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Religion scholars draw lessons for contemporary souls from King’s combination of faith, politics

Harvard University’s Jonathan Walton will discuss “Religion at a Conversation Starter! Embracing King’s Political Philosophy of ‘Somebodiness’” on Tuesday, April 17, at Wash U.
Jeffrey Blackwell | Harvard University

Religion and politics don’t always pair well, and both have a reputation as conversation stoppers. But so much of the work of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. occurred at the intersection of those two often-avoided topics, and his efforts were part of a tradition that lives on.

“I’m thinking, for example, of folks here in St. Louis, names like Rev. Traci Blackmon, Rabbi Susan Talve,” said Lerone Martin, a Washington University faculty member who joined St. Louis on the Air on Thursday for a discussion of King’s legacy. “And even more broadly in the U.S. we can think about someone like Rev. [William] Barber, who’s trying to plan a poor people’s campaign in a similar tradition and vein.”

Also joining host Don Marsh for the conversation focused on how King’s faith shaped his political vision was Jonathan Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University.

Walton, who will be in town next week to speak at a free Wash U event in recognition of the 50th anniversary of King’s death, commented on what he called the most common form that public religious life has taken in recent decades.

“So much of what we witness now in terms of those with the loudest microphones and those who seem to get the most media coverage seem to be those in the public square who have theocratic sensibilities and autocratic aspirations,” Walton said. “They reduce religion to personal piety and particular behaviors that they deem as normative, and all too often those behaviors are quite exclusive.

“And so therefore it’s hard to ignore the Islamophobia and the sexism and the racism and homophobia that all percolate to the top of particular religious orientations that veer more to kind of cultural fundamentalism. That’s not what King stood for.”

Lerone Martin is an associate professor in religion and politics at Wash U.
Credit Image courtesy of Washington University
Lerone Martin is an associate professor in religion and politics at Wash U.

The Harvard professor went on to describe King’s approach as an inclusive one that was “not about racial or religious identity as much as it is about moral affinity – and so therefore what connects us, a kind of vision that has a conception that affirms all beings.”

“Even the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, that he headed up, it had an evangelical theme and motto,” Walton said, “but it was redeeming the soul of the nation.”

Both he and Martin said they think real progress has been made in society since King’s day, offering the “backlash” then and now as evidence of the success of civil rights protest and activity.

“We know about the FBI’s surveillance of Martin King and all that he was doing and others in the civil rights movement,” said Martin, whose recent research highlighted in the New York Times looks at how another popular preacher of the time worked with the FBI to discredit King. “And we know from various documents that have been exposed that surveillance in a similar manner is increased on nonviolent protestors today as it relates to Black Lives Matter both here in St. Louis and across the nation.”

Listen to the full conversation:


Related Event
What: Religion as a Conversation Starter! 
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Where: Graham Chapel at Washington University (1 Brookings Dr., St. Louis, MO 63130)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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