The intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and National Religious Freedom Day

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The intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and National Religious Freedom Day

January 16, 2023 - Jim Denison, PhD

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, speaks to a wildly cheering crowd of African American supporters, Jan. 2, 1965, Selma, Ala. King was calling for a new African American voter registration drive throughout Alabama and promising to "march on the ballot boxes" unless African American are given the right to vote. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, speaks to a wildly cheering crowd of African American supporters, Jan. 2, 1965, Selma, Ala. King was calling for a new African American voter registration drive throughout Alabama and promising to "march on the ballot boxes" unless African American are given the right to vote. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, speaks to a wildly cheering crowd of African American supporters, Jan. 2, 1965, Selma, Ala. King was calling for a new African American voter registration drive throughout Alabama and promising to "march on the ballot boxes" unless African American are given the right to vote. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is being celebrated across America today, and for good reason.

Here’s a brief synopsis of Dr. King’s life and legacy: he was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a Baptist minister. He received a doctoral degree in theology and in 1955 helped organize the first major protest of the African American civil rights movement: the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The effort he led resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibited racial discrimination in employment and education and outlawed racial segregation in public facilities. Later that year, he became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. Today we remember his life, celebrate his legacy, and commit ourselves to continuing the march for racial equality in America.

As a coincidence of calendar, today is also National Religious Freedom Day. This observance commemorates the day the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was signed on January 16, 1786. Thomas Jefferson’s landmark statute later became the basis for Congressman Fisher Ames’ establishment clause in the First Amendment of the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

As a result, each year, by presidential proclamation, January 16th is declared Religious Freedom Day.

Today’s intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and National Religious Freedom Day illustrates a fact that relates directly to our lives and our national future.

“Man is not the measure of all things”

Dr. King understood that the foundational need in America with regard to racial equality is not legal but moral.

He noted: “Christianity affirms that at the heart of reality is a Heart, a loving Father who works through history for the salvation of his children. Man cannot save himself, for man is not the measure of all things and humanity is not God. Bound by the chains of his own sin and finiteness, man needs a Savior.”

However, Dr. King affirmed the necessity of legal change as we seek moral change: “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” This is why the Civil Rights Act and other legislative progress have been so important.

Nonetheless, his movement focused foundationally on changing the hearts and minds of America: “In winning our freedom, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.” He believed that when we understood the urgency of racial equality for all Americans, we would unite in this cause for the sake of our nation and our posterity.

Was Dr. King wrong?

Just as our nation urgently needed (and needs) a civil rights movement to advance equality for all Americans, so too do we need a spiritual movement to advance morality for all Americans.

Our society has been deluded into believing that Dr. King is wrong: our cultural consensus insists that “man is the measure of all things and humanity is God.” As a result, we have rejected the sanctity of life from conception to death, redefined and undermined marriage and the family, and ignored constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and religion for those who disagree.

This is why the intersection of National Religious Freedom Day with Martin Luther King Jr. Day is so illuminating for our cultural moment. Without religious freedom, Dr. King could not have spoken to America so prophetically and redemptively. His historic “I Have a Dream” address was protected speech despite the animosity of many against his cause.

Imagine an evangelical Christian uttering similar words in front of the Lincoln Memorial today in defense of biblical morality. Would such a message gain a hearing in our secular media except in rebuke and rejection? What would be the “cancel culture” response?

Praying through open windows

Consequently, this day calls Christians to prophetic courage. We are to be as bold in declaring and defending biblical morality as Dr. King was in declaring and defending biblical equality.

We need more John the Baptists speaking truth to the King Herods of our day, whatever the cost to ourselves (Matthew 14:4). We need more Daniels praying through open windows whatever the threat to our future (Daniel 6:10).

We must do so in the humility that recognizes we need the same grace that we are offering to our nation. As Pope St. Clement I wrote to the Corinthians, “We are not justified by our wisdom, intelligence, piety, or by any action of ours, however holy, but by faith, the one means by which God has justified men from the beginning. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

And we can stand in bold confidence that embraces this moment as ours. We are cultural missionaries to where we are and to when we are. God has called us to the challenges and opportunities of this day. We can therefore claim this truth as ours: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

“A worldview in a single word”

The Jacksonville Jaguars achieved a “stirring, miraculous comeback victory” Saturday night, overcoming a 27–0 deficit to win their playoff game. Afterward, sports journalist Jay Busbee reported that Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson introduced to the team in training camp a philosophy endorsed by motivational speaker and former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink, a worldview in a single word: “Good.”

“When things are going bad, don’t get all bummed out,” Willink has said. “Don’t get frustrated. No, just look at the issue and say: ‘Good.’” After Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw four interceptions in the first half of Saturday’s game, a lineman came up to him and said “Good.” Lawrence threw four touchdowns in the second half as his team made history.

Let’s look at the challenges of this day and say “Good.” Then let’s trust and serve our good God.

All of God there is, is in this moment.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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