Few memorials to Martin Luther King Jr., pay tribute to the true bases of his civil-rights progress — which “pivoted on ideas that are much less popular now,” argued Jim Spiegel, professor of philosophy and religion at Taylor University.
Speaking to an audience of about 30 people in a lecture at Hillsdale College on Thursday, Oct. 4, Spiegel said King grounded his arguments for racial justice in natural law and biblical theology — and that no purely philosophical argument could substitute for King’s theological ethics as an adequate foundation for racial justice.
King’s ideas were a “major reason why the civil rights movement was a success” but have largely disappeared from public discourse on racial issues today, Spiegel said.
King’s natural law and biblical foundations provided both the logical foundations and necessary motivation for racial justice, Spiegel said, that other philosophies could not offer. Spiegel addressed five philosophies in particular: utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, social contract ethics, and anti-theory.
More than Kant’s categorical imperative, for example, “what is needed is an unambiguous moral mandate,” Spiegel argued, that can be found in biblical theology.
Citing King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and other writings, Spiegel noted that the civil rights leader grounded his arguments in the biblical ideas of agape — or unconditional — love, and imago Dei, the idea that humans are created in God’s image.
But a “naked public square” in recent years — a civil discourse stripped of theological conversation — has kept discussion of these ideas at bay.
“If theological resources have effectively been banned from public discourse … then what are our prospects of achieving King’s dream of lasting racial justice for the country?” Spiegel asked.
Persuading people to talk in these theological and natural-law terms may not be so easy, though.
“That’s the rub,” Spiegel acknowledged. “The only hope for them is they’ll be positively impacted and look for the transcendent.”
Spiegel’s lecture on King was the first of two he gave last Thursday as a guest of Professor of Philosophy Ian Church. Spiegel’s second lecture, delivered after a dinner that evening, addressed the “virtue of open-mindedness.”
Junior Katie Bell, who attended Spiegel’s first lecture, credited Spiegel with that very quality.
“He seemed very open-minded,” she said, “but very informative. It was really interesting; I didn’t realize that people were losing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideas.”
Church, who studied under Spiegel out of pure interest in philosophy while working for information technology services at Taylor University, said Spiegel’s talk on open-mindedness “contributed to the ongoing academic atmosphere here, where we’re quite interested in the intellectual virtues.”
Spiegel’s speech on King showed his desire to argue from foundations other than identity politics in the discussion of racial justice, Church said.
“He’s contributing to those dialogues [about racial justice] in a helpful way,” Church said.