The Drum Major Instinct

During Sunday’s Super Bowl, Dodge ran a commercial in which they thought it would be a good idea to excerpt Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon to sell trucks:

This was obviously….not good.

Why is it not good? Well, let’s let Dr. King explain himself from the very same sermon:

Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. (Make it plain) In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. (Yes) That’s the way the advertisers do it.

This sermon, entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” is all about the desire to win, to get to the top, to climb over others and exalt oneself. To illustrate the dangers of this, Dr. King talks about several things, including rampant consumerism that drives people to keep up appearances through buying stuff.

I think Dr. King wouldn’t be too excited about his words being used 50 years later to sell trucks.

But while we’re here (thanks Dodge!) let’s see what else Dr. King had to say:

And not only does this thing go into the racial struggle, it goes into the struggle between nations. And I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy. And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years. (Yeah) If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody’s going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere. And then another one is going to drop. And don’t let anybody fool you, this can happen within a matter of seconds. (Amen) They have twenty-megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds, with everybody wiped away, and every building. And we can do the same thing to Russia and China.

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

Seems like his words are just relevant in the age of Trump and “America First” as they were during the age of Vietnam and Richard Nixon.

The grand message of this sermon was that service, not “winning,” not achievement, not status, not “Sitting at the right hand of the king,” is the best way to channel our will to succeed. This is true because this is the way of Jesus:

But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. (Yes) It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”

And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, “Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first.” This is what Jesus said to James and John. “You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared.” (Amen)

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.

Dr. King wasn’t selling anything. He was calling us to a higher good than self-enrichment. This commercial illustrated perfectly the danger of a neutered and tamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His words shouldn’t reinforce our biases or provide comfort to our consumerist impulses; they should convict, as the words of any prophet should.

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Barack Obama and the Evangelicals

I am fascinated with Michael Wear’s piece at Christianity Today on the relationship between President Barack Obama and American evangelicals. Drawing on his new book Reclaiming Faith: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, Wear tries to answer the question of why evangelicals hated Obama so much, but love Donald Trump.

obama-faith-outreach-na02-wide-horizontal3I’ll admit, this question has been central in my mind since Trump burst onto the political main-stage three years ago. The deep hatred and disdain evangelicals have for Obama baffles me. There is no doubt in my mind that President Obama governed in a Christian manner like few others before him have. I don’t mean he participated in the cheap, public displays of devotion that a George W. Bush or Ted Cruz engage in. Rather, Obama was always thoughtful, humble, and driven by deep convictions of morality and regard for human dignity. He never stood on a stage and declared himself “born again,” but he did showcase a deep knowledge and regard of the Christian faith, and clearly let himself be driven by it. He was committed to his family, and to American families as a goal of American policy. When speaking of faith, he spoke with great knowledge and reverence for God and Scripture.

As a Christian with a background in politics and policy, I can’t see many areas where I would have made choices much different that Obama with regards to faith (drone strikes overseas and other foreign policy choices are the chief areas that come to mind.) The public expression of faith exhibited by Barack Obama is something I would hope to emulate if I were again pursuing a career in public service.

Beyond personality, Obama’s Administration was much more faith friendly that it gets credit for, something Wear points out:

President Obama came into Office with plans to deliver on the promise of his campaign outreach to people of faith, including evangelicals. He kept and expanded the White House faith-based initiative, creating an advisory council (which, unlike the current president’s council, was official, established by executive order for the purpose of providing recommendations to the president and the federal government) that included robust evangelical participation. Four months into his Administration, he delivered a passionate case to heal national divides around abortion by seeking to ‘reduce the number of women seeking abortions’ while maintaining his commitment to Roe v. Wade. This speech was followed-up by years of staff work, overseen by the president, to pursue this common ground. Evangelicals were central to many of President Obama’s signature achievements: the Affordable Care Act, New START, the Paris Agreement, the expansion of America’s effort to combat human trafficking, and the rejection of deep social safety net cuts proposed by the Republican Congress.

Yet none of this is taken into account in the narrative that prevails about Obama and faith. And with good reason. The Religious Right made the decision early on, mirroring Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party, to blindly oppose everything the President did. Wear goes on:

In addition to discussing these partnerships, my recent book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in Americaalso describes why the president’s olive branch withered. On the right, political Religious Right groups made it their mission to sow distrust of and animosity toward the president. This went far beyond opposing specific policies or values of the Obama Administration. They did this through spreading half-truths, tolerating or promoting conspiracy theories, and insisting that Obama was an existential threat to their faith and the nation, among other things. There were notable exceptions to this fearmongering, but they were, sadly, in the minority and suffered under accusations of being closet liberals by their fellow evangelicals.

Evangelicals doubled down on abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom issues, elevating these three areas over everything else. Where Obama looked for areas of cooperation and shared values, evangelicals made the decision to focus only on differences.

Wear points out that this attitude, driven by fear and loathing of someone they only saw as an “other,” led directly to President Donald Trump:

Fear was the primary basis of Donald Trump’s appeals to evangelicals. He did not pretend he was one of them. He told them they were alone, that Democrats were out to get them, that ISIS was ‘drowning Christians in steel cages,’ and only he could protect them. He offered himself as a bully. Yes, he had flaws. Yes, his pagan approach to sex, money and power was evident and unseemly, inconveniently brought to the surface repeatedly during his campaign. But he would be their bully.

Evangelicals, driven by eight years of hate, began to believe their own propaganda, that the various disagreements they held with Barack Obama not only outweighed their numerous agreements, but in fact signaled a coming apocalypse for American Christianity. Minor disagreements could not be tolerated, because they indicated, to them at least, the cracks showing deep seated liberal hatred for all things Christian. So they took a bet on a strongman to save them from a non-existent boogeyman. In return for his “protection,” they get to carry his baggage forward for decades to come, tarnishing their own reputations and making themselves culturally irrelevant.

Wear eloquently discusses the consequences of this choice:

Evangelicals may find such attention as they received from Barack Obama more hard to come by after the Trump era takes its full toll. In years to come, I believe evangelicals will view Barack Obama’s disappointment toward them in a different light. They will see that it reflected much higher esteem than either Hillary Clinton’s cold disregard or Donald Trump’s toxic embrace. As they acclimate to the cultural changes that drove them to Trump, and understand just what their support of Trump cost them and our country, they will look back and see that Obama’s disappointment was a compliment.

President Obama was indeed a liberal, and a supporter of women’s choice, equal rights for LGBTQ+ people, and an expansive view of the separation of church and state that makes room for all faiths and non-faiths. He also was passionate about reinvigorating American families, combating poverty and declining standards of living, pursuing broader economic equality, and presenting a more humble, more humane, and more compassionate America to the world. American evangelicals let their own fear and hate deprive them of a great opportunity, one they may not get again in the future.

H/T to John Fea for bringing this article to my attention.

The Danger of Mass Prejudices

The practical limitations of liberal democracy arise in part from these limits to our freedom. Instead of a community of people exercising wise judgments about the general welfare or even acting out of enlightened self-interest, we have large groups of people expressing unexamined prejudices which are all too easily manipulated by those who control the mass media. Democracies can only survive through checks and balances which reduce the danger of disastrous actions expressive of mass prejudices.

John Cobb, Process Theology as Political Theology, pg 101