President John F. Kennedy watched Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on TV. “He’s damn good!” the president exclaimed to White House aides.
King’s theme of biblical justice churning like white-water rapids and righteousness like a mighty stream on the Lincoln’s Memorial’s steps transformed a podium into a pulpit. Though it captivated millions of citizens and the president, King’s sermon roused evangelical Christians’ suspicion. They slammed him for watering down the gospel in order to push his alleged communist agenda.
Evangelicals believed King sold out on their true faith in Christ. They were convinced he switched from a focus on personal salvation to promotion of social change. Rather than trusting in Christ as savior, King sounded to evangelicals as a communist who diluted faith into acts of solidarity with those unjustly treated in the United States.
Today, evangelicals do an about-face, respecting King. Such hero-worship glosses over how some conservative Christians once distanced themselves from this social justice agitator. In my boyhood hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., many churchgoers identified with a Ku Klux Klan placard, that demonized him as “Martin Lucifer King.”
These detractors took their cue from the FBI’s law and order director, J. Edgar Hoover. He linked King with a long line of agitators against America. “Professionally, Director Hoover cultivated King as the fearsome dark symbol of the latest 20th century threat to tranquility on Main Street America — succeeding immigrants, Depression gangsters, nazis and communists.”(Taylor Branch, “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years,” 1965-68, p. 63).
Republican Gerald R. Ford, Grand Rapids’ 5th District congressman, usually used moderate language against opponents. When chastising King, however, his amiable Christianity collapsed. After the 1967 riots rocked Detroit, U.S. House Minority Leader Ford debated Sen. Albert Gore, father of the future vice president. “I would say its people like King who are starting the riots,” exclaimed Ford in a Denver debate on the topic, “Which Party Properly Represents the Negro in American Politics.”
Why did some evangelicals shun King for watering down the gospel, twisting it into a message the Apostle Paul rejected as “a gospel contrary to that which we preached” (Galatians 1:8)?
Peter Huiner, a mentor who ministered in the African-American community of Lawndale, Chicago in the early 1960s, summarizes evangelicals’ theological reservations towards King. “While the gospel speaks of man as sinner and of man in Christ, (King’s) movement recognizes man simply as God’s image-bearer. While the gospel speaks of reconciliation among men through reconciliation with God brought by the atonement (Christ’s death on the cross), the (Social Gospel) movement speaks of brotherhood through a common humanness” (The Reformed Journal, “Shall We March — The Voice of the Church in the Negro Revolution,” April 1965, p.8). Huiner advised conservative Christians to temper criticism of King when they didn’t hear him use their “salvation of souls” vocabulary.
Some Christians believe the gospel’s message is to save souls. Others believe it is to save society. Billy Graham reminded his colleagues of the two cross-over dimensions of the Christian life. Its vertical bar points to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The horizontal bar applies Christ’s sacrifice to society’s unfair practices.
Graham noted how Baptists emphasize the vertical (save souls) and Methodists the horizontal (save society). Baptist King irked evangelicals because he sounded more like a Methodist circuit rider who stressed the gospel’s social mandates.
King in his “I Have a Dream” sermon preached a two-legged gospel: right personal wrongs and reform social ills. It’s a false alternative to press one side of the gospels’ intent to the exclusion of the other. Having become too insular and defensive, evangelicals lacked the right mix between the gospel’s two dimensions.
Lewis Smedes, my college ethics professor who later taught at evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, succinctly expressed the heart of King’s message.
“The Church has to do both (save souls and save society), and do both as an implication of the (gospels’) one reality. It has to proclaim in urgent tones the need for individuals to submit in penitence to Christ the Lord. And it has to act as the Lord’s representative to the total needs of the whole man — and this has to include his social situation” (The Reformed Journal, May-June 1967, p. 4).
In a sermon prior to his 1968 assassination, King pictured Jesus as a social troublemaker. He spoke of how “the tide of public opinion turned” against Jesus early in his ministry. “They said he was an agitator,” preached King. “He practiced civil disobedience. He broke injunctions.” Jesus, betrayed by ecclesiastical tormentors, was cursed and killed. So was King.
How did King as gospel activist want to be remembered?
He surmised what a speaker might express in his eulogy. A speaker might note how Martin Luther King Jr. “tried to give his life serving others. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major,” he exclaimed, “say that I was a drum major for justice! Say that I was a drum major for peace, I was a drum major for righteousness, and all the other shallow things (his critics hurled at him) will not matter.”
What matters? Martin Luther King agitated for the poor and the powerless. His voice and compassion reminds us of Christ’s drumbeat.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.