A young friend has just sent me the program for the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday that will take place next week at Kenyon College. The unifying theme is “Martin Luther King, Was He a Twentieth-Century Jesus,” a key question that one is led to believe should be answered in the affirmative. The featured speaker for this sacral event is the Black Nationalist professor of law at New York University and “a pioneer in the Critical Race Theory Movement,” Derrick Bell, who in all probability will tell the audience what he has been invited to say. What my young disciple did not know when he sent me the announcement is that our college is sponsoring a similar celebration, albeit one without Bell. Our students and faculty are expected to spend all of next Monday attending carefully selected panels dealing with the self-sacrificing goodness of Dr. King and the abjectly racist society he came to redeem. While our chaplain at a recent “holiday luncheon” could not bring herself to mention the Christian savior in a Christmas prayer, lest she offend some unidentified Kwanza celebrant, she and her onetime Christian colleagues are exhausting themselves in preparation for next Monday’s events.
Although this form of savior-displacement opens the door to many questions not all of which I can address here, there are two misconceptions concerning the King cult that warrant immediate discussion. In both cases, I am criticizing my well-meaning traditionalist friends who have pooh-poohed what is going on. The holiday, contrary to what some predicted would happen twenty years ago, has not turned into “just another George Washington birthday-type vacation,” marked by bargain sales and a few entirely forgettable media references. MLK comes as the prelude to a new Lenten month that is full of compulsory meditation on the sins of white racism. The national birthday shows all the spontaneity of a celebration of Hitler’s birthday held in Germany during the Third Reich. Already in the late eighties my youngest daughter had to spend MLK’s birthdays in an elementary school in Montgomery County, Maryland, listing the reasons for which we were to feel grateful to the honored hero. When Sara noted that among King’s achievements was that the “blacks got to use white bathrooms” in Southern states, the teacher complained that she was not “respecting him sufficiently.” Jesus may be praised in the Bible for helping to cater a Jewish wedding but for King we are only allowed to bring up the big stuff. Perhaps my daughter should have praised King for repeating the Old Testament miracle of causing the sun to stand still.
It is also insufficient to compare the adoration of King to various statements made by Abolitionists, which likened the martyrdom of real or alleged anti-slavery crusaders to the crucifixion of Jesus. Eulogies heaped on John Brown and Abraham Lincoln may have been tasteless but they were also relatively harmless. The people who made them were usually devout, Bible-reading Christians, and although carried away by their rhetorical zeal, they then went back to their traditional beliefs and established ways of life. Although some of these zealots such as Ralph Waldo Emerson may have been whacky religious innovators, they never tried to substitute the worship of a violent Abolitionist for that of the Christian God. For one thing, they were living in a still intact American Protestant society, at which at most they could chip away at the edges. Moreover, New England Brahmins usually exemplified social propriety, and once slavery as an issue was gone, they took up other sorts of activities, e.g., preserving their cultural and ethnic hegemony in the face of the new immigration. (Emerson and Henry Adams, from their correspondence, seem to have dreaded the impending disappearance of the WASP America in which they had spent their youth.)
What I am suggesting is that the state- and media-enforced celebration of King as the new Jesus is a truly novel event in Western history. It is different in kind from the encomia lavished on earlier social reformers or from any mere acknowledgement of a political change associated with a particular figure. The ostentatious celebration of the new redeemer has occurred together with another equally conspicuous watershed, the slighting, often by liberal Christians, of the official holiday set aside for the birth of the now eclipsed Christian savior. I predict that the two developments will continue to unfold at the same time, as multiculturalism and the managerial state provide a substitute religion for the older Christian faith. Note this has nothing substantive to do with secularization or with the commercialization of Christianity. We are talking about religious substitution and not the vanishing of the sense of the sacred.
There is now a state-sponsored cult of Martin Luther King, which has taken over certain aspects of Christian redemptive history and adapted them to its needs. The French and Bolshevik Revolutions both undertook something similar when they tried to replace the existing Christian liturgical calendars with revolutionary ones, but without much success. After all, the revolutionaries of an earlier age were dealing with mostly peasant societies that could not be turned around very fast. But we in our time have done better, with increasingly rootless and media-drenched subjects educated in PC. When I ask my students about the Bible, I usually draw blank stares. But as soon as I turn the conversation to King and the problems of racism and sexism, I am standing in the presence of experts. Obviously my students have learned their catechism in public school and therefore can give all the rote answers that they have learned from years of indoctrination.