Politicians Carefully Celebrate Harriet Tubman, Not Her Christian Worldview

Lawrence, Forward.
Lawrence, Forward.

The U.S. Treasury has announced plans to put the faces of several famous abolitionists, civil rights, and women’s suffrage advocates on our paper currency. While it’s possible we won’t see these bills for 10-20 years, the symbolic change is getting attention. While famous leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt will appear on the back of the new 5$ note, the choice to put Harriet Tubman’s image on the 20$ note (replacing Andrew Jackson) has garnered the most attention. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, told reporters Wednesday that “[Tubman’s] incredible story of courage and commitment to equality embody the ideals of democracy that our nation celebrates, and we’ll continue to value her legacy by honoring her on our currency.”

On Twitter, liberal political leaders tweeted their support.


We are right to honor heroes like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. for their bravery, but strangely absent from these soundbites is reference to the worldview that compelled these champions of justice to give their lives to the causes for which they fought.

Both Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. were evangelical Christians. They both recognized the sovereignty of God over our nation and God’s moral law as the foundation of all justice. Within these Christian principals we find the foundation for all just violations of civil law. Remember, Harriet Tubman was once a pistol-wielding fugitive with a bounty on her head. How are we to understand the distinction between those who break laws justly, and those who are merely criminals?

Martin Luther King Jr. understood this question better than most. In his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King wrote:

“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.'”

Harriet Tubman also understood the difference between the law of man and the law of God. Fellow abolitionist Thomas Garrett wrote of Tubman,

“I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul. She frequently told me that she talked with God, and he talked to her every day of her life . . . she said she never ventured only where God sent her, and her faith in the Supreme Power was truly great.”

Indeed, her courage to to break the unjust laws of her time, risk her life for hundreds of slaves, and serve as a spy during the civil war can only be explained by her knowledge of God’s sovereignty and authority. In an 1859 letter Tubman wrote
“God’s time [Emancipation] is always near. He set the North Star in the heavens; He gave me the strength in my limbs; He meant I should be free.”

While our political and cultural leaders are rightly praising the life of Harriet Tubman, they are doing so without recognizing the greatness of the Christian worldview, which served as the foundation of her actions. This is historical revision through omission.

I do not think this is by mistake. Acknowledging that the greatest civil rights and abolitionist leaders in our nation appealed to God’s Law as the standard by which civil law should be judged as just or unjust would expose the politically liberal to a frightening irony.

While man’s law values a woman’s right to secure the murder of her unborn child, God’s law forbids the murder of innocent children, including those in the womb (Exodus 20:13, 21:22, 23:7;  Psalm 106:38; Deut 24:16, 2 Kings 23:10). While man’s law defines marriage by the whims and dictates of popular culture, God’s law strictly defines marriage as a sacred covenant between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6, Mark 10:6-9, Romans 1:24-127).

What would happen if we consistently applied the Christian worldview of women like Harriet Tubman to our society?

Were Tubman and King alive today to see their nation praising their memory while failing to praise the God they gave their lives glorifying, what would they say? Would they even see it as an honor to be portrayed on our money, the false god that so many of us are prone to worship? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that we should not allow our politicians to turn faithful ministers of the gospel into heroes of secular humanism.