Tag Archives: relevance

It Might Have Been Written Yesterday

An old friend recently pointed me to “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” a sermon delivered by Martin Luther King many years ago that–as he noted–could have been written yesterday.

Evidently, there are aspects of the human condition that change slowly, if at all.

King’s opening thesis is that we need to synthesize our opposing characteristics:

Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites…..  And he gave them a formula for action, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.

King described that “tough mind” as one characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment, one having the ability to sift the true from the false.

Who doubts that this toughness of mind is one of man’s greatest needs? Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

Soft-mindedness, on the other hand, can be seen in the effectiveness of manipulative advertising, responsiveness to slogans, and unquestioning acceptance of facts provided by the media.

Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts. One of the great needs of mankind is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda.

And this was written before the advent of the internet and the explosion of propaganda outlets that the web has fostered.

After watching much of the just-concluded GOP convention in Cleveland, these two passages particularly struck me:

The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea. An elderly segregationist in the South is reported to have said, “I have come to see now that desegregation is inevitable. But I pray God that it will not take place until after I die.” The soft-minded person always wants to freeze the moment and hold life in the gripping yoke of sameness….

There may be a conflict between soft-minded religionists and tough-minded scientists, but not between science and religion. Their respective worlds are different and their methods are dissimilar. Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge that is power; religion gives man wisdom that is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.

When King turned his attention to hard and soft-heartedness, his reflections were equally pertinent to today. He was especially critical of hardhearted people who lack genuine compassion and engage in a “crass utilitarianism that values other people mainly according to their usefulness to him.”

At the end of his sermon, King calls on us to avoid both the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft-minded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.

The sermon was written in 1959. It is as if he foresaw 2016.


Candidates and Their Beliefs

A friend asked me yesterday whether I thought a candidate’s religion was politically relevant–whether that religion should be included in the mix of qualifying or disqualifying characteristics we all consider when casting our votes.

My answer: it depends.

I think a candidate’s beliefs are always relevant. That is not the same thing as saying his/her religion is necessarily relevant. The issue is what a person wishing to hold a secular office really believes, what worldview really motivates him. The religion of a candidate only becomes relevant when the individual believes so firmly in the doctrines and culture of his religion that he can be expected to take public action based upon those doctrines.

This, of course, presents us with a bit of a paradox–not to mention an incentive to hypocrisy.

It’s a truism of political life that candidates must be seen to be religious, and religious in conventional ways. So candidates for political office–at least, Christian ones–routinely highlight their churchgoing ways.  It’s a bit dicier for members of minority religions, and admitted atheists are just out of luck. Unlike Europeans, Americans are demonstrably leery of candidates who do not claim a religious affiliation.

But we are also leery of those who seem too invested in their theologies, especially–but not exclusively–minority theologies.

When John F. Kennedy made his famous speech reaffirming the American doctrine of separation of church and state, he was really reassuring voters that his Catholicism was tempered and attenuated, and that any conflict between the Constitution and his religion would be resolved in favor of the Constitution.

Religious affiliation is only fair game in politics when we have reason to suspect that a candidate’s religious beliefs will be a primary motivator should that candidate win office–that, unlike JFK, he will resolve conflicts between the constitution and his theology in favor of the latter, or that his policy decisions will be dictated by that theology rather than by appropriate secular considerations.

In other words, if a candidate is likely to make public decisions on the basis of his religious beliefs, the content of those beliefs becomes relevant.

Which brings us, I suppose, to Mike Pence and Mitt Romney, both of whom appear to be deeply invested in their respective religions, and both of whom can be expected to govern in accordance with the tenets of those religions as they understand them. Indeed, Romney’s own “JFK speech” actually rejected Kennedy’s strong endorsement of separation of church and state, leaving little doubt that his Mormonism would influence his conduct in office. Pence, of course, is a “Christian Nation” religious extremist who has shown virtually no interest in the nitty-gritty of secular government. For both of these candidates, religious belief appears integral to their identities and highly likely to influence their behaviors in office. If that’s true, then voters are justified in examining those beliefs.

Bottom line: If a political candidate’s theology is likely to trump other motivations–or the Constitution–the contents of that theology are relevant.