Fall 2008, Vol. 11, No. 2

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Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Region Matters

The Postville Raid

FLDS 1, Texas O

Is the Dalai Lama Slipping?

Lambeth Blah, Blah, Blah

Women's Ordination Revisited

Having it All

Twilight of the Religion Writers

New books

Letter to Editor


Letter to the Editor                         

To the editor:

Let me begin by thanking R. Stephen Warner for his interesting and insightful article, “Civil Religious Revival,” in the last issue.  My concern in this brief response is to question his characterization and assessment of the expression of civil religion he identifies in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. 

Warner makes the point that King draws upon an old Negro spiritual, affirms the faith and “soul force” of the people, cites the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, quotes from the Hebrew prophets Amos and Isaiah, he contends, but not from the Gospels.  It’s the final two sentences of the paragraph which follow which concern me. He writes, “And he (King) defined the American family of ‘God’s children’ as ‘black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles [and] Protestants and Catholics.’ American civil religion is inclusive.”

First off, King’s three sets of opposites (black/white, Jews/Gentiles, Protestant/Catholics) which are said to enjoy the unity of community is a play upon Paul’s declarations of social unity in 1 Cor 12:12 & 13 (“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one spirit.” RSV) and Galatians 2:27 & 28 (“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” RSV).

Note that the set Jews and Gentiles occurs in both of the Pauline texts as well as King’s speech. And, King’s use of black and white may be an intentional interpretation and play upon Paul’s set “slave and free” (which occurs in both epistles). Further, Paul’s declaration of unity in the Body of Christ (Jew/Gentile, Slave/Free, and at least in Galatians Male/Female) and King’s declaration of “God’s children” as “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles [and] Protestants and Catholics” are neither one declarations of social “inclusion” of different individuals. If their conception of social unity were about “inclusion” of individuals, then why the emphasis upon the unity of sets containing identifications which clearly stand in opposition to one another? Otherwise, Paul and King might have simply offered a list of various “kinds” which would enjoy unity: Jews, males, slaves, Gentile, free and women for Paul; Jews, black men, Catholics, Gentiles, white men and Protestants for King. What difference does it make that both authors declare the unity of opposites to one another rather than the unity of all to one another? 

King’s play upon Paul’s theme of the unity of opposites is (I think)  clear, intentional, and insightful.  Like Paul, King presents sets in which there are clear opposition. The sets are not indifferent individual groupings, but social identifications which stand in opposition to one another—one might go so for as to say stand in radical difference with one another. And yet these opposites come to enjoy unity or may come to be one, or in a more theological vein, come to be at-one, or to atone: Reconciliation.  

Thus, King’s sense of social unity in “I Have a Dream” draws upon a Pauline conception of community which offers unity not between indifferent individuals without regard to their identifications (as black or white, Jews or Gentiles, Protestants or Catholic), but to offer atonement precisely for those who are differentiated as black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics. Therefore, King was not attempting to propose a tolerant unity of all. It’s not that for King “American civil religion is inclusive” a la Warner. Rather, it is that for King there is an opportunity in America for reconciliation or atoning among those who are desperately different from one another.  Thus, the civil religious interpretation of King, at least as is often practiced in the academy and among the political, fails to address the radical nuances of King’s vision of reconciliation. 

David W. Odell-Scott
Kent State University

(see original article by R. Stephen Warner)  

R. Stephen Warner responds:

I thank Professor Odell-Scott for reminding us that Martin Luther King was a Christian preacher informed by Christian theology.  He was a Baptist who earned a Ph.D. in systematic theology at a Methodist seminary.  It is as much a distortion of his thought to deny that fact as it is to downplay the radicalness of his social vision. My brief reference to “I Have A Dream,” however, was less about Dr. King’s thought than his rhetoric when he was addressing not a Christian congregation but the American people as a whole.

The published version of my talk contains the following observation about American civil religion. “Although theistic, it is not sectarian, resting on the many, very particular religious communities of American civil society.” In the full talk, this very brief remark is elaborated a bit further. “Unlike Rousseau’s concept of civil religion, which was intended to supplant sectarian religion, American civil religion rested and rose on the many, very particular religious communities of American civil society.”

My point about the “inclusiveness” of King’s speech was intended not to say that he was an advocate of mere tolerance but to point out that the way he expressed his vision on this very public occasion had to address Catholics as well as Protestants and Jews as well as Christians. The language of American civil religion, which goes back at least to George Washington, allowed him to do that.

Nonetheless, I appreciate Professor Odell-Scott’s exegesis of the Pauline roots of King’s stirring vision.


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