King roused the Second Baptist congregation that Sunday morning with a sermon that did not once mention race. Discrimination, segregation, protest demonstrations — these were not on his agenda. The young preacher went deeper, if such a thing was possible during an era of racial turmoil.
King got the congregation thinking about values, a subject as relevant today as it was in 1954.
King talked about lost values and the need for rediscovering them.
Something seemed fundamentally wrong in society, he preached. And it wasn’t because society didn’t know enough. Scientific progress was amazing. King said in 18th-century America, it took three days for a letter to go from New York City to Washington; in 1954, a person could go from Detroit to China in less time.
It’s even more astonishing today. Breakfast can be had in Washington, teatime enjoyed in London and a nightcap swallowed in New York City — all in the same day.
The trouble, he said, was not that we don’t know enough but that “we aren’t good enough.” Scientific genius, he said, has outpaced “our moral genius.” The greater danger facing the country in ’54, King noted, was not “the atomic bomb that was created by physical science” that could be dropped on the heads of thousands of people, but “that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness.”
That thought calls to mind the more than three dozen countries in the world with unmanned, missile-armed drones capable of being launched from afar under remote control and striking and killing with precision. Think about what lies within the hearts and souls of leaders in countries such as North Korea, China, Iran, Russia, Turkey and, yes, the United States.
King called attention to shaky moral foundations and the “relativistic ethic” that was being applied to right and wrong. He described it as an ethic that says “since everybody is doing it, it must be right” — an ethic that means “people can’t stand up for their . . . convictions, because the majority of people might not be doing it.” He said it’s “a sort of numerical interpretation of what’s right.”
King’s teaching got me to thinking about the 53 Senate Republicans who know that some things are right and some things are wrong, but adjust their attitudes relative to the behavior of President Trump.
King said he was at Second Baptist to say that some things are right and wrong, eternally and absolutely. “It’s wrong to hate,” he declared. “It has always been wrong, and it always will be wrong. It’s wrong in America, it’s wrong in Germany, it’s wrong in Russia, it’s wrong in China. It was wrong in 2000 B.C., and it’s wrong in 1954 A.D. It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong!”
That got me thinking about White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. How can a person who pushes white nationalism, invokes a 1924 American immigration law extolled by Adolf Hitler, is bigoted and racially intolerant — how can he end up in the White House?
Then I stopped to think about who put Miller where he is — President Trump. The same President Trump who recently retweeted to his 71 million followers a doctored photo of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wearing a hijab and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) with a turban on his head in front of an Iranian flag with a caption reading, “the corrupted Dems trying their best to come to the Ayatollah’s rescue.” Why wouldn’t an insulter of Islam and Muslims, who also inflicts cruelty at our southern border, want to have the likes of Stephen Miller at his side?
King’s sermon derided what he regarded as a pragmatic test applied to right and wrong: “If it works, it’s all right. Nothing is wrong but that which does not work. If you don’t get caught, it’s right.”
Which made me think of Trump using the powers of his office to solicit a foreign government to help take down a domestic political opponent, lying about his successes and taking credit for things he didn’t do — all because it works. And his adoring believers eat it up.
King reminded the Second Baptist worshipers that “it’s possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and deny his existence with your life.”
Which makes me visualize Trump basking at evangelical rallies and paying lip service to God, while paying actual service to himself.
Knowing right from wrong; honesty; justice. Basic values preached by Martin Luther King Jr. still need rediscovering in 2020.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.