worried that the normative resources that underwrote liberal democracy in America were flagging and committed themselves to addressing these challenges. They differed aggressively over how.
In the middle decades of the twentieth century, the public and political discussion about this succession of crises gave birth to what the cultural critic Mark Greif has described as “the age of the crisis of man,” a crisis in the ethics of a universalizing humanism—of the meaning of “man,” per se.11xMark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016). In America, the vast literature produced by political commentators, social scientists, and other scholars articulated the range of urgent challenges facing humankind and proposed an anthropology and ethics upon which national solidarity around liberal democracy might be re-established. It was an aspirational solidarity, to be sure, but one that might bind and heal a broken, fragmented, conflicted world.
It becomes clear in retrospect that the participants in this discourse were trying to do the cultural work of a universalizing religion, without actually being religious in any recognizable sense. The echoes of Dewey’s project of reconstructing “a common faith” for liberal democracy reverberated throughout this literature. Indeed, the language of midcentury humanism was often inspiring, comforting, warm, and reassuring, but it was also unburdened by the complexity of the history of actual communities. “Man” was an abstraction, without grounding in time, geography, culture, or circumstance. At the end of the day, the failure to fully acknowledge irreducible human differences within humanity, not least, of course, the particularities of race and gender and the histories that encumbered them, rendered the discourse of man mostly vacuous.
The humanism based upon this abstracted anthropology was inherently problematic. It sought to be inclusive, but without recognizing those who had been excluded. Nor did it provide any practical way of addressing the ongoing contradictions of exclusion. The message was clear: African Americans, and other minorities too, still didn’t quite matter to the unfolding story of America exceptionalism and, in that particular moment, of America’s rising prosperity and growing global prominence. To a great many at midcentury, being black was still not quite being American; being a woman was not quite being a full citizen.
Yet while the “working through” of America’s hybrid Enlightenment in this midcentury humanism might have seemed a failure, the true impact was more paradoxical. Its virtue was that, as in the past, the language and vision of this discourse were diffuse enough for different communities and factions to read themselves and their own traditions and interests into it. Yes, it failed in its time to address the concrete realities of race and gender, but it succeeded by providing a cultural logic for successive waves of liberationist movements to come. Yes, the cultural logic of inclusion based on the universality of the “family of man” was mostly passive and empty, yet the appeal to this common anthropology became the foundation upon which concrete claims to equality could be made. The humanism of mid-twentieth-century America didn’t seek to acknowledge the rights of full citizenship of all groups, much less attempt to extend such rights to those that were excluded. But, in the end and on its own terms, proponents of midcentury humanism were hard pressed to deny those who were appealing for inclusion.
That appeal was first and most powerfully articulated in word and deed in the civil rights movement led, not incidentally, by the black clergy. This movement represented the continuation of the struggle to work through the ongoing and tragic contradictions of racial exclusion and injustice, and it found its most compelling voice in a theologian and churchman, Martin Luther King Jr.
The Witness of MLK
The Reverend King’s understanding of the nature of the “crisis of man” and what was at stake was entirely consonant with the views of twentieth-century humanism. As he put it in a sermon in 1958,
The question, What is man? is one of the most important questions confronting any generation. The whole political, social, and economic structure of society is largely determined by its answer to this pressing question. Indeed, the conflict which we witness in the world today between totalitarianism and democracy is at bottom a conflict over the question, What is man?22xMartin Luther King Jr., “The Christian Doctrine of Man,” (sermon delivered at the Detroit Council of Churches’ noon Lenten services), March 12, 1958(?), Martin Luther King. Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/christian-doctrine-man-sermon-delivered-detroit-council-churches-noon-lenten#ftnref6. This sermon and many other public addresses by Martin Luther King Jr. can also be found in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson et al. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992–2014), 7 vols. In this section of the present article I draw from the helpful archival research in David Garrow, MLK: An American Legacy (New York, NY: Open Road, 1986); Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2005); and William G. Thompson, “An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King and the Re-imagining of American Democracy” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia, 2015).
