It’s no secret that President Barack Obama has idolized Martin Luther King throughout his presidency. In fact, Obama has long lauded King’s well-known principle that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The outgoing president likes the quote so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office in 2010. However, according to Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 re-election bid, the president has been taking the phrase out of context “to bless a whole range of political solutions.”
It is important to note, too, that King was not the first to share the quote about “the arc of the moral universe.” The phrase was actually coined by 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker. Obama faced criticism when he unveiled the West Wing rug for wrongly attributing the quote to King instead of Parker.
Wear told The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis that it is abundantly apparent that, when King delivered the line, he was not sharing a political revelation, but a spiritual one.
“It’s very clear that, apart from Jesus Christ, the idea of a moral arc of the universe was inconceivable to King,” Wear said. “It only made sense within the context of a declarative faith statement.”
And Wear made a pretty good case when he shared King’s quote in its entirety:
Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, 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.”
In its reclaimed state, as a political precept rather than a spiritual one, many on both sides of the aisle have taken issue with the quote, according to Lewis:
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.”
“Politicians can do a lot to sort of give us a lot of things to hope for,” Wear said, adding, “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.’”
However, though Wear takes issue with Obama’s usage of the famous King quote, he is still a big fan of the commander-in-chief. During his conversation with Lewis, Wear pushed back against those who accuse Obama of not being devoutly Christian.
“I’ve prayed with the man,” he said. “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.”
Wear went on to say that Obama’s detractors would be “surprised” by how much the president has talked about “the saving grace of Jesus and what Jesus accomplished on the cross” in speeches he’s delivered to Christian leaders over the years.