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.
Patriotism "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.
In a commencement address at Lincoln University in 1961, King praised the American dream and the Declaration of Independence, saying that "seldom if ever in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profoundly eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality." And when he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, King reaffirmed that his dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: `We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' "
But King understood the contradictions at the heart of American society. In his Lincoln University commencement address, King said "since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this noble dream, America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself." America, King understood, preaches democracy but practices its selective application. Moreover, King understood the perils of an isolationist nationalism that celebrates one's country at the expense of recognizing one's global citizenship. In such a case, loyalty to nation might turn vicious, demanding that one subordinate moral principle to narrow national self-interest. In his church sermon, King said that in Vietnam, America had "committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world." And we wouldn't stop it "because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation."
At the end of King's sermon, appropriately titled "The Drum Major Instinct," which dissected the impulse of individuals to be supreme and of nations to rule the world, King declared that "the God I worship has a way of saying, 'Don't play with me. Be still and know that I'm God. And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power.' And that can happen to America."
Martin Luther King, Jr.,'s role as a dissenter and prophet never diminished his patriotism. True patriots love their country enough to tell it the truth. King never confused a healthy patriotism with a myopic nationalism that often wrapped ethnic bigotry and racial terror in a flag-and around a cross.
We must not forget that even Martin Luther King, Jr., was targeted by the FBI for electronic surveillance because he represented a threat to our democracy. King's office, home, and hotels were tapped. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover contended that such surveillance would prove that King was a communist who sought to undermine the American government. King was indeed a radical democrat who sought to force America, as he stated the night before he died, to "Be true to what you said on paper."
But this legendary American hero was subject to vicious, antidemocratic procedures in the name of protecting the government. The surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. only hurt our government in the long run, because it failed to concede the legitimacy and political usefulness of dissent. It is chilling to remember that Robert Kennedy, who was then the attorney general, authorized the wiretaps, with the full knowledge of President John F. Kennedy.
King's vision of a "radical revolution of values," which he spoke of in "A Time to Break Silence," grew from "the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions." King argued that a "true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of our past and present policies."
King summarized his views in a poignant passage that is a prophetic warning against the vice of narrow national self-interest and the sin of unquestioning national pride:
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: 'This is not just.' It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: 'This is not just.' The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: 'This way of settling differences is not just.' A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. . . . A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.