Written by Don Byrd

The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrates the social and cultural power of faith in action. He united the spiritual calling of his ministry with the daring and determination of political activism to achieve positive change in a way that is surely unsurpassed in our nation’s history.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of his devastating assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. As the Baptist Joint Committee’s Executive Director Amanda Tyler reminds us in a column honoring Dr. King’s legacy, he insisted on carrying out his ministry of activism in a way that refrained from political entanglements.

Here is an excerpt:

King knew the power of an independent church to effect change. As he wrote in Strength to Love, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

King very intentionally declined to endorse candidates in his official capacity. . . . both because he served as the “titular head” of the nonpartisan Southern Christian Leadership Conference and because of how partisanship would impede his ministry. “The role that is mine in the emerging social order of the South and America demands that I remain nonpartisan. … [D]evoid of partisan political attachments, I am free to be critical of both parties when necessary,” he wrote. 

She goes on to explain how Dr. King’s advocacy for civil rights belies the argument many are making now in support of undoing the Johnson Amendment, bans electoral campaigning by houses of worship. Clergy and congregations can and do speak out on the issues of the day, as he proved well, without running afoul of that law.

As we reflect this week, it’s worth remembering that, as Tyler says, Dr. King considered religious freedom and the institutional separation of church and state to be essential forces in his ministry and activism. He proved that not only can ministry and political advocacy co-exist without entangling church and state, they must, if they are to be successful.

Read the whole thing.