Are Moderates the Real Obstacles to Social Justice and Religious Freedom?

Regardless of the cause (political, religious, anti-religious, racial justice), people dedicated to the fight and willing to put themselves on the line tend to be critical moderating variable of the moderates, who often advise patience, compromise, and negotiation. We find this criticism of moderates in Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” (This was an open letter written on April 16, 1963.) In that letter, while defending the acts of civil disobedience by himself and his organization, King expresses some surprisingly harsh criticism of religious and political moderates. This criticism of moderates resembles the strong criticism of the moderates by the so-called neo-atheistic writers, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. In their recent best-sellers, Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett call on atheists and non-religious folk to show courage in asserting their atheism in the face of the strong theistic, religious culture in the United States.

Why do these activists and “crusaders” direct so much criticism against the person of moderation, since many of us hold that moderation is a virtue? Recall Aristotle’s ethics and the ethics of the Stoics which advocate a life of balance and moderation in all things. Isn’t moderation usually a good thing?

Of course it stands to reason that activists, missionaries, and crusaders-for-a-cause tend to dismiss the moderate as little more than an obstacle in their struggle. However, most people will admit that in some situations moderation is a good thing, as when passion and greed dispose people to do stupid and destructive things. On the contrary, when the context is one of fighting for social justice or religious freedom for secular-minded people, calls for moderation are heard as obstacles rather than assets to the cause. At least, this is what Martin Luther King held with regard to the struggle for civil rights and what the neo-atheistic activists seem to believe in their effort to bring about equal rights of secular-minded people.

Martin Luther King’s Disappointment with Moderates:

First, let us look at what Martin Luther King’s famous letter had to say about moderates. He wrote that he was very disappointed with the white moderate. He added that he had almost reached “the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom

King’s problem with the moderates is that they counsel patience and advise the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season,” when in fact the time of waiting has ended and action is demanded. As he saw things, the moderate may say that he agrees with the goal of racial justice, but he “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” In other words, moderates are quite willing to counsel patience when it is another people’s freedom that is at stake. King went on to remark that often “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” and that “lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”