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The Liberal, Christian Intellectual Foundations Of Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 23, 2007

Last week the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Matthai Chakko Kuruvila wrote an intriguing retrospective on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s liberal Christian intellectual foundation. Kuruvila’s story revealed connections between King’s intellectual – epistemological – approach to the Bible, and that approach’s connection to what Kuruvila termed King’s “social gospel.” If we can put aside the sometimes pedantic historian’s cap, if you will, and ignore Kuruvila’s potential misuse, or ignorance, of the historical term ‘social gospel’ – as it existed in at the turn of the twentieth century in the United States – then the article has much to recommend.

Many non-historians, and a few historians I think, forget that King is a legitimate object of thought for intellectual historians. For me, who as a young man who spent his formative years in the lily-white Midwest, this association is not always automatic. King was taught as a Baptist minister who principally furthered the civil rights movement. But my simplistic view of King was remedied, once and for all, during graduate coursework when I took an interdisciplinary course on the study of biography. The reading list for that course, constructed on my own volition, contained Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire. Reading Branch constituted my first intimate contact with King’s thought, even though Branch doesn’t profess to be an intellectual historian. Kuruvila’s article brought back memories of that reading. Here are some excerpts from Kuruvila’s story:

– “Many of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most formative writings and sermons — some dating to when King was a precocious 19-year-old seminary student in 1948 — languished for decades in a battered cardboard box. A decade before her death in 2006, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, flew to San Francisco to ask Stanford Professor Clayborne Carson to examine and write about the box’s contents. The texts, which illuminate the theological foundations that America’s most celebrated social activist would repeatedly return to, are revealed in a book to be released today [January 15] — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — by Stanford University’s King Papers Project. The collection includes documents from 1948 to 1963 — the years covered by the book — and ‘gets us closer to King’s true identity’ because they shed new light on how he viewed the Bible, Carson said.”
– “The texts are triggering a discussion about how much King’s rejection of a literal reading of the Bible shaped his social activism. King was not a conformist Christian. He not only eschewed literalism, he was a strident critic of how the Christian church perpetuated injustices such as slavery and segregation.”
– “He returned repeatedly to the idea that true Christianity is practiced through the work for social justice. ‘Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and not concerned about the city government that damns the soul, the economic conditions that corrupt the soul, the slum conditions, the social evils that cripple the soul, is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood,’ King preached in 1962.”
– “It wasn’t known until these papers were released how consistently King had been developing the social gospel. Nor was the extent to which King rejected a biblical literalism. King didn’t believe the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale was true, for example, or that John the Baptist actually met Jesus, according to texts detailed in the King papers book. King once referred to the Bible as ‘mythological’ and also doubted whether Jesus was born to a virgin, Carson said. For some literalists, King’s belief that not every word of the Bible is true would mean he was not a Christian. . . . King ‘wanted to develop an intellectually respectable form of Christianity that did not require people to simply abandon their rational, critical abilities,’ Carson said. The essential truth King saw, according to Carson, was the social gospel — ‘to see the Bible as a message of spiritual redemption and global social justice.'”
– “Carson also said King criticized the other extreme — the belief that the Bible is purely a political text, devoid of faith. Duke Divinity School Professor Richard Lischer, who has extensively studied and written about King’s theology, believes that his rejection of literalism has to be viewed in context. . . . Literalists were also linchpins of segregation, said Lischer, author of The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America. To accomplish his goals, Lischer said, King had to distance himself from them.”
– “The paradox of King is that the development of a close, personal relationship with Jesus also is typical of evangelicals — who view the Bible as the inerrant word of God and would not doubt things like the virgin birth. But most evangelicals allow some room for poetry and metaphor in the Bible. Those who don’t, literalists, are also called fundamentalists.”


With regard to the last lines above, it’s rare to see that kind of distinction made in the popular press. If King were even more respected among U.S. citizens, and that “paradox” more widely acknowledged, then there might not be this feeling – about and within the Evangelical movement – that Evangelicals are, or must always be, social and political conservatives. In fact, even among some of my Evangelical family members there is a mistaken sense, due to Biblical literalism, that they are absolutely compelled to be conservative. I doubt I’m alone in seeing this phenomenon. This association partially explains why Jim Wallis, a fairly well-known liberal Evangelical, was cited by Kuruvila toward the end of the piece while conservative Evangelicals are absent. The latter generally find little living inspiration in King’s thought.

King needs to be thoroughly vetted by intellectual historians. Because social justice is an ethical, philosophical proposition, it is legitimate fodder for historians of ideas. Too often, it seems to me, historians focus on the objects of social justice – the activities – rather than the sources of the doctrine. King’s desire to create an “intellectually respectable form of Christianity,” according to Carson, necessitates that intellectual historians evaluate that endeavor in order to determine how, and to what extent, King reached his goal.

Perhaps I’m simply unaware of intellectual historian’s attempts to understand King? Maybe Richard Lischer’s abovementioned work is a likely example of that endeavor? If any readers of this post are aware of other works, great or poor, attempting to understand the mind of King, please comment. – TL

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