The Church Christian Living Justice

Why Martin Luther King Jr. Rejected Protestant Liberalism

Alex Wright

One of the reasons many evangelicals struggle to understand systemic racism and injustice is that we often limit sin to individual acts and attitudes, and we fail to see that the social, political, and economic systems that sinful people put in place are also infected.

When I visited my home this past Christmas, I remembered that the largely suburban “belt” in which my hometown is located lies a half-hour north of Detroit. Detroit suffered immensely in the latter half of the 20th century, as it increasingly felt the effects of “white flight.” Though the history is complex, much of Detroit’s pain and decay can be attributed to the sinful unwillingness of white people to live alongside African Americans, and share their resources.

When my family moved to the metro-Detroit area, we were not thinking “We need to avoid African Americans.” Individually, we were not thinking in an overtly racist way. And yet, the “urban center with a suburban ring” system in which we found ourselves, was created because of unjust attitudes and laws. Sin was at work in that system. Evil in the human heart is so great, that it flourishes in the systems we create and perpetuate.

Martin Luther King Jr. came to the same understanding of human sin.

When King began seminary in the spring of 1948, he was a fully committed champion of the Protestant Liberalism of the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch was one of the leading proponents of the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. King became attracted to Rauschenbusch’s emphasis on Christian social activism.[1]

While growing up in Atlanta, King experienced first-hand the injustice dealt to the African-American community. As a result, he became increasingly frustrated with the “fundamentalism” of many preachers in the black church, who seemed to urge their parishioners to quietly accept injustice in the world as they waited for heaven.[2] On reading Rauschenbusch, King believed he had finally discovered a theology advocating a “socially relevant faith.”

Rauschenbusch, and the Social Gospel movement in general, sought to equate Christianity with certain moral principles, which could be used to promote social justice and better living conditions for all men. He wrote to combat the systemic evils of capitalistic exploitation and the industrial revolution. So far, so good.

However, for the Social Gospel movement, the Kingdom of God became equated with a certain political and economic system, which man on his own could bring about.[3] Along with this movement came the rejection of many important doctrines, such as Scripture’s inerrancy and the importance of Christ’s atonement for sin.

Initially, King embraced Rauschenbusch because he sought to apply Christianity to the “whole man,” rather than just his soul. Later, however, King came to reject the liberalism of Rauschenbusch for this reason: Protestant Liberals failed to recognize the natural wickedness of men.

Rauschenbusch promoted the idea that natural man was good and perfectible, if only they would imitate Jesus’ character. As a result, most Protestant Liberals bought into the belief that progress was “inevitable.”  Sin was limited purely to social systems, like capitalism.[4]

Because of his own experiences, however, King became convinced that man was innately proud and selfish. He came to believe along with neo-orthodox theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr that the “cult of inevitable progress” was a farce that blinded Protestant Liberals from seeing man’s evil. Niebuhr also helped King to see the “glaring reality of collective evil.” Yes, systemic sin was real, as Raschenbusch taught, but its source was the heart of man.[5]

As King looked back on the history of slavery, he saw “reason” used to justify cruelty. The reason that Protestant Liberals often saw as the key to social progress could be easily manipulated to serve wicked ends. [6]

As Christians seeking justice and loving mercy, it’s important to remember what King came to realize: Sin is real and it springs from the heart of man. “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).

King also came to recognize that sin exists both in large systems (such as Jim Crow segregation) and in individual hearts. Today, many in the evangelical church tend to only emphasize the individual, to the expense of the systemic. As a result, we become blind to seeing the unjust systems that perpetuate the urban decay of a Detroit, MI or a Jackson, MS.

Only when we see how serious sin is will we understand how it infects every arena of life. Only then can we effectively apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to both individual human hearts, and human systems.

[1] Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King Jr. , p. 26.

[2] Oates, p. 59.

[3] Oates, p. 26.

[4] Oates, p. 26

[5] Oates, p. 35.

[6] Oates, p. 35.

8 thoughts on “Why Martin Luther King Jr. Rejected Protestant Liberalism

  1. Gary

    Actually, he didn’t reject theological liberalism:

    Alex Wright completely misrepresents King.

  2. RMS3

    So, just why did Detroit suffer when whites moved out? Was a white majority required to prevent blacks from engaging in violent and petty crime and indolence? Does responsible govt both and private and civic – beyond the reach of blacks

    To categorize the desire to remove one’s family home away from crime and squalor as a “sin” is worse than drivel, it’s fatuous false testimony, dishonest and sub-Christian. What are they teaching at seminaries these days?

  3. Bill Smith

    Alex, do you actually live in Jackson? And whether you live in the city or elsewhere, how long have you lived in the area. I was a student at RTS 1969-72. We rented a house in west Jackson, just off the Road of Remembrance is you know where that is. We were perfectly safe. The neighborhoods around the Seminary were nice with faculty and students living in houses there. I worked he summers of 1970 and 71 in the only Black Presbyterian church in the city – on Bailey Avenue. Let me ask you how often you go, and if you have a wife take her down Bailey Avenue or around the Road of Remembrance? Jackson has gone to hell. Is some of that the result of slavery and Jim Crow? Yes. But most of it? No. The civic life of Jackson is not desirable for those, white or black, who can afford to escape. Worse than that, it is dangerous, Is this the fault of white or black who could move north? No, it’s not. When government is both corrupt and incompetent, the quality of life poor and getting worse, culture falling apart and people are not safe, they will either wall themselves in or leave. I lived in Belhaven Heights in the mid part of the first decade of this century. Would I today? No. In fact there are very, very few places in Jackson I would dare live. My guess is you have not been in MS or Jackson long. It’s pretty clear you do not know the State or city. White people in MS have a great deal to answer for, but the state of Jackson today is not one of them.

  4. Roger McKinney

    ” much of Detroit’s pain and decay can be attributed to the sinful unwillingness of white people to live alongside African Americans, and share their resources.”

    It seems racist to me to assert that black people need whites living next door or they can’t prosper. It was just as racist to insist that black teachers couldn’t teach so black children needed white teachers.

    And both fly in the face of history and modern reality. Today there are many wealthy blacks who became wealthy in spite of whites. In the 1920s, the black business district of my hometown, Tulsa, was so rich it was known as black Wall Street. Whites rioted and burned the entire district to the ground, but blacks were so wealthy they rebuild and became even richer than before.

    Black wealth was destroyed with the Civil Rights movement. Black customers suddenly abandoned black businesses for white ones, but whites didn’t reciprocate. Thousands of black businesses disappeared along with their wealth.

    Detroit doesn’t need whites living there. BTW, the wealthy blacks fled with the whites. There are plenty of wealthy black people who could transform Detroit. But they won’t because Detroit’s only problem is decades of socialism following in the footsteps of Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch’s policies were no different from those of the USSR and Communist China, both of which destroyed the wealth of their countries. .

  5. Michael

    Super dumb question, but how can a system have sin? I get that bad systems may have been produced by sinful people, and some done so specifically to harm others. What I don’t understand is how a system can have sin. That suggests a system can repent, but a system in inanimate. It has no soul. It is not in control of itself.

  6. Bill Smith

    It does not matter, as I say in my blog – you might want to read the whole thing – if you say he is a Civil Rights hero and worthy of the special day set aside to honor him. The trouble comes when you hold him up as also a Christian hero whose actions were an outworking of his faith who shows us the way to work out our Christian faith in matters of race. Unless he changed his views later, King’s beliefs were not Christian beliefs. If his beliefs were those of which we have documentary knowledge, then his beliefs were heretical.

  7. Storm International Darren Keane

    Is so important how his beliefs are called? More importantly, what MLK did for racial reconciliation.

  8. Bill Smith

    From the Blog:

    At least in his student days Dr. King held typically liberal theological views. Did he change them? Some say he came to see neo-orthodoxy as a needed corrective to liberalism. Others say that in his latter years he identified increasingly with the sufferings of Jesus. Jim Wallis, the evangelical progressive social activist, apparently believes that King’s theology developed in a more conservative direction:

    His theological liberalism was not an adequate foundation for what he would face later…I would argue that the more deeply one moves in the struggle for social justice … personal faith becomes more important.
    However, one writer who interviewed the professor to whom Mrs. King entrusted the early writings of Dr. King says:

    Dr. Clayborne Carson, a world-renowned King scholar and director of the King Papers Project at Stanford, told me that he had not seen any documentary evidence of a later shift in King’s thinking from his early views on Christian doctrines. He also said King may have found creative ways to avoid expressing his unorthodox views, as he was trained in a liberal seminary but served a Baptist congregation.

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