Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered for his words, his deeds and his spirit. Dr. King lives on in his landmark speeches, which are embedded in the nation’s consciousness.
King’s words are so familiar, one might overlook his particular choice of rhetoric – specifically his use of civil religion, a belief system that binds the nation’s deepest-held values with transcendent meaning.
King lines up with Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and John Winthrop as an exemplar of this tradition. I
n his call for justice, King used the language of civil religion to show how the nation had fallen short on the covenant made by America’s Founders:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” King said in his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C. “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
In his appeal to a higher authority to address the nation’s shortcomings, King applied a potent mix of civil religion and the prophetic tradition in African-American religion.
Barack Obama has also found his voice in civil religion, which he frequently employs in his speeches and writings.
“Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to ‘the judgments of the Lord,’ or King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech without reference to ‘all of God’s children?’” Obama wrote in his book, The Audacity of Hope.