Jon Kuhrt encourages us to remember the motivation behind MLK's activism.
The Secularisation of Martin Luther King
by Jon Kuhrt
The speech is widely considered as the most inspirational of the 20th century. However, alongside the appreciation there is a consistent tendency of commentators to downplay or eliminate the Christian faith in King’s activism and the wider civil rights movement.
A Baptist Minister
So frequently is King is referred to as a ‘Civil Rights leader’ that many people don’t even know that he was and always remained a Baptist Minister until his death. Despite the campaigning, the marches, the imprisonments and the Nobel prizes, almost every Sunday he would preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery or later on at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta.
It was because of his role as a Minister that, aged 26, he was asked to lead the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery. It was due to his role as a Minster that he developed his amazing powers of oratory. And it was as a Minister that he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago and said
‘I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope…With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.’
King’s life and work simply make no sense when detached from his theological commitments and its roots in the Church. Its understandable when people abbreviate his title from ‘Rev. Dr’ to ‘Dr’. But why did he even have the title ‘Dr’? It was because he had a PhD in theology.
Beyond the media
The secularising of King’s legacy runs deep. My eldest son’s class studied him at school and he was taught all about the bus boycotts, the marches and the speeches. But not once did anyone mention that King was a Church Minister.
Another example is the memorial erected to commemorate King in Washington. On the monument, 14 of King’s quotes are re-produced. Whilst all these quotes are powerful and inspirational it is telling that none of them include any overtly spiritual or theological references.
This treatment of Martin Luther King is just one example of a secularising ideology which marginalises aspects of history that do not fit with its worldview. It is an ideology which is far more comfortable when Christianity is portrayed as oppressive rather than liberationist, regressive instead of progressive and hate-filled rather than hope-filled. It wants to simultaneously celebrate the achievements of Martin Luther King because of his work for justice and inclusion but also deny the spiritual motivations which fired his work. It likes many of the fruits of faith but despises the roots from which these fruits grow.
I have seen this time and again within the charity world in which I work. It leads to history being re-written; priests and ministers who started charities in the past are now described as social activists or reformers. Faith has become an embarrassment and is airbrushed away.
Of course, no one can pretend that the Church is blameless. Like most prophets, the target of most of King’s criticisms were religious people who wanted to maintain segregation. Just as King used theology to attack injustice, there were plenty who used theology to maintain injustice.
But this reality does not justify an anti-historical secularisation of King’s work. Just as Wilberforce’s campaign for the abolition of slavery, or Shaftesbury’s action against child labour, the US Civil Rights movement had faith at its very core.
An integrated spirituality
The best example of how integrated Christian spirituality was in the Civil Rights movement is a simple one-page pledge which King’s campaigners were asked to sign during his campaign in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 (the same year as the famous speech). This Pledge is re-produced in a short book called The Words of Martin Luther King. It reads:I hereby pledge myself – my person and body – to the Nonviolent Movement. Therefore I will keep the following Ten Commandments: 1. Meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus 2. Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory. 3. Walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love. 4. Pray daily to be used by God that all men and women might be free. 5. Sacrifice personal wishes that all might be free. 6. Observe with friend and foes the ordinary rules of courtesy. 7. Perform regular service for others and the world. 8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue and heart. 9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health. 10. Follow the directions of the movement leaders on demonstrations.
This pledge show so clearly the integration of justice and faith which was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement. It makes a nonsense of any attempts to secularise the work of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King.
Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and chronic addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football…but loves cricket.