Comparing MLK and (White) Evangelicalism on Racial Justice

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and (White) Evangelicalism on Racial Injustice
Dr. Shawn Bawulski

You’ll notice the term ‘evangelicalism’ in my title, and so up front I should confess that I am happily—although not uncritically—an evangelical (when the term is properly defined, of course).  Perhaps, then, it would be best to hear this as an insider’s critique, because the issue of racial injustice is one where I am unhappy and quite critical of my fellow evangelicals.

The term ‘evangelical’ has fallen on some hard times.  There’s a complex history of evangelicalism’s relationship with right wing politics since the early 1980’s that is in part to blame for its disfavorable reputation, and the most recent election cycle exacerbated the problem quite a bit.  In the election, 1 out of 4 voters[1] were whites who self identify as ‘evangelical’ or ‘born again’, and 81% of them voted for Trump.[2]  The term has come to stand in for a certain political block, much to the dismay of politicians like Jimmy Carter, and also to the dismay of theologians like me who wish to understand the term more historically and theologically.  

So perhaps it will be helpful to quickly offer a better definition than the political one.  The standard touchstone is the four distinctiveness offered by historian David Bebbington[3]:

·         Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus.

·         Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts (although it is important to note that evangelicals tend to focus on certain efforts and neglect others).

·         Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority.

·         Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

Given that definition, a caveat: it is important to note that there are many American Christians of color who would meet these criteria but do not self identify as evangelical and/or do not get categorized as evangelicals in many taxonomies.  So while there are evangelicals of color, they are less prominent in the movement.  And I do not think it is unfair to say that evangelicals of color often find that leadership, power, and the self-identity of evangelicalism is largely white.

What do white evangelicals think about the problem of race in America?  Here, the excellent book by Michael Emerson and Christians Smith, called “Divided by Faith” gives a summary of their research.[4]  White evangelicals think the race problem is one or more of these three types: 1.) “prejudiced individuals, resulting in bad relationships and sin”, 2.) “other groups—usually African Americans—trying to make race problems a group issue when there is nothing more than individual problems”, 3.) “a fabrication of the self-interested—again often African Americans, but also the media, the government, or liberals.”[5]  This is a broad stroke of course, and there are exceptions, but generally white evangelicals think the essence of the race problem is individuals with prejudices.  For them the problem entirely resides on the level of individual conscious attitudes.  Their thinking on this problem leaves little to no room for larger social units, systems, or structures.  This, argues Emerson and Smith, can in large part be explained by evangelicalism’s commitment to individualism, emphasis on personal conversion, and focus on the individual’s interpersonal relationships.[6]  The frequency with which these researchers heard statements from evangelicals like, “we don’t have our race problem, we have a sin problem” is remarkable.  If there was any room at all to see institutional or systemic issues, they were either considered the mere aggregates of individuals or maliciously prejudiced individuals in positions of power.[7]

Racial economic inequality in America is stark.  I won’t belabour the data on this point, but in areas ranging from wealth accumulation to household income, blacks are severely disadvantaged.  Just for one example, black median household wealth is only 8% that of whites.[8]  The consensus amongst sociologists is that these injustices are the legacy of historic and ongoing systemic racism.  However, a national survey reveals that white evangelicals think otherwise: when asked to explain these inequalities, evangelicals appeal to explanations about black culture and blacks lacking motivation or willpower.  Also, compared to other whites, white evangelicals more strongly avoid acknowledging social structures as causes.[9]  A large majority of white evangelicals believe that all Americans have equal opportunity.[10]  The conclusion to draw is that this group largely does not think any structural or systemic solutions are even necessary.

So then, according to white evangelicals, what is the solution?  By and large, the solution is seen as individuals coming to the Christian faith.  As people come to faith and grow in their faith, becoming more sanctified as individuals, racial prejudice dissipates or disappears and the source of America’s race problem is removed.[11]  As part of this process, white evangelicals were open to the prospects of getting to know people of another race, and to working against discrimination in the job market and legal system, but were resistant to systemic solutions like integration efforts in residential neighborhoods.[12]  This is because they take a highly individualistic approach and they think that “equal opportunity” should be protected.  However, systemic solutions are considered too costly and they would purportedly infringe upon individual freedoms in unacceptable ways.[13]  To the small degree that corporate solutions are allowed, it can only go so far as Christian charitable initiatives that are voluntary.  John Perkins is representative when he writes, “the ideal envisioned in scripture is in equality accomplished by voluntary sharing… …  This is not speaking of forced redistribution.  God entrusts wealth to the few so that they will share it with the many.”[14]

Before moving on to compare this with Dr. King’s approach, it’s worth pointing out that these solutions simply don’t work (to put it bluntly).  The individual conversion solution fails to appreciate how slow moral progress can be for the believer, and it doesn’t understand that even the devout can have major blind spots.  But even more problematic, it misidentifies the primary locus of the problem.  The friend making solution also fails.  Research shows that having intimate cross race friendships only has minimal effects on whites—but that having exposure to interracial networks such as schools, churches, and neighborhoods do have a significant effect.  Merely making a friend of color will likely have little impact.[15]  Finally, the Christian charity solution is insufficient.  While these are of course praiseworthy, they are inadequate in scale and generally impotent to alter the systems and structures in which racism resides.

