Was MLK A Christianist?


Alan Jacobs criticizes my desire to see Christianism replaced with a more private, less political Christianity:

[Martin Luther King, Jr.] could have stayed in his prayer closet instead of politicking; he could have attended to his own failures as a Christian, which of course were many; he could have forgiven white Southerners instead of judging them. But no. He became an "outside agitator," marching into ordinary American communities and telling them that their local laws, and indeed in some cases federal laws, were not to be obeyed — and why? Because they conflicted with the law of God! Notice the arrogance with which he associates his cause with God Himself.

His bottom line:

So maybe, just maybe, it's not an utterly privatized and "libertarian" Christianity that we need but rather one that reads the Bible better. But if that's true then the term "Christianism" is vacuous and misleading, and Andrew needs to step back and start over.

Christianism, in my definition, is the fusion of politics and religion for the advancement of political goals. And in that core sense, yes, King was a left-wing Christianist. He used the Bible to make his case, and fought to remove liberties from his fellow citizens in order to expand liberty for all in the name of God. I think it's possible that Christianism can lead to good results. How can one appreciate a man like Wilberforce without it? But it can equally lead to bad results: slavery, Prohibition, the subjugation of women, the persecution of gays, etc. All these were buttressed and perpetuated by Christianist power-politics for centuries. The question is: does this fusion of politics and religion, overall, help or hurt our polity?

I'd say it hurts, because the kind of absolute conviction that divine sanction gives to people is inherently dictatorial and indifferent to the compromises necessary in a diverse, pluralist society. And King's Christianism was crucially leavened by his manifest Christianity. I'd argue that it was his and his movement's moral example of Christian non-violence that truly changed America's heart and broke the politicized Christianist deadlock between the two camps. He didn't just preach his faith as politics, but he practised it in a way very close to Christ's, seeking punishment, enduring imprisonment, and risking death, to bear witness to a deep moral truth about the dignity of every person. This submission to violence, rather than its gun-totin' celebration, is what distinguishes King's Christianism from so much of today's. It embraced its powerlessness, as a paradoxical way to change the world. And that, truly, is Christianity more than Christianism. It is an indirect approach to power.

Imagine a pro-life movement that never sought to make abortion illegal but tried solely to highlight its profound moral implications. Or a Christian movement that simply upheld the virtues of traditional opposite-sex marriage, rather than seeking to ban gay marriage. It would remain a moral movement with possible political consequences. But it seeks first of all to change people's hearts and minds; not corral majorities to control other people's lives. It is about Christian witness, not Christianist power.

Similarly, the gay rights movement is peopled with many Christians, myself included, who deep down view their cause as advancing the Kingdom of God on earth. Our most powerful tool in all this is moral suasion, non-violence and personal testimony. But, for my part, I have never argued for the rights of anyone else to be abridged, just that the government itself should cease baselessly discriminating against some its own citizens. And while I have been quite candid in the religious and spiritual basis of my belief in gay dignity, you will search Virtually Normal for a single sectarian or religious argument for it.

Far from vacuous and misleading, I think this distinction is critical in rescuing conservatism from divine and ideological distortion.

(Photo: Mohammed Abed/Getty.)