The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. carries special meaning today as our nation wrestles with the unthinkable acts carried about by a violent, conspiratorial mob opposed to foundational elements of our democracy. Dr. King understood that, in spite of the challenges America faces, the most patriotic thing we can do is “one day … rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
Dr. King recognized that America’s founding principles are so profound that, if you look at every great cause in our history — abolition, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement he led, and beyond — you see that each great stride toward justice came from an appeal to those ideals.
Governance in this country must be aimed at realizing these principles. As legislators, we are tasked with carrying forward Dr. King’s work and doing just that — securing justice, bringing about the common good and, in particular, preserving the essential dignity of the human soul. That dignity rests on three elements: access to a loving family and rich community; a nourishing faith that keeps us connected with God; and economic opportunity to provide for ourselves and others through safe, decent work.
At this moment, those ideals may seem quaint and even naive, but we cannot allow the most insidious actors — white supremacists, armed militia groups, and dangerous, conspiracy-driven groups like QAnon — to determine America’s future. Instead, that task falls to those of us who share Dr. King’s vision and pursuit of what he called the Beloved Community.
The success of our shared future depends, in large part, on American children growing up in stable, two-parent households, with flourishing neighborhoods waiting for them just outside their doorstep. This must not be limited by race or zip code.
Human dignity is also predicated on our freedom to practice our faiths as dictated by our conscience. As a Baptist minister, Dr. King understood the greater Christian context in which his work took place, which, when properly acted out, eagerly seeks to overturn injustice. All men and women are equal as children of God — born with rights endowed to them by their creator, not their politicians — and America as a nation must reflect that.
And to do so, we must also recognize the importance of maintaining our connection with the almighty and our freedom of religion for Americans of all spiritual backgrounds. Runaway secularism leaves us adrift, deprived of guiding values and vital notions of forgiveness or mercy in our disputes. The gnashing of our culture wars grows all the more frenzied, our political fights uglier. To invoke Dr. King, “(t)he old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding. ... It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.”
And, in particular, policymakers must recognize that human dignity today is contingent on opportunity, especially when it comes to work. As Dr. King repeatedly noted, all forms of labor have dignity. That dignity cannot be reserved for those on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. Fair wages, strong benefits, and general stability must be available to sanitation workers and metalworkers, teachers and cashiers alike.
For far too long, too many in our government ignored that fundamental truth. Recognizing this mistake, we should strive to preserve and extend that dignity to those who have suffered from reduced economic opportunity through short-term decision-making. As political and corporate elites chose to hollow out and offshore America’s industrial base to China, millions of Americans were left stripped of their vocation and ability to provide as a result.
That process of deindustrialization has affected Americans all across the country. But as factories shut down in places like Chicago, Baltimore and Detroit, neighborhoods of color were among the hardest hit hard — right as they were beginning to feel the economic gains of the Civil Rights era. Realizing Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community will require recognizing the challenges facing America’s families, places of worship, and workers today and committing to substantive action to fix them.
Ultimately, we must remember that America is not a government, or a president, or a Congress. America is something much larger — something much more tangible and intimate. It is your family, your congregation, and your community. And this is what Dr. King understood so well: that our pursuit of a more perfect Union requires unity and recognizing the inherent dignity in all Americans in that endeavor.
Marco Rubio, a Republican, is the senior U.S. senator from Florida.