Dr. King’s approach was, of course, quite different.  I should note that there is a sanitized version of Dr. King floating around that overlooks just how radical he was.  Not only did he see racism as fundamentally corporate and structural, he called for strong legal and economic remedies.  This is not to say that he saw no value in personal conversion or that he considered individual prejudice unimportant.  Rather he saw that a fundamentally corporate sin problem such as systemic racism requires a solution of the same sort.

Perhaps best to start with his most controversial speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”  In his sermon delivered at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, King came out against the war in Vietnam, arguing that money and resources being spent in Vietnam should be spent on the war on poverty.  He said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  It is quite evident in this speech that he views racial injustice and economic injustice as intertwined, and both require structural solutions that have a role for the government.  Another key quote from the speech illustrates this point:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.

The difference between King’s approach and that of white evangelicals is quite apparent.

Dr. King’s concerns for economic reform were always with him, although in the last few years of his life they were voiced more directly and explicitly.  A good example of these concerns comes from a sermon he delivered on July 4, 1965 titled, “The American Dream.”  Two years after his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he says that it has become a nightmare.  He speaks of ways to ensure that all Americans can achieve the dream, and these include systemic initiatives.  For example, he argues from the concept of the image of God to a minimum wage that is a living wage.  Furthering this point, in a letter written to his wife in 1952, he calls for a redistribution of wealth in America and speaks of his misgivings about American capitalism, going so far as to express a qualified sympathy for some type of socialism.

Now suppose that Dr. King is essentially on the right track in his solutions to America’s race problems.  Without at this point making strong commitments to any of the particular details about what sort of mixed economy American capitalism should be, and without making any specific commitments as to what mechanisms and policies should be put in place to correct unjust income and wealth and equality, let’s assume that white evangelicals ought to hold views more similar to Dr. King’s.[16]  How might we go about convincing evangelicals of this?        

First, it’s important to consider the possibility that convincing white evangelicals might not really matter.  The percentage of people of color within evangelicalism has been rising and will continue to do so.  Given trends in birth rates and immigration, whites will become the minority in this country, and this also is likely true for evangelicalism in the future.  So one might be tempted to say such a difficult task is unnecessary.  But this would be mistaken for at least two reasons.  First, if we care about white evangelicals as human beings then we should care to address this issue with them, even if they will become the minority soon.  Second, even if they become the minority soon in terms of numbers, it seems unlikely that they will soon become the minority in terms of leadership and cultural dominance.  In other words, it would be both negligent and imprudent to ignore them.

Second, one helpful tool was hinted at earlier: intentional desegregation of church communities.  Much has been made recently of multiethnic churches, and for good reason.  Having one or two friends of color has little effect, but entering into networks of people from other races does bring about significant change.  If we can share life together with believers from other races as we follow Jesus, perspectives can begin to change.  With that said, we should note that such churches are still rare, and if they do exist they don’t often remain multiethnic for more than a few years.  Further, multiethnic churches tend to be normed by the dominant white culture, even if people of color are present.  We must be careful not to underestimate just of difficult of the task this initiative is.

Third, we need to deconstruct the American mythology that tends to inform white evangelicals.  Many instinctively think that, despite some bumps in her history, America is a place where anyone can get ahead with some gumption and hard work.  This was evident in the research: the prevalent belief amongst white evangelicals that equal opportunity has now been largely achieved.  Here, data and history can be put to good use.  Evidence is readily available to dispel the myth of equal opportunity—people of color are severely disadvantaged in all sorts of ways.  Further, we must remind ourselves that America was built on stolen land and stolen labor.  Her lofty ideals of equality as enshrined in our founding documents are laudable.  Her consistent and continuing failure to live up to those ideals must not be diminished.

Finally, evangelicals have a very high regard for Scripture, and Scripture has a great deal to say about corporate sin, corporate repentance, social systems, and social justice.  In other words, if we can show in the Bible that white evangelical’s emphasis on individual conversion is an incomplete view and results in distortions, I’m optimistic that many white evangelicals will begin to see things differently.  Here, the Mosiac law, the Old Testament prophets, and the ethical teachings of Jesus can be quite powerful.

To conclude, the research on white evangelical attitudes towards racial justice can be disheartening.  In his magisterial work ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’, Dr. King said he is more disappointed in the white moderate Christian who is resistant to the civil rights movement than he is in the outright racist Klan member.  Sadly, if Dr. King were to write a letter from a Birmingham jail today I suspect it would need very little revision.  But I don’t think we should just yet give up on evangelicals when it comes to race.  Millennial evangelicals tend to have better views on this than their parents do, and the evangelical rediscovery in the last two decades of social justice as integral to the gospel is beginning to bear fruit in matters of race.  Evangelicals can be persuaded, but it will take a great deal of heavy lifting from prophetic voices to get us there.

[4] Emerson, Michael O. and Smith, Christian, Divided by Faith, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000. P. 74
[5] Ibid. 74
[6] Ibid. 76-77
[7] Ibid. 79
[8] Ibid. 94
[9] Ibid. 95
[10] Ibid. 98
[11] Ibid. 116-117
[12] Ibid.120
[13] Ibid.130
[14] Loritts, Bryan, Ed. Letters to a Birmingham Jail, Moody Publishers, Chicago, 2014.  P. 50
[15] Emerson and Smith, 131.
[16] Of course, those details are tremendously important, and working through them will require careful attention and dialogue.  But for current purposes, I’m considering what it would take to get evangelicals to move anywhere even close to King’s views.