A 'True Revolution of Values'

Martin Luther King, Jr., warned America about the danger of unquestioning national pride. How far have we come?

Michael Eric Dyson, best-selling author, ordained Baptist minister, and professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, says it was Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life inspired him to "embrace social redemption through the written word." In his latest book, "Pride," excerpted below, Dyson explores King's role as an American prophet.

The voice of the dissenter is often the conscience of the nation. Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's prophetic voice rang forth in the first half of the twentieth century; Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice was a clarion call for freedom and democracy in the century's closing half.

"God didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world now," King thundered from his Atlanta pulpit exactly two months before his death at the hands of a cowardly racial terrorist. "God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war." Here, of course, King referred to the Vietnam War, and he took a lashing in public for his dissenting views. He was accused of being unpatriotic. He was charged with moral treason. Other black leaders like Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young lambasted him (though they later came to acknowledge, as did the nation, that King's views were courageous and correct). And yet, King was one of the greatest patriots this nation has produced. He proved it by giving his life in a fight to defend this country's best side against its worst.


As we struggle for ethical guidance in the shadow of terrorism and war, it is good to remember that dissent helps national flourishing and aids in clarifying our political vision. If King's actions against war prove anything, it's that there's a huge difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is the critical affirmation of one's country in light of its best values, including the attempt to correct it when it's in error. Nationalism is the uncritical support of one's nation regardless of its moral or political bearing.


"often takes the form of beliefs in the social system and values of one's country. Expressions of nationalism, on the other hand, are often appeals to advance the national interests in the international order." This latter version of an insular and narrowly conceived national pride is expressed in the slogan, "my country, right or wrong." Too often nationalism has prevailed over patriotism in expressions of national pride. The confusion between the two has blurred the difference between love and worship of country, a distinction King never failed to make.

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