Grace Has Become a Rare Thing in Public Life—and in Journalism

Lance Morrow, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writing in the Wall Street Journal about Martin Luther King Jr.:

How can one understand the behavior unearthed by Martin Luther King Jr. biographer David Garrow? Mr. Garrow has reported, in sometimes pornographic detail, on King’s assignations with some of the more than 40 women. . .

When King preached to his congregation, he often spoke of himself as a sinner. Unlike some preachers, he meant it. He knew that he was a flawed man. Maybe King’s conscience should be understood with the help of the novelist Graham Greene’s modernist Catholic conceit that great saints may find their path to salvation by way of egregious sins. Some psychiatric speculation suggests that the drinking and the sex were the result of manic depression.

On the exalted, public side of the ledger stands the moral leader who changed America for the better and who knew the price that he would pay for it. “I may not get there with you,” he said on the night before he was shot. “But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.” That was the majestic King, the prophet. “I’ve looked over,” he said, “and I’ve seen the Promised Land.” He elongated the word “seen” so that it fairly quivered in the air. . . .

We are running out of paragons. I believe in Great Man theories of history—or believe, in any case, that the absence of moral leaders such as King is a catastrophe. A country without heroes becomes either savage or monstrously petty, and dull and mean. What we have today is a toxic compound of savagery and pettiness made even worse by the ruthless self-importance of identity politics. We have grown profligate in destroying heroes. I don’t think we can afford to lose Dr. King.

The way out, I’d say, is grace, if anyone believes in grace anymore. It’s become a rare thing in American public life. Martin Luther King was complicated, and some of his behavior was vile. Yet he gave his life—gave it knowingly—for the sake of the country, for blacks and also for whites. He deserves the grace of his country’s forbearance.

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