The universalizing character of King’s anthropology was equally consonant with the ethical idealism of midcentury humanism. Yet rather than have it share the latter’s vague metaphysical grounding, King rooted his anthropology unapologetically in the Abrahamic, and specifically Christian, tradition. “All of God’s children,” he argued, “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics,” were made in God’s image.33xMartin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” (address delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom), August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom. Throughout his ministry, he relentlessly reminded his African American audiences that their dignity did not come from the white man, but from God:
During the years of slavery in America it is said that after a hard day’s work the slaves would often hold secret religious meetings. All during the working day they were addressed with unnecessary vituperations and insulting epithets. But as they gathered in these meetings, they gained a renewed faith as the old unlettered minister would come to his triumphant climax saying, you—you are not niggers. You—you are not slaves. You are God’s children. This established for them a true ground of personal dignity.44xMartin Luther King Jr., “Six Talks Based on Beliefs That Matter by William Adams Brown,” 1949–50, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/six-talks-based-beliefs-matter-william-adams-brown#ftnref2.
The dignity King wanted to bestow upon African Americans was a sense of inherent worth and ultimate significance, what he called “somebodiness.”55xMartin Luther King Jr., “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?,” Martin Luther King Jr.: An Extraordinary Life (website), Seattle Times, accessed August 14, 2020, https://projects.seattletimes.com/mlk/words-blueprint.html. This address was delivered to students at Barratt Junior High School, Philadelphia, PA, October 26, 1967. Imbued with such dignity, “I and my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon—a Negro—and yet a man!”66xMartin Luther King Jr., “The Negro and the Constitution” (address to the Black Elks, Dublin, GA), May 1944, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/negro-and-constitution. The echoes of continuity with David Walker’s “Appeal in Four Articles to the Colored Citizens of the World” 130 years before, declaring that “We are men,” and of the abolitionist movement of the late eighteenth century, “Am I not a man and a brother?,” are clear. King’s emphasis on the inherent dignity of all human beings, African Americans among them, spawned the iconic placard for the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968, “I Am a Man,” and thus became a rallying cry of the movement.
King’s theological anthropology, woven into the logic of the nation’s founding documents, provided the cornerstone of his ethics of protest. In this, he was very much aligned with the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr and his emphasis on collective sin. As King said,
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”77xKing, “I Have a Dream.”
The problem, he continued, was that “one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.… One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”88xIbid.
King understood that as important as the legal changes after the Civil War were, they meant little if they were not embedded within the interpretive frame of the deep structures of cultural reality. “Today,” he argued, “thirteen million black sons and daughters of our forefathers continue the fight for the translation of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments from writing on the printed page to an actuality. We believe with them that ‘if freedom is good for any it is good for all’” [emphasis added].99xKing, “The Negro and the Constitution.”
The problems were not abstract but concrete. In his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, King pointed to American education as a “system of exclusion” that had “not yet begun to develop the talent of the Negro and other poor youth.”1010xMartin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1968), 207. Ten years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he protested, “Negroes lag one to three years behind whites [in elementary schools]…their schools receive substantially less money…one-twentieth as many Negroes as whites attend college, and half of these are in ill-equipped Southern institutions.”1111xIbid., 7. And the educational inequities were tied to the lack of economic opportunity. “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question you are raising questions about the economic system. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”1212xMartin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go from Here?,” lecture delivered August 16, 1967, Atlanta, GA, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/where-do-we-go-here.
In his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, King observed that “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.… Half of all Negroes live in substandard housing and…have half the income of whites.” Moreover, “twice as many [are] unemployed,” and of those that are employed, “75 percent hold menial jobs.”1313xKing, “I Have a Dream.” He continued,
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied.1414xIbid.
In his superb 2015 dissertation on King, William Thompson observed that King labored to expose the imperfections of America not so that America would be humiliated but so that America would be healed.1515xWilliam G. Thompson, “An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King and the Re-imagining of American Democracy,” (doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia, 2015), https://doi.org/10.18130/V3VZ60. My colleagues, Charles Marsh, Charles Matthewes, and I served on Thompson’s doctoral dissertation committee. Once again, King’s theological anthropology became the source of his vision of democratic inclusion and solidarity. “God,” he preached, “is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men. But God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers, where every man will respect the dignity and the worth of human personality.”1616xMartin Luther King Jr., “The Man Who Was a Fool” (sermon delivered at the Detroit Council of Churches’ noon Lenten services),” March 6, 1961(?), Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/man-who-was-fool-sermon-delivered-detroit-council-churches-noon-lenten. As King said,
When you…look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls the “image of God,” you begin to love him.… No matter what he does, you see God’s image there.… Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude…when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men not because they are likable, but because God loves them. You look at every man and you love him because you know God loves him.1717xMartin Luther King Jr., “‘Loving Your Enemies,’ Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,” November 17, 1957, Montgomery, AL, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church.
Even their enemy—white people who hate, dominate, subjugate, and oppress black people—are to be viewed with the eyes of Godly love.
This was the way King imagined American democracy would finally overcome its most brutal and tragic contradiction; this was the telos that American democracy could help to achieve. “I still have a dream,” he declared in his most famous speech, a speech given eight years to the day after the murder of Emmett Till. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’”1818xKing, “I Have a Dream.” Elsewhere he asserted, “We have a great opportunity in America to build here a great nation, a nation where all men live together as brothers and respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. We must keep moving toward that goal.”1919x Martin Luther King Jr., “The Power of Non-Violence,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1986), 14.
The Remaining Threads of Solidarity
Even at its most effective, social reform is inevitably incomplete, and in the case of civil rights, it was incomplete for all of the reasons King pointed to. Yet to say that the “age of the crisis of man” ended in failure is to belittle not only the great achievements of the civil rights movement in particular but also the groundwork it laid for various liberationist movements to come. The inability to fully overcome the cultural logic of racial exclusion, demonstrated most poignantly in the race riots that followed the murder of King, portended a continuation, if not an intensification, of social and political fragmentation. But in its moment, King’s rhetoric of democratic promise, hope, concord, citizenship, and solidarity had a profound and unifying effect. His rhetoric created an unprecedented, even if still emerging, consensus on matters of race among ever larger numbers of Americans. It did so because it drew on certain fundamental assumptions of America’s hybrid Enlightenment and its blend of religious and rationalist principles, according to which the liberal pursuits of individual freedom and happiness were to be moderated by sacredly grounded obligations to one’s fellows. These continued to form the foundations of solidarity into the early 1970s, a framework of public agreement that, despite growing anger and discontent from many quarters, still contained that discontent. This was the framework of broad agreement that formed the backdrop of outrage toward the Watergate scandal a few years later: a consensus of collective indignation that united liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, in ultimately forcing the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.2020x“What generates the outrage [in such cases] is…neither egoism nor altruism, but a sense of patriotic identification. In the case of the United States, there is a widespread identification with ‘the American way of life,’ a sense of Americans sharing a common identity and history, defined by a commitment to certain ideals, articulated famously in the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, and such documents, which in turn derive their importance from their connection to certain climactic transitions of this shared history. It is this sense of identity, and the pride and attachment which accompanies it, that is outraged by the shady doings of a Watergate, and this is what provokes the irresistible reaction.” Charles Taylor, “Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate,” in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 174.
Yet the strains on this consensus were already formidable, and they became more so amid the national challenges of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when an already contentious war in Vietnam went on seemingly without purpose, and even as second-wave feminism gained prominence and momentum, the Stonewall riots of June 1969 launched the gay rights movement, and the environmental movement coalesced with the first Earth Day celebration, held on April 22, 1970.
The cultural logic of liberation, given new life through the civil rights movement, became the cultural logic of these other countercultural movements—but with two decisive differences. One centered on the question of national solidarity, the other, on the place of religious faith.
While King was as critical of the American mainstream as anyone—being not just against racism, but also against the war in Vietnam, sexism, and the excesses of capitalism, and, not incidentally, being for unions and the Poor People’s Campaign, the latter initiated by King in late 1967 and put into action two months after his death—he also articulated and sought to realize a vision of national unity, calling America to its better angels. His arguments for freedom and justice were not only constitutional but also profoundly ethical. They were not merely prophetic but ameliorative and conciliatory. They were intended to foster solidarity across racial, social, and political divides. And far from being formulaic or perfunctory, his appeals were ethically demanding, calling his people to love their enemies, as he himself did, time after time. It was a theme he returned to throughout his ministry:
We come to see that there is within every man, the image of God, and no matter how much it is scarred, it is still there. And so, when we come to recognize that the evil act of our enemy neighbor is not the whole being of our enemy neighbor, we develop the capacity to love him in spite of his evil deed. The other thing that we must do in order to love the enemy neighbor is this: we must seek at all times to win his friendship and understanding rather than to defeat him or humiliate him. There may come a time when it will be possible for you to humiliate your worst enemy or even to defeat him, but in order to love the enemy, you must not do it [emphasis added]. For in the final analysis, love means understanding goodwill for all men and a refusal to defeat any individual.… Love makes it possible for you to place your vision and to center your activity on the evil system and not the individual enemy who may be caught up in that system. And so, you set out to defeat segregation and not the segregationist.2121xKing, “‘Loving Your Enemies.’” Elsewhere, King argued that “we are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy [emphasis added], for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.… My ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them.” King, “Beyond Vietnam,” in A Testament of Hope, 234.
For King, there was nothing sentimental or easy about the hard work of building solidarity in a world so riven by conflict. Any moral authority he possessed was rooted in his willingness to sacrifice himself to both the ends and the means of his larger mission.
In this, we see the second critical difference. While the civil rights movement was as pragmatic as any of the other countercultural movements, its moral energy—both its protest and its efforts at conciliation under King—drew from the religious sources of Christian faith and the Abrahamic traditions. Operating explicitly within the language and logic of the hybrid Enlightenment, the civil rights movement grounded its appeal in a framework of understanding and interpretation that was still native to the majority of ordinary Americans. There were certainly religious voices in the feminist, antiwar, and gay rights movements, but the movements themselves, and the moral arguments they made, reflected the radical secular turn presaged by Dewey earlier in the century.
This deepening of the secular turn in the larger population was probably inevitable, its backdrop being the unprecedented expansion of higher education in the post–World War II period. The evidence amassed by sociologist Robert Wuthnow demonstrates that higher education, long a carrier of the secularizing power of the Enlightenment, had a massive generational effect in this moment on both the secularization and liberalization of attitudes, beliefs, and commitments of the large numbers of young people who went through it.2222xRobert Wuthnow, “Recent Pattern of Secularization: A Problem of Generations?” American Sociological Review 41 (1976): 850–67. See also Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 155–58.
Fault lines already well established between elites and the general public and between the left and the right became open cleavages through the 1970s and 1980s. Those cleavages deepened even more after 1989. With the end of the Cold War, there was no longer a common enemy against which to define shared national identity. With no external enemy, collective identities were formed against the enemy within America itself.
Toward a Reckoning
Today, America is on the brink again, and on many fronts—a global pandemic, severe economic contraction, racial discrimination, deepening inequality, climate change, threats to free speech, and various forms of authoritarianism—to mention just a few.
It is important to remember that times of crisis are always times of reckoning. Whether one admires King or agrees with his politics is not the question. In his day, public opinion was overwhelmingly against him, and even against today’s idealized and sanitized version of King, there are those who disparage the man and his achievements. The question, rather, is whether we have the requisite moral resources to reckon with our nation’s internal flaws and external challenges. King modeled a disposition, a voice, and a moral authority that could credibly compel such a reckoning in his own day, but in ways that made it possible for opponents to imagine a way forward together.
Although incomplete, his life and witness, his words and deeds, brought about constructive change in large measure because they were grounded in metaphysical and theological sources that transcended tribalized identities, prejudices, and shibboleths. King’s critique of America was radical, more radical than many today remember. But so too was his humanism. Dissent and solidarity were welded together—and could coexist precisely because they came from the same place. Both were rooted in an equally radical theological anthropology that demanded justice, refused ideological purity tests, and recognized the yearnings, fears, flaws, weaknesses, capacities, and aspirations that all human beings share—and, finally, obliged each of us to forgive our foes.
The particular moral resources that animated King and the clergy that surrounded him are certainly less available to us today. Their renewal is not impossible, but it is far from likely. But this only heightens the urgency of the question: What moral resources are available to us to come to terms with the crises we face?
If there is to be a wise reckoning with the crises that have brought America to the brink, then we will have to come to terms with the complex factors that have generated the crises in the first place. If there is to be a just reckoning, it will depend upon our capacity to draw from deeper metaphysical and perhaps theological resources than are currently on display. So far, they appear to be in short supply among our leaders, whether in politics, business, technology, education, philanthropy, or religion. Perhaps most tragically, in the realms of academia and religion, where such resources might be most readily available, we find that the leading voices tend to exacerbate the worst, most divisive qualities of our present discourse—often, in the case of religious traditions, to the point of betraying the central teachings of their particular faiths.
Waiting for another King is not really waiting for the great man or woman who will pull us back from the brink and put us on a better course. It is waiting for the kind of sacrificial leadership—embodied in individuals and institutions, local and national—that could remind us of what we owe each other and that could point us to deeper sources that, even in our profound and interminable disagreements, still might bind us together in our communities, our nation, and our shared humanity—precisely so that we may put ourselves on a wiser and more just course.