Monday, January 21, 2013

Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a conservative?

Is the Pope Jewish?
St. Thomas Aquinas. From Wikipedia.
Here's old Steven Hayward at PowerLine explaining how Dr. King was a conservative, and it's something of a surprise.

I always thought (and have written about it here) the only thing they knew about in this connection was the content-of-the-character and color-of-the-skin line which to them proves he opposed affirmative action, as opposed to when he said,
"A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro" to compete on a just and equal basis (quoted in Let the Trumpet Sound, by Stephen Oates)
"Within common law we have ample precedents for special compensatory programs.... And you will remember that America adopted a policy of special treatment for her millions of veterans after the war."
since he was in fact totally in favor of affirmative action as long as it was understood to be not charity but just compensation or reparation if you like.

But it seems there's an entirely different approach based on the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", where in explaining the concept of nonviolent civil disobedience he appeals to the concept of "natural law":
One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.
Hayward feels that this passage is
a serious difficulty and deep embarrassment for today’s liberals, who wish to acknowledge and empower nothing higher than an individual’s own will.
Huh? Oh, I get it. He's actually talking about blastocysts. No, really.
St. Augustine of Hippo. Image "commissioned by the New York Times" for a review of James J. O'Donnell's  2005 Augustine: A Biography, according to Professor O'Donnell.

"Natural law" has two different meanings: first there's the one in ordinary philosophical discourse, where it refers to the whole big tradition beginning with Aristotle, according to which there is a morality more basic than the laws encoded in any given society, that you don't legislate but rather discover, in the use of human reason to contemplate human nature, and which comes to us in conservative forms through St. Thomas and liberal ones through Locke (and Jefferson, especially in the Declaration); and then there's the one inside the epistemic closure of conservative Catholicism, where you use the Thomist concept to "prove" that abortion, contraception, embryonic stem cell research, and any sexual expression outside the one-penis one-vagina one–marriage license approach are all intrinsically and "naturally" disordered and sinful abominations which should be illegal everywhere regardless of whether the population is Catholic or not. Just as non-Catholics have laws against murder and theft, they should have laws against, say, fellatio because it has been proven that it's against the "natural law". And people who think fellatio or embryonic stem cell research should be permitted obviously do not believe in "natural law" and must be liberals and individualists or, more or less, beasts.

And because of the epistemic closure they may not even realize that natural law 1 and natural law 2 are not the same thing, and that Dr. King was referring only to the first. Thus Hayward remarks,
 (Interesting, by the way, that a Southern Baptist preacher would invoke the Roman Catholic figures Augustine and Aquinas in this argument.)
Interesting, by the way, that a supposedly educated person would think it's abnormal for Protestants to refer to Augustine (or St. Thomas either, for that matter, but especially Augustine, since Roman Catholicism as such didn't exist in his time, and since Lutherans, in particular, think Augustine belongs to them). Hayward is trying to make Dr. King into a crypto-Catholic!
Fact: He did smile on occasion. Via MyLiteraryQuest.
Really interesting, by the way, to note that Dr. King was a passionate advocate of family planning and treasured the 1966 Margaret Sanger Award he received from Planned Parenthood.

For a more earnest account of King's progressivism (touching the more political than theological aspects) see Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress.

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