I am deeply heartened that we in the evangelical community are beginning to give the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. his due as not only a civil-rights leader but as a man of God. We recognize him as such in my church, which is socially progressive but theologically conservative, and the Christian Leadership Concepts program, an intense two-year course for men which is winding down for me, has as part of its curriculum "Strength to Love," his classic series of sermons that was first published in 1963. On top of that, many of you know that Dr. King is a large part of my Christian testimony; it was he who showed me in a practical sense just what the Gospel of Jesus Christ was about.
That being said, however, it would behoove us to admit that, when he was active, many of us dismissed his Biblically-based efforts toward justice and reconciliation. Now that he's gone to his reward it's easy to see that he was ultimately right, but even today many of us run away from the historical fact that evangelicals for the most part generally ignored him, with many even opposing him. Indeed, in that day only Billy Graham recognized who he was and took a lot of heat for his own commitment to integrate the Body.
I'm hoping that embracing this reality will cause repentance.
Many conservative Christians, for example, will insist that Dr. King was a committed Republican who would by inference likely support the modern conservative agenda were he here today. History and his own words, however, suggest otherwise.
He didn't even get involved in political campaigns until 1964, when he endorsed President Johnson's election to his own full term and, in an interview with Playboy magazine, denounced Republican challenger Barry Goldwater afterwards as "the most dangerous man in America [who] gave aid and comfort to the most vicious racists and the most extreme rightists in America." However, he ended up breaking with Johnson over the war in Vietnam and in 1968 was considering throwing his support to either Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy. (Of course, he didn't live to see the results of that election.)
In his 1956 address "Facing the Challenge of a New Age," he complained, "The Democrats have betrayed us by capitulating to the whims and caprices of the southern dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed us by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing reactionary northerners. This coalition of southern Democrats and northern Republicans defeats every proposed bill on civil rights."
I also find it ironic that it was President Reagan, the first candidate whom evangelicals openly supported, who in 1983 signed the legislation making Dr. King's birthday a Federal holiday -- upon doing so he responded to political ally Sen. Jesse Helms, who voted against it on the grounds that King was a Communist, “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?”, referring to FBI files that would supposedly prove his alleged pro-Communist activity. Indeed, according to an editorial in the Boston Globe, Reagan, no fan of Dr. King's, upon his assassination referred to the civil-rights movement as “a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break,” never mind that Dr. King broke the law only reluctantly and only when all other options were exhausted.
Clearly, certain folks just didn't "get it," and it's one reason the church is still sadly divided along racial lines (though that is slowly changing). I just hope that we evangelicals eventually begin to abandon our commitment to a socially divisive ideological agenda for the sake of the reconciliation that our LORD and Savior Jesus Christ not only called for but also died to promote.