Home / World News / Why so many white churches resisted Martin Luther King Jr.’s call – The Denver Post

Why so many white churches resisted Martin Luther King Jr.’s call – The Denver Post

By Jemar Tisby, Special to The Washington Post

Every January, Americans start talking about Martin Luther King Jr. Around the annual holiday that commemorates his birthday and on through Black History Month, we pause to reflect on the life and legacy of this civil rights leader. The famous quotes start reappearing, and commentators offer earnest evaluations of the “dream.”

This year will bring additional tributes to King as April marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination, a moment that many consider the end of the most dynamic phase of the civil rights movement.

Americans rightfully remember King and the civil rights leaders who labored before, alongside and after him. But a curious thing has happened in the half-century since his death – those who opposed him now valorize him.

One group of people, in particular, has made an almost complete shift in their conception of King: white evangelicals. They too share quotes and write tributes to King. They celebrate his convictional call in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and quote his line about Sunday morning segregation when championing multiethnic churches.

This year, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the evangelical network the Gospel Coalition are putting on an event in Memphis, Tennessee, in April for the historic anniversary.

Back in 1961, the attitude among many evangelical leaders was much different. That year, King spoke at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Although he was there at the invitation of a professor, powerful Southern Baptists opposed his visit.

As historian Taylor Branch wrote in his biography of King, “Within the church, this simple invitation was a racial and theological heresy, such that churches across the South rescinded their regular donations to the seminary.”

King saw an indissoluble link between the Christian faith and the responsibility to change unjust laws and policies. But his emphasis on the social dimensions of Christianity, especially regarding race relations, angered many white evangelicals in his day.

Some Christians opposed King’s activism because they considered race relations a purely “social” issue and not a spiritual one. They tended to believe that the government should not force people of different races to integrate. Some even thought that segregation was a biblical mandate.

King was raised in the black church, which did not view people’s material condition as wholly separate from their spiritual condition. The message they preached was one of liberation for both soul and body.

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