Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a social activist best known as a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement up until his assassination in 1968. Driven by his Christian values, he was famous for advancing the cause through nonviolence and civil disobedience. One of his most famous organized movements was the 1963 March of Washington, which brought together more than 200,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial to advocate equal civil and economic rights for African Americans. This also was where he delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” address, one of the most frequently quoted speeches in history. But King never considered it his ambition to be a civil rights leader:
Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.Martin Luther King, Jr., Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, August 27, 1967
King considered his work in civil rights to be an extension of his ministry, and that belief composed the rationale behind his methods of civil disobedience. But how can a Christian minister advocate deliberately breaking the law? The best answer comes from a public letter he wrote while in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, after being arrested for a his role in a nonviolent resistance movement known as the Birmingham campaign.
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.”Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963
King received a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955, while working as an assistant minister at a local Baptist church. Systematic theology is a field of study that investigates coherent, rational description of religious doctrines. King’s doctoral dissertation in systematic compared two perspectives on the nature of God, which included addressing questions such as “how can God be described by science?”
Such questions often trigger intense polarized debates that frequently end up with the conclusion that religion and science are in conflict with each other. After all, if science deals with direct observation and measurement of the world around us, and there does not currently exist a scientifically reliable way to observe God, how can these two concepts exist in harmony? These discussions usually devolve into a pointless stalemate, with one side asserting that God is supernatural and transcends nature, and the other side asserting that if something does not conform to the laws of nature, then scientifically it does not exist.
King’s view was different. He embraced the great progress of science and technology. The space race between the US and the Soviet Union ignited during King’s lifetime. In his mind, there was no direct conflict between the advance of technology and the doctrine of religion. Instead, religion was meant to guide the use of technology:
“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.”Martin Luther King, Jr., Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, March 31, 1968
In various speeches throughout the country, King described three problems facing its citizens: racism, poverty, and the Vietnam war. And so his stance was that science had brought people great technological advancement, but without any commitment to ethics, all that progress had great potential for destructive purposes.
America was going through so much change during King’s lifetime. World War II had ended in 1945, but almost immediately after, a Cold War escalates between the US and the Soviet Union. A conflict in Vietnam results in a divided nation with the US establishing a presence in South Vietnam, eventually resulting in an extended Vietnam war. The Space Race ignited from the Cold War rivalry, but so did a rivalry of nuclear weapon proliferation. King’s philosophy was that people needed “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart” to navigate it all, and that science and religion were not at odds, but rather that religion was needed to guide the application of science to prevent its destructive use and instead improve the lives of people. And it is in this address that he delivers his famous statement:
“Science Deals Mainly With Facts; Religion Deals Mainly With Values. The Two Are Not Rivals.”A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, Martin Luther King, Jr., August 30, 1959