King, Obama, and the Two Americas

King, Obama, and the Two Americas

by Mark Chmiel

Cowardice asks the question - is it safe? Expediency asks the question - is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? But conscience asks the question - is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.  – Martin Luther King, Jr.


Sociologists have identified two traditions in what they call the American civil religion: The Priestly emphasizes superior morality and singular calling of American power, while the Prophetic does not hesitate to criticize power for violating its ideals. One example of the Priestly tradition in U.S. history is the theory and practice of Manifest Destiny in the 19th century, while an example of the Prophetic tradition is the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

The national calendar provides an unusual juxtaposition for a consideration of these two traditions, amounting to two distinct options for the American future. Monday Americans remember and celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King and on Tuesday witness the inauguration of Barack Obama.

What’s striking is that Dr. King, who once referred to his own United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” has been appropriated into the national pantheon. King has been honored with this holiday on the third Monday of January, while plans move forward for establishing a Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc., to be located on the National Mall.

Such a foundation needs generous donors and they have been responding to the call. For example, in summer 2008, the Boeing Company gave a million dollars to this project to further the memory of Dr. King’s work. Boeing president James Bell said, “On behalf of Boeing and its employees, I am proud to announce this gift with the sincere hope that, through this Memorial, the power of Dr. King’s example will endure and become a reality in our lifetime. Striving to create a better future by bringing people together, enabling communication and protecting peace is what inspires our 160,000 employees every day. We are tremendously honored to support the Memorial as an enduring reminder of Dr. King’s legacy of inclusion, hope and freedom.”

It may be that Mr. Bell has not yet studied Dr. King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam” from 1967. A stirring indictment of U.S. policy, King states therein, “A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Or, possibly, Mr. Bell has read the speech but no matter. Even Boeing can cite Dr. King for its purpose.

In her study, America, Amerikkka, U.S. theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether comments, “[American leaders] both pursue murderous policies motivated by that they see as American self-interest and also manage to sincerely believe that they are serving the best interests of these colonized and exploited people as well. Few American politicians are pure hypocrites who know that what they say to justify their policies has little to do with what they are doing. Most politicians are deeply self-deluded by their own rhetoric. Indeed, to combine being both practitioners of realpolitik and also self-deluded believers in the rhetoric of America’s messianic role is the basic requirement of an effective American politician.”

On Tuesday Mr. Obama officially begins his presidential work of offering stirring rhetoric and pursuing American self-interest. During the campaign, Mr. Obama’s mantra-like oratory on change and hope supposedly indicated his distance from the horrors of these last eight years of Republican rule. Yet, it may be useful to keep in mind what a character said in Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “Change everything just a little so as to keep everything exactly the same.” Quote Dr. King and support Israel. Call for more diplomacy and say no option is off the table. Pull back from Iraq and go full-throttle in Afghanistan. Acknowledge the mistakes (not crimes) of your predecessors and be relentless in pursuing victory in the Global War on Terror. Call for citizen sacrifice but don’t ask too much of the corporations.

The King Holiday and the Obama inauguration can lead us to consider: With whom and what do we Americans identify, past and present: the priestly or the prophetic lineage of our history?

The abolitionists or the defenders of the slavery status quo?

The Robber Barons or Nader’s Raiders?

Boeing’s sale of weapons to Israel for its Gaza bombing or Hedy Epstein, Paul Larudee and the Free Gaza Movement?

The neoconservatives who planned and plotted the invasion of Iraq for reasons of WMD, democracy, and liberation (and oil and hegemony) or the veterans who return from Iraq to speak the truth of the brutal killing of civilians?

Journalist Ida B. Wells or the respectable city fathers and citizens who applauded lynching?

Cardinal Spellman who blessed the U.S. invaders of Vietnam or Daniel Berrigan who burned draft files?

The nationally approved iconic King on the National Mall or the King who in his last days stood with the Memphis sanitation workers?

An accommodation to Obama’s new and improved American Exceptionalism or a commitment to a growing, permanent opposition of conscience?


Mark Chmiel teaches at St. Louis University and Webster University. Mark’s first book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership, was published in spring 2001 by Temple University Press.  He is on the Board of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis in St. Louis, Missouri.


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