Did Christianity Positively Impact the Civil Rights Movement?

Martin Luther King Jr. at The March on Washington D.C.
In popular American culture, religion, especially Christianity, is often looked at as a hindrance to progressivism. Many will recall that many Southern slave owners during the Civil War era defended their owning other human beings using quotes from the Bible. Others will point toward the conservatism of the South and it’s largely evangelical and fundamentalist populace. However, this is not true of all Christian faiths. It was especially not true of many leading forces of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.

I would like to demonstrate this by focusing on the most well-known figure of the era: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What I hope to explain is that, for King, his Christian faith was a main impetus for his dedication to progressivism and establishing equality for all African American men and women before the law. I will cover three main ways that King’s Christian faith impacted his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. First, I will discuss King’s defense of breaking the law in his Letter From Birmingham Jail. We will see that King uses an appeal to the Christian moral doctrine of natural law in explaining and justifying his refusal to obey unjust laws. Second, I will look at the brand of eschatology (theology pertaining to the Second Coming of Christ) that King preached and how it contrasts will less socially-interested brands of Protestant Christianity. Lastly, I will draw the connection between King’s commitment to non-violence and his Christian faith. Taking all of this into account, I claim that Christianity, though very certain kinds, can be said to have had a positive impact on the Civil Rights Movement.

Breaking Unjust Laws

In King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, he addressed a question he found himself constantly needing to answer--from the media, from critics, from American citizens: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?”[1] In other words, King is defending himself against the legalist, who might claim that individuals should always follow the law--that following the law is the definition of justice. According to King, such an appeal is simply ludicrous because justice is not synonymous with the law.

Ideally, the law should be a beacon of justice, but there are times when it is not. We judge whether or not a law is good or just, according to King, by seeing if it squares rightly with the moral law or the law of God. In order to defend this view, King appeals to two philosophical authorities: St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Both of these Christian philosophers are famous for championing notions of justice that supersede the temporal order. Essentially, real justice is God’s justice because God is the true lawgiver. King claims that segregation laws are not in line with God’s justice because they are built upon an illusion of difference, they devalue the intrinsic value and equality of every human being. As King explicitly states they do not “uplift human personality.”

Thus, King’s Christian faith gave him a concept of justice that was both objective and extrinsic to the social order, giving him the logical defense for breaking unjust laws propagated by the American government or the state of Alabama. Because of this, King argued that men and women are not only just in breaking unjust laws, they are morally obligated to do so. Continuing to obey unjust laws is to aid in their perpetuation, which would be a violation of justice.

Amillenialism and the Social Gospel

Martin Luther King Jr. preached counter to dominant eschatological theologies in the South, holding what might be described as an a millennial view. Millenialists, on the whole, asserted the literal Second Coming of Christ and adhered to a specific role of the church and the nation of Israel in salvation history. King’s rejection of this theological position was crucial in understanding King’s ardent defense of working towards the establishment of civil rights for African Americans. In order to explain King’s position, I will begin by explaining its opposite, premillennial dispensationalism, a view common among fundamentalist Christians and evangelicals in the South. This view gained much traction in United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. According to LeAnn Snow Flesher, the key features of premillennial dispensationalism include:

  • “a dichotomy between Israel and the Church
  • a narrowly defined true church in contrast to the church
  • a rigidly applied literalism in the interpretation of the Bible
  • an understanding of the kingdom as a postponed, entirely future, Jewish reality
  • a restricted view of the church
  • a rapture that precedes a seven-year Tribulation
  • a second opportunity for Jews to receive Christ's kingdom
  • a distinction between law and grace; and a compartmentalization of Scripture”[2]

Though space does not permit to discuss all of these at great length, the combination of these theological doctrines procures a certain indifference to injustice at the hands of governmental authority. It emphasizes an operative notion of grace and divine justice. In other words, Christ will establish justice at the Second Coming and there is not much we fallen human beings can contribute. Furthermore, it advances a decline narrative, meaning that when societal situations worsen, it is a sign that the Second Coming is on the horizon.

Now, King’s theological commitments could not be more opposite. As Amanat and Bernhardsson claim, Martin Luther King Jr.’s eschatology could be described as amillenial.[3] As a result, there is no understanding that the establishment of justice in the temporal order is something Christ will operatively take care of at the Second Coming. Instead, there is more emphasis on what is famously called the “Social Gospel.” This theology emphasized the church’s role in renewing and establishing peace which squared with, as stated above, the moral law of God. Thus, King’s brand of theology was one that could not be divorced from the church’s involvement in the public sphere. In fact, it demanded the church’s engagement in it to confront social injustice and oppression.

Non-Violence

Finally, we now turn to King’s commitment to nonviolence. Ron Large describes this relationship well, claiming that at the heart of King’s insistence upon nonviolent change is his theology. [4] He believes that it is especially important to consider that King viewed God as “a God of power, strength, and love who acts to fulfill the creative purpose, which is the establishment of community." Non-violence directly appeals to the notion of God, who’s providential purpose for the universe is to bring people together. Violence is in direct conflict with this claim, as it intrinsically causes injury to human relation and connection. Thus, King could not be a proponent of extreme Marxist forms of revolution, which required violent uprising. The means should never undermine the end.

Conclusion

Each of these main theological tenets largely impacted the brand of social reform that King championed in the 1960’s--his transcendent form of justice, rejection of premillenialism, and commitment to nonviolence. Thus, it can be safely said that King’s progressivism was steeply rooted in Christian theology and teaching. Now, this is not to say Christianity, generally speaking, played a positive role in the Civil Rights Movement. However, it is plainly clear that Christianity was used both positively and negatively. It was used positively in the case of Martin Luther King Jr. and other advocates of the Social Gospel, as a means to usher forth nonviolent change. In some cases, it was a hindrance to bringing civil liberties to blacks in the South, appealing to God’s operative role in establishing justice and de-incentivizing Christian engagement with fighting for the poor and oppressed.

References

  1. See: https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf
  2. Flesher, LeAnn Snow. "The Historical Development of Premillennial Dispensationalism." Review And Expositor: An International Baptist Journal 106, no. 1 (February 1, 2009): 35
  3. Amanat, Abbas, and Magnus Thorkell Bernhardsson. Imagining the End : Visions of Apocalypse From the Ancient Middle East to Modern America. London: I.B.Tauris, 2002.
  4. Large, Ron. "Martin Luther King, Jr: ethics, nonviolence, and moral character." The Journal Of Religious Thought 48, no. 1 (Sum 1991): 51-63.

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