Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Critique of Liberalism

Posted on September 27, 2010 by

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Critique of Liberalism

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Both the right and the left have attempted to claim Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for their own. Recently, Fox News host Glenn Beck held a rally entitled “Restoring America” at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” Among those who attended was Dr. King’s niece, Alveda King, who argued that “Uncle Martin’s legacy is big enough to go around.” The left responded by pointing out the absurdity of individuals like Glenn beck using the legacy of Dr. King for their own agenda. What was lost in the battle between the pundits is that Dr. King was critical of conservativism, Christian fundamentalism, liberalism, neo-Orthodoxy and existentialism. The truth of the matter is that neither end of the spectrum can attempt to monopolize Dr. King’s legacy for their own ends.

The text below is an excerpt from Dr. King’s “How My Mind Has Changed” where he discusses his intellectual evolution culminating in his embrace of nonviolence. Regarding liberalism, Dr. King praises it for (1) its devotion to the search for truth, (2) its insistence on an open and analytical mind, (3) its refusal to abandon the best light of reason, and (4) its philological-historical criticism of biblical literature. However, he criticized it for its view on man while ignoring the role of sin on reason and the problem of collective evil in the post-enlightenment era.

“Ten years ago I was just entering my senior year in theological seminary. Like most theological students I was engaged in the exciting job of studying various theological theories. Having been raised in a rather strict fundamentalist tradition, I was occasionally shocked as my intellectual journey carried me through new and sometimes complex doctrinal lands. But despite the shock the pilgrimage was always stimulating, and it gave me a new appreciation for objective appraisal and critical analysis. My early theological training did the same for me as the reading of Hume did for Kant: it knocked me out of my dogmatic slumber.

At this stage of my development I was a thoroughgoing liberal. Liberalism provided me with an intellectual satisfaction that I could never find in fundamentalism. I became so enamored of the insights of liberalism that I almost fell into the trap of accepting uncritically everything that came under its name. I was absolutely convinced of the natural goodness of man and the natural power of human reason.

The basic change in my thinking came when I began to question some of the theories that had been associated with so-called liberal theology. Of course there is one phase of liberalism that I hope to cherish always: its devotion to the search for truth, its insistence on an open and analytical mind, its refusal to abandon the best light of reason. Liberalism’s contribution to the philological-historical criticism of biblical literature has been of immeasurable value and should be defended with religious and scientific passion.

It was mainly the liberal doctrine of man that I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history and man’s shameful inclinations to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depth’s and strength of sin. My reading of the works of Reinhold Neibuhr made me aware of the complexity of human motives and the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence. Moreover, I came to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring realities of collective evil. I came to feel that liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism.

I also came to see that liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin. The more I thought about human nature the more I saw how our tragic inclination for sin causes us to use our minds to rationalize our actions. Liberalism failed to see that reason by itself is little more than instrument to justify man’s defensive ways of thinking. Reason, devoid of purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations.

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