ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- In an odd coincidence of timing, President Bush launched his plan to escalate U.S. military involvement in Iraq on the cusp of the national celebration of the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose courageous denunciation of the American strategy in Vietnam is better appreciated now than it was then. When Dr. King came out against the war in 1967, he was harshly criticized.
Little has changed in 40 years. As recently as last February, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a veteran of the civil rights movement, drew harsh criticism when he used the occasion of Coretta Scott King's funeral to blast Mr. Bush's policies on the war and on poverty. Supporters of the war responded with outrage, claiming Mr. Lowery had cheapened Dr. King's legacy and disrespected his widow's memory.
Last October, religion writer Lorraine V. Murray acknowledged that she had avoided calling for the withdrawal of American troops in Iraq "for fear of the avalanche of angry e-mails it might engender. I think it is high time we admitted, once and for all, that the whole Iraq endeavor was a major blunder. Keep in mind, please, that I am writing this from a Christian perspective."
No wonder so few well-known American preachers took a high-profile stand against the invasion of Iraq nearly four years ago, even if they doubted the war's morality or the administration's veracity. Any minister who expressed those doubts would have been trashed as a traitor, an appeaser, a "surrender monkey," and few had the stomach for that.
Of course, a few highly regarded religious leaders spoke out early on. Perhaps the best-known was Pope John Paul II, whose legacy includes a determined effort to prevent a war of choice.
But Mr. Bush had not only the broad support of American voters but also a cheering section on the religious right, where many ministers gave him their blessing. In an October 2004 debate on CNN, the Rev. Jerry Falwell declared: "You've got to kill the terrorists before the killing stops. And I'm for the president to chase them all over the world. If it takes 10 years, blow them all away in the name of the Lord." Earlier, Mr. Falwell had called Mohammed, founder of Islam, a "terrorist," though he later apologized.
There were a few evangelicals who publicly disagreed with Mr. Falwell and his ilk, including the Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine. But most either supported Mr. Falwell or, if they disagreed, kept their mouths shut. Mr. Bush had cleverly co-opted many preachers with his so-called faith-based initiative, which pledged government funds for church-run ministries.
With so many preachers behaving like politicians - stoking prejudices, watching the polls and fearing a backlash from the pews - Dr. King's decision to speak out against the war in Vietnam appears all the more admirable. According to Taylor Branch , the premier chronicler of the civil rights years, Dr. King agonized over his decision to oppose the war. He not only understood the dangers of communism, but he also knew his opposition to the war could cost the civil rights movement its most powerful ally, President Lyndon B. Johnson. Some respected civil rights leaders urged him to keep his mouth shut.
But his conscience wouldn't let him. In a pivotal speech at New York's Riverside Church in April 1967, Dr. King said, "I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart. ... I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my own government."
That's not among the quotes we tend to trot out in our annual commemorations of Dr. King, when we're more comfortable with a sepia-toned man of softer edges. But the man who insisted that America live up to its ideals believed in a nation that promoted peace and justice around the world and around the clock.
That's the man who ought to be remembered and celebrated.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.