Was Martin Luther King an ardent patriot?
During my teenage years in the 1960s, the evangelical Christian community didn’t take kindly to the turmoil Martin Luther King stirred up. They got insulted because King made them feel uneasy. He aimed God’s searchlight on their souls, piercing them with illuminating judgment: “What is disturbing is not the appalling actions of bad people, but the appalling silence of good people,” King said.The evangelical Christian community in which I grew up insisted the focus of the church’s mission is to preach the Gospel of eternal salvation to individuals. King believed the church’s mission is broader and deeper than merely getting people in a right relationship with their maker. The Church must be engaged in a mission serving the social and political needs of impoverished people.Evangelicals unleashed a war of words against King. They charged that his social witness minus an emphasis on the personal renewal Christ offers is like a body without a spirit. It’s dead, akin to a corpse. King didn’t back off. His message left no doubt about his conviction that an unbalanced emphasis on Christ’s personal regeneration without social renewal is like a spirit without a body. It’s a ghostly, pale imitation of Christ’s Gospel.Christians in my upbringing who expressed this anti-King evangelical vision were solidly Midwestern Republicans. They believed in making the nation righteous through a lean federal government that didn’t meddle in personal rights. They advocated low taxes so that right-doing Christians weren’t pinched in the pocketbook. God approved of laissez-faire capitalism that spurned welfare and let the little guy make it on his own.My mentors in the Christian faith also drilled into me that God ordained the presidential office. It was American, rightly Christian and patriotic to support our presidents. The corollary of this patriotic mantra, of course, made Democrats defensive. Those who disagreed with the president were un-American, not quite Christian and unpatriotic.Some evangelical mentors voiced strong suspicion toward Martin Luther King. He had the audacity to claim that the evangelical faith was too small. Yes, he agreed, the human heart is wrong-mired in sin. It needs to be set right by the crucified Christ. But, King adamantly proclaimed, what’s wrong also clings to social structures, besmirches the Church’s witness and pollutes even into the presidential office. Doing what’s right in Christ’s name impels Christians to march against entrenched political powers that protect their privileged status. We must protest. We must have sit-ins. I worked for a black ghetto mission during the summer of 1965 in Lawndale near Chicago. King targeted Chicago and wanted to integrate the schools. The Christian schools I attended consisted of almost all white kids from middle class families who went to the same evangelical churches. Members really got riled in Cicero, contiguous to Lawndale, when black children who loved Jesus wanted to attend these Christian schools. King agreed with G.K. Chesterton, the witty Roman Catholic defender of the faith. He stated, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” What a spiritual body slam King hurled at evangelicals. He said they had missed the boat on Christianity. They floated in uncharted waters of faith without works. Follow the compassionate master who asked in a parable, “When did we see a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee. … And the king will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me,'” Matthew 25: 38-40.I’m ashamed of how some evangelical pundits slurred King, especially when he broadened his protest beyond civil rights to the Vietnam War. When the war dragged on, some Christians saluted U.S. naval officer Stephen Decatur’s (1779-1820) dictum. Decatur blasted opponents of our country’s military strikes: “Our country! … May she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”Stouthearted patriots who supported the Vietnam War stood convinced that cowardice, malice or stupidity inspired those against it. Reviewing that history now shows it wasn’t a good day for several evangelical editorialists who excoriated King. They inferred he was a turncoat coward with communist sympathies. He harbored deep malice against President Johnson, the critics charged. They called him a wife-cheater who compromised the evangelical gospel. King’s critics asked, “Doesn’t the Gospel command us only to do right by soul winning?” When King protested the Vietnam War, they judged he preached a foreign gospel that leads to political meddling and sabotages our war efforts.Indeed, King addressed social wrongs. “We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam,” King thundered from the Riverside Church pulpit in Manhattan on April 4, 1967. “We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.”Evangelist King wanted to convert the nation, making it right. He saw the war as immoral, ill advised and based on false premises. His heart sickened at the hideous Orwellian doublespeak our government fluently spoke. An American officer defended the scorched-earth policy of razing the Vietnam village of Ben Tre as “destroying a city in order to save it.” Such militaristic lingo branded King as part of an idealistic “cut and run” crowd. Our government used double talk to defend the war, much as George Orwell had warned against in his novel “1984.”King didn’t relent in his Riverside Church sermon. “These are times for real choices and not false ones,” he said. “We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of human convictions must decide on the protest that best fits his convictions, but we must all protest.”King converted one person with this righteous sermon. Me. If a time came again, I vowed, when our nation repeated Vietnam, my protest would be King’s.The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.