I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a 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.”
– Martin Luther King
There are things we learn as children that stick with us all the days of our lives. I first heard Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a Dream” speech when I was just 13 years old. Like most Americans, I have heard it in whole or part many times since then. But beyond the emotions it stirred and still stirs in me, it had a formative influence on my life even as it did on the conscience of my country at the time. In this speech, as in the whole logic of his ultimately successful campaign to end the era of legalized racial discrimination in America, King relied on the moral creed set forth in the civic document that declares the foundational principles of the American way of life.
“I have a dream …” he said, “… 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.’”
The generation King addressed responded to King’s words from hearts that resonated deeply the famous words of America’s Declaration of Independence; hearts that still understood the meaning of creation; hearts that acknowledged and revered the existence of God; hearts that still submitted, albeit with all too human inconsistency, to the authority of the Creator.
Judging by the words and actions of those now touted as America’s most acclaimed and visible elites, there is no facet of this heartfelt American creed that is not today resisted, rejected or reviled. It’s as if the beneficiaries of the injustices King successfully decried realized the absolutely critical role it played in thwarting, for a time, the scheming lust for money and power from which these injustices ultimately derive. They beat a tactical retreat in the face of the tidal stream of righteousness King’s words unleashed against them, intending all the while to build from the bricks and mortar of conniving selfish passions a breakwater that would hold back and eventually turn the tide.
Since I first heard King’s words I have spent many hours, days and years researching and meditating upon what King rightly referred to as America’s creed. I have learned from history, but also from hard personal experience how difficult it is truly to live out its meaning. I learned it from the long fight against slavery, in the years when abolitionists stood alone in the glare of their burning homes and printing presses; and the years when the false compatriotism of self-righteous wrongdoing, with morally indifferent freedom, gave way to the unforgiving war of brother against brother on the knee-deep bloody battlefields of the American Civil War. I learned it when what was to be America’s new birth of liberty for all in the 19th century proved instead to be a new frontier of unbridled greed and lust for pleasure and power in the 20th.
But I have especially come to understand the difficulty of living out America’s creed in these years of her apostasy from the fundamental tenet without which it comes to naught. Already, when Martin Luther King evoked the famous principle that linked human equality with the authority of God’s creation, the work was already well under way that would uproot that principle from America’s heart. Without its roots, streams of licentious passion have eroded the rich soil of good conscience in which the nation’s tree of liberty flourished. Gradually it has been washed away.
Bereft of roots and ground, the American creed stands today like a Christmas tree left too long without water and nourishment. It is dry, brittle and dying. The hot breath of the vanguard of history breathes now upon it, in order soon to ignite what’s left so that it burns away. Martin Luther King knew that without its principle of justice, America must cease to be America. Like the righteous man in the psalm, she is like a tree that can flourish only when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
But what is justice when the authority of God’s creation has been banished from our courts and laws, our schools, our public heart? What is righteousness, when right is used to sanction palpable wrongs, like those that slay our offspring in the womb? What is law when law purports to compel medical workers of good conscience to join in those murderous wrongs? It enslaves them to evil all against their will as other Americans were once compelled, against their conscience, to return fugitive slaves to those unjustly claiming to be their masters.
So again we must seek in our dreams the day when “this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” But when King roused the nation with this dream, America’s faith in God was more than a dream. It was, in truth, her life-giving covenant. What is it now? Where are those who will stand against the polluted tide of history in order, from the wellspring of faith, to draw down the righteous waters that will make America’s dying creed a living reality once again?