Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to save America’s soul.
Their ministries demonstrated different yet compatible strengths tackling this goal. Graham responded to the gospel — the good news of how God rescued humanity though Christ’s life, death and resurrection — by stressing personal renewal at crusades. He also pressed for biblical justice, when he refused to lead segregated gospel rallies. He encountered criticism from some born-again Christians who believed integration would destroy their Southern way of life.
King believed conversion to Christ, which brought personal renewal, wasn’t enough. He preached that being “born again” wasn’t the end of Christians’ striving. King challenged those who marched with him for biblical justice to experience an equal, second conversion. It thrust believers back into an unjust world, replicating Jesus’ work of providing equal opportunities to the downtrodden.
Picture the difference in emphasis between Graham and King with a circle and an ellipse. For Graham, the circle’s center point was good news that God sent Christ to save us from our worst selves. In contrast, King’s gospel message flattened the circle into an ellipse, an oblong shape with two foci, not one. Besides Christ converting human souls, King believed a second focus was justice.
Although Graham’s and King’s ministries were complementary, the latter’s good news exposed Graham’s as succumbing to a cramped Christianity — an inward faith that saved souls but downplayed renewing the national soul through justice.
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, Time magazine writers, crisply define different takes Graham and King had on the gospel. “The motto of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference might have been Graham’s, as well: ‘to save the soul of America.’ But theirs were different spiritual gifts: King was a prophet, Graham an evangelist. Graham’s job was sales, King’s courageous subversion; he had entered the ministry, rather than law or medicine, with the belief that sermons were a respectable means of spurring debate, ‘even social protest’” (“The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House,” p.135, 2009).
Graham invited a listener to make a decision for Christ. King challenged this convert to press for justice in an unfair world. Graham called for personal commitment to Christ. King expected commitments to make changes in society for the common good.
“But as racial tensions rose,” report Gibbs and Duffy in their book, “Graham was more inclined to focus on scriptural imperatives, King on visible progress. Graham had second thoughts about the very idea of civil obedience: ‘No matter what the law may be — it may be an unjust law — I believe we have a Christian responsibility to obey it. Otherwise, you have anarchy.’ To this, King cited Saint Augustine, that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ Graham would never move fast enough for King, and King was being pushed by rivals whose agenda was much more fierce” (p. 135).
From whom did King acquire this passion for justice?
Walter Rauschenbusch’s ministry served as a key resource. In 1886, this young minister answered the call of a small German Baptist Church on the border of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, at 45th Street and 10th Avenue. His congregation of blue collar workers struggled to earn just wages. Those in Hell’s Kitchen barely survived. Preaching a thin gospel of personal renewal didn’t help these Christians who experienced injustice first-hand.
Rauschenbusch looked at his ministerial experiences, peering through a theological lens called “the social gospel.” In his book, “A Theology for the Social Gospel,” he popped the gospel balloon that had only personal renewal at its center. “The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified,” declared Rauschenbusch.
Widespread injustice in the United States prompted King’s “I Have a Dream” sermon. He used investment imagery that African-Americans couldn’t cash in on. “America has given the Negro people a bad check,” he declared, “a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” Segregated America bounced the check endorsing equal opportunity. Separating races branded “default” on America’s key promise of freedom of opportunity. “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” King judged.
Ending his sermon on the dream of righting societal wrongs, this minister returned to the gospel’s non-negotiable, central thrust. Rooted in scripture, he challenged the United States to restore justice and enlarge the founders’ vision of freedom for all people rather than the original white-only recipients.
Rousing the nation’s conscience, King recited prophetic biblical hope: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and every mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked place will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:4-5).
Personal renewal and restoration of a just society aren’t two separate gospels. They are key components of the one true gospel, the good news that Jesus made plain and acted out.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister .