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It’s striking how much we continue to argue over Martin Luther King’s legacy. Long after his death, and despite his own mixed success in using his prestige to battle poverty and oppose the Vietnam War, Dr. King continues to be enlisted in every new political struggle, especially the push for same-sex marriage. George Clooney is only the most recent public figure to invoke civil rights to argue for same-sex marriage:

As his good friend Viola Davis won the CCA for Best Actress for her role in racial drama “The Help,” Clooney linked that struggle with the current effort to legalize gay marriage.

“I do believe it’s generational, much like the civil rights movement,” the star, who picked up Best Actor at the CCAs, said. “Young people started taking to the streets and things changed. This really is the final leg of the civil rights movement.”

Of course, supporters of same-sex marriage are not the only ones to make this move. Rick Santorum did something similar when he dinged Obama on racial grounds for his failure to recognize the rights of the unborn. Yet both men are wrong.

I freely admit that I see a basic connection between the fights to uphold the rights of black Americans and the rights of the unborn. Both causes are based in our foundational commitment to the dignity of every member of the human family. Yet my friends who are black—-whether they are pro-life, pro-same-sex marriage or both—-tend to be uneasy when the sufferings of Selma and of Montgomery are used to ready the altar for gay weddings, or to underline the wrong of  Roe. 

I can see why. As Ramesh Ponnuru has noted , such arguments tend to be used as (not especially persuasive) emotional bludgeons to induce minority Americans to support one cause or another. They diminish the raw, ongoing struggle for racial justice by making it a mere preparation for the next leg of the long progressive march.

Our debates over the meaning of marriage are only confused by spurious invocations of the Civil Rights movement. Meanwhile, the wrongness of abortion is sufficiently clear that it need not depend on the memory of any other righteous cause. Better to let King be King, and to connect his cause to any other only with the greatest care.

However much we disagree on issues like abortion and gay marriage, I am encouraged by the fact that we do indeed share a common, substantive moral inheritance. This day is as good a day as any to be grateful that when we argue over our political settlement, we tug on the same rope, invoke the same heroes.  There is a culture war, yes, but it is over a shared culture rather than two separate ones.

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