NEW YORK - The faith of Martin Luther King Jr. is often overlooked in the celebration of his radical calls for change, said one professor of religion at a recent panel discussion on the iconic civil rights leader.
Eric Gregory, assistant professor of Religion at Princeton University, said he was surprised to find that a lot of his undergraduate students failed to know or appreciate how King's Christian background – his identity as a Baptist preacher and ties to the black church – influenced his political involvement.
"The civil rights movement was a political movement but it was also a church movement," said Gregory, who spoke at the "Embracing the Radical King: Prophetic or Passe?" forum on Sunday.
The panel discussion, hosted by WNYC Radio and Civic Frame, brought together four professors at the Brooklyn Museum to elucidate how the reverend might respond to pressing issues today. The speakers commented on how King would apply his views in the role of a political strategist, social ethicist, public economist and cultural critic.
Speaking on King as a social ethicist, Gregory noted that although the preacher held a strong Christian identity, he would never use his faith to ridicule those who did not share them or to exclude anyone from the American promise.
"That aspect of King's capacity to transcend his own particular tradition without denying it is important," he told the crowd of 400. "His gospel was social and personal ... King didn't separate compassion of Christianity from social justice."
In that sense, the assistant professor agreed that in today's society, King would stand against a highly imputative criminal justice system, global poverty, vicious homophobia, discrimination, hypocrisy, execution in dark places, and bigotry in sacred places.
Corey D.B. Walker, assistant professor in the Dept. of Africana Studies at Brown University, said he was bothered to see many candidates seeking office today falling into what he called "religious arrogance."
"All candidates have placed their religious bona fide as a calling card to enter into a particular realm of power," observed Walker. "Not one of them has embraced what King stood around militarism, around the viciousness of capitalism, and the need to change our total society."
He said that it was the religion that King preached that forced him to move beyond his Baptist church to support efforts for equal rights like the sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tenn.
"I think we need less religion and more humanity," added Walker to the applause of the audience.
Other hot button topics of the election season explored during the event included the war in the age of terrorism, immigration, and health care. Brian Lehrer, host of the WNYC's "Brian Lehrer Show," and April Yvonne Garrett, president of Civic Frame, moderated the discussion.