What if Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech” had its religious references edited out?

Another very old post from my defunct blog. It’s argument is still relevant.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Connecticut’s discussion on same-sex civil unions is the disenfranchisement of religion. The Hartford Courant’s editorial advocating for same-sex marriage– they prefer marriage to civil unions — rests on one main argument, “This is a civil rights issue, not a religious issue.” Sen. Edward Meyer found this argument compelling enough to quote it in explaining his rationale for voting in favor of this bill; many of the other legislators echoed this thinking as well.

These legislators are eager to bracket off religious convictions from this discussion, positing civil rights and religious beliefs as so completely separate that any proposition that may ultimately be grounded in religious conviction is automatically disqualified from consideration. For example, Rep. Walker’s one question to a witness at the Judiciary’ Committee’s public hearing was, “Where do you get your definition of marriage?” insinuating that any definition that is informed by religion is wrong. It is not the content of the opinion that disqualifies it, it is its source.

This view of the relationship between religion and civil rights is ignorant, naive, and dangerous. Expression of religiously informed opinions is a civil right guaranteed by the Constitution. It is the first explicitly enumerated right in the Bill of Rights, not a newly invented right somehow impled by other rights themselves read by inference into Constitutional amendments.

More importantly civil rights ultimately are grounded on a religious view of human beings that assigns equal worth to minorities. The governing documents of the United States ultimately rest on a view of human beings as created in the image of God. The sheer novelty of Alan Dershowitz’s book, “Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origin of Rights” ought to be sufficient proof that bracketing off religious expression from civil rights is historically blind.

Let’s imagine what the end of Martin Luther King Jr.’s great civil rights “I Have a Dream” speech would have been like without any religion:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring

from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that.

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside,

let freedom ring! And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

I have a dream … This is our hope … Let freedom ring …

That all that’s left. Loses its force doesn’t it?

What secular substitute does the Hartford Courant find to ground civil rights? They cannot appeal to nature; simple biology — procreation and plumbing — are against them on this issue. Do they appeal to some other science? Yes. They ground their view of civil rights on recent developments in psychology: the decision of the APA to drop homosexuality from the most recent editions of the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This strikes me as a very fragile basis for minority human rights, indeed!

I will stick with the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” the Creator who created all equal and who endowed them with inalienable rights. (See preamble to Declaration of Independence). And I trust the Creator to inform us about the bounds and limits of those rights and to define for us the happiness we ought to pursue.

Though our society has often failed to live up to the aspirations expressed in its religiously-informed view of humanity, these aspirations are grounded on that which is universal and enduring. It is far more likely to be self-correcting in the long-term than the currently fashionable thoughts of a small task force of psychiatrists.

(Or the editors of a dictionary. Rep. Walker’s authority for her definition of marriage, by the way, is “Webster’s Dictionary” a far superior authority than any the witness may have offered. Perhaps she would do well to read federal legislation on marriage or even Supreme Court opinions such as Murphy v. Ramsey, a polygamy case, just in case the editors of Webster didn’t get it quite right.)

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