Vail Daily column: Why white evangelicals spurned Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King counted on Southern white evangelicals to back him, but they largely spurned his ministry of racial justice. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” incarcerated there after spearheading anti-segregation bus protests in Montgomery, Alabama, King expressed shock. He assumed white evangelicals had his back in the protests. Instead, they backed off.
Some white preachers slandered him as a “philanderer with communist sympathies.” Others dismissed his heroic efforts, saying King dabbled in politics and didn’t stick to the pure gospel that sidestepped earthly racism for heavenly rewards.
Still more preachers knew where their paychecks came from and were “more cautious than courageous,” lamented King, “and … remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” He blasted them for preserving the status quo. They “stand on the sidelines and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
‘Who is their God?’
From a cramped cell, King imagined sunnier days of freedom when he marveled “at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires soaring into the heavens.”
“Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?’”
Rebuffed by white evangelicals’ silence in response to his protest against segregation, King asked, “Where were their voices of support?”
Some white evangelicals intended to be charitable to blacks who “knew their place” and didn’t upset social mores that forbade reaching across the color line. That “place” included separate schools, swimming pools and water fountains. This society frowned on distinct white and black races commingling. Interracial marriage brought God’s curse, not blessing.
When Martin Luther King led protest marches against segregation, why did most evangelical Christians keep their distance? The KKK often recited Old Testament prohibitions in which the God of the ancient Hebrews ordered His people to separate themselves from heathen nations in Canaan. Don’t mix with those “unlike your own.” Certainly don’t date and mate.
Evangelicals believed God created all types of people, but He reckoned that whites should live in a white-only society with their own churches, schools and civic centers. Hidden in all this “separate but equal” talk was belief that Caucasians ranked a cut above other races.
Such convictions form a sorry chapter in U.S. history when Southern whites feared cultural collapse. It would occur if people adopted MLK’s social gospel that allowed blacks to vote, use common restrooms and send their children to formerly white-only public schools.
Playing to fears
President-elect Donald Trump masterfully played to similar fears over the demise of white society. He won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote. If alive today, wouldn’t Martin Luther King issue another letter from a Birmingham jail, imploring white evangelicals not to pull back from justice for all people?
Trump knew his audience’s trepidation when he identified immigrants from Mexico as rapists and drug dealers who had to be walled off. “Trump’s appeal to evangelicals was not that he was one of them but that he would ‘restore power to the Christian churches’ if elected president,” observes Robert P. Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America.”
“This explicit promise, along with his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, signaled to white evangelical voters that when he crowed about ‘Making America Great Again,’ he meant turning back the clock to a time when conservative white Christians held more influence in our culture. Trump has essentially converted these self-described ‘values voters’ into ‘nostalgia voters.’”
Trump played to their fears, similar to fear that gripped whites when Martin Luther King led marches against segregation. The president-elect inspired white evangelicals to fight against vast corrosive trends in which U.S. culture worsened in the last 60 years. Trump promised to roll back history to the 1950s when whites enjoyed cultural dominance. Hearing his rants against immigrants, white evangelicals internalized Trump’s pledge to save their way of life and faith. He would preserve; not destroy, save; not let slip away, Christian values, such as restoring the festive greeting “Merry Christmas” at Macy’s in Manhattan.
Regrettably, Trump overlooked prominent biblical truths. Christ confers dignity on all people. Character counts for more than skin color. America achieves greatness when sectors of the electorate share economic power.
‘Second Bill of Rights’
In his 1945 State of the Union Address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delineated an American Dream that a generation later MLK put into action. FDR promised all Americans “a second Bill of Rights (to achieve) security and prosperity … for all — regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are:
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment; the right to a good education; and an end to domination by monopolies at home or abroad.”
Our American Dream disappears when any group of citizens uses fear as a cudgel to wield political power. Counter fear-mongering that steals voters’ hearts. Align with Martin Luther King’s call to right social wrongs by pursuing liberty and justice for all.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.