As the white editors of Christianity Today surveyed Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent civil disobedience on behalf of civil rights in the summer of 1964, they were not impressed. “For preachers to argue that ‘civil disobedience’ is justified helps to encourage those who would resort to violence,” CT declared that August.

A half century later, CT formally apologized for its opposition to King and the civil rights movement. By then, the magazine had published numerous pieces lauding King as an example of Christian love whose words and actions offered a needed call to repentance for white evangelicals.

But King remains an awkward figure for those of us who are both white and evangelical—two things that King was not. Many of us would like to herald him as a prophet, but when we do, we risk co-opting King for our own purposes rather than understanding him on his own terms.

White American evangelicals have typically reacted to King in one of three ways: (1) criticizing his Christian practice as heretical or hypocritical; (2) heralding him as a prophet of love whose teachings can heal our racial divisions and cleanse us of the sin of racism; or (3) highlighting his commitment to nonviolence and an alleged colorblind American ideal as an alternative to more militant forms of Black nationalism.

There is at least some truth in every one of these three reactions to King—but in each case, white evangelicals have frequently gone too far. In each case, we have too often tried to fit King into our own evangelical categories instead of understanding him on his own terms.

King’s non-evangelical Christian theology

King was not an evangelical. Evangelicals have traditionally seen the answer to the problem of sin primarily in individual conversion. This was the message of the 18th- and 19th-century revivalists, and it was the message of Billy Graham in the 20th century.

But King understood sin primarily in structural terms. From the time that he was first conscious of the world around him until the day he died, King’s life was shaped by the structural reality of racial segregation—a legal, social, and cultural system that refused to treat him with full human dignity simply because of his skin color. King viewed his call to the ministry not primarily as a call to save souls for the afterlife but as a call to bring the kingdom of God to bear on an evil system that did not treat people as people.

The ultimate way to overcome evil was through the power of the cross—but not the cross of Christ’s judicial atonement, as white evangelicals believed, but the cross of collective “unearned suffering.” Nonviolent activism could expose the evils of structural injustice and bring about a national repentance as the broader public was moved by the sight of seeing oppressed people showing love toward their oppressors.

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King was neither the first nor the last to preach this message, but he was more effective than most, partly because his view of Christianity and American democracy appealed not only to African American Christians but also to many white liberals. Unlike the early 20th-century Black nationalist Marcus Garvey or King’s contemporary Malcolm X, King grounded his calls for racial justice in the nation’s founding documents—the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal” and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

He also grounded his principles of racial equality, human dignity, and nonviolent activism against injustice in the parts of the Bible that held the greatest appeal for white liberal Protestants: the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Golden Rule, and the biblical prophetic tradition.

To many white liberal Christians, King’s message of love and justice—especially backed by his willingness to go to jail and risk his life for his beliefs—seemed to be a perfect reflection of the version of the social gospel and the tenets of American democracy that they already believed, even if they had sometimes applied these principles inconsistently on matters of race. They lauded King as a modern prophet and put him on the editorial masthead at The Christian Century, the leading liberal Protestant magazine of the time.

White evangelical Christians found King’s message far more objectionable. King’s views of the Bible, conversion, and the Atonement did not match their theology. Nor did his political views coincide with theirs. To most white evangelicals, international communism was one of the greatest threats to religious freedom, and they therefore supported the Vietnam War and America’s Cold War mission.

King, as a pacifist and Christian socialist who was often critical of the US government, opposed the Vietnam War and engaged in a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience—a campaign that Christianity Today and Billy Graham denounced. They believed it would potentially undermine America’s anti-communist mission and thought that it violated the New Testament’s requirement for Christians to submit to governing authorities.

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White evangelical repentance

It took a long time after his death for most white evangelicals to fully make peace with King. In the late 1960s and 1970s, some young evangelical progressives who wanted to make racial reconciliation a central priority for the evangelical movement venerated King, but many conservative evangelicals ignored him. Not until the late 1980s did Christianity Today magazine begin regularly publishing hagiographic retrospectives on King.

When conservative evangelicals rediscovered King in the late 20th century, they began using his historical memory as a way to call white evangelicals to repentance for the sin of individual racism. The reason, they said, white evangelicals (including themselves) had opposed King in the 1960s was that they’d had racist attitudes. But in retrospect, they saw the light and realized that King was the true Christian while they themselves had been the Pharisaical sinners.

This repentance was undoubtedly genuine and sorely needed, but it was also based on at least a partial misunderstanding of King. His message was primarily social rather than individual, and his goal was to transform American democracy and lead African Americans to the promised land—not merely to heal white Christians’ hearts so that they could begin worshiping at multiracial churches.

Some of the white Christians who now lauded King—such as Jerry Falwell, who in 1988 called King “everybody’s American hero”—also supported then-president Ronald Reagan’s Cold War nuclear arms buildup and opposed