Arc My Words

Obama Loves Martin Luther King’s Great Quote—But He Uses It Incorrectly

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is a great quote. But it doesn’t mean what Obama says it means.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Throughout his campaign and presidency, President Barack Obama cited Dr. Martin Luther King’s precept that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The quote is so important to Obama that he had it literally woven into a rug in the Oval Office.

The idea is not universally beloved. Some liberal activists fear it might be interpreted by some as a suggestion that hard work is pointless (since history is on their side), and conservatives have at least two problems with it. First, conservatives point out that bad ideas (Nazism, for example) are not predestined to lose, but rather, must be beaten back through violent force. Second, conservatives object to the notion that (in President Obama’s world, at least) their policies are sometimes cast as being “on the wrong side of history.”

But there’s an even more fundamental problem with the quote: According to Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 re-election and authored the new book Reclaiming Hope, Dr. King’s line has been taken out of context and used “to bless a whole range of political solutions.”

The famous line, Wear notes, was originally intended as a spiritual truth, not a political one. “It’s very clear that, apart from Jesus Christ, the idea of a moral arc of the universe was inconceivable to King,” Wear told me during a recent interview. “It only made sense within the context of a declarative faith statement.”

Dr. King, Wear argues, never intended to endorse some sort of historical determinism. There’s no guarantee that things will get better—at least, not here on this physical earth. The good guys don’t always win (not in this world, anyway).

As evidence, Wear notes the full context of Dr. King’s quote. “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross,” Dr. King wrote, “but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’” (Note: King has those words in quotes because he was actually citing 19th century clergyman Theodore Parker, who first coined the phrase.)

In this context, it is clear that bad people often prevail in this carnal world where Caesar still rules. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in political activism, but it does mean that we shouldn’t assume some sort of magical force is inexorably leading us to some utopian progressive or liberal end of history.

“Politicians can do a lot to sort of give us a lot of things to hope for,” Wear told me, but “it has now lost its meaning. It’s politicized and people apply it [as if to say] ‘We passed tax reform and now it’s about the moral arc of the universe.’”

Despite Wear’s belief that this line has been misconstrued, Wear is still a huge fan of President Obama, and during our conversation, he pushed back against those who cast him as anything less than a devout Christian.

“I’ve prayed with the man,” Wear said of Obama. “I’ve been with him when he’s talked about his Christian faith in public and private settings. It has been disheartening for me to see folks that have no personal experience with him discount his profession of faith, based on criteria that they would never hold people in their own congregations to.”

Speaking of some of the speeches he heard Obama deliver over the years to Christian leaders, Wear told me: “You would be surprised by—I mean, he’s talking about the saving grace of Jesus and what Jesus accomplished on the cross… you have the leader of the free world…talking about what Jesus accomplished on the cross and the fact that he was resurrected from the grave.”

But while Wear still has plenty of praise for his old boss, he was not so complimentary of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Citing reports that the Clinton campaign refused to attend a St. Patrick’s Day event in Indiana at Notre Dame, Wear condemned her political strategy that ignored a sizable chunk of America (in this case, white Catholics) and also “undermines the ‘Stronger Together’ message.”

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“She had a history of speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast and being well received—and having pastors she counted as a part of her inner circle—and all of that was left off the table by a campaign that had presumptions and assumptions about what the electorate was going to look like… and they were wrong,” Wear said.

But there will be plenty of time to relitigate the 2016 campaign—and for Democrats to play the blame game.

As we celebrate the last Martin Luther King Day that will occur during President Obama’s tenure, it is altogether fitting that we set the record straight on Dr. King’s line and its numerous interpretations in the context of politics.

Dr. King was talking about the City of God, not the City of Man. Let’s render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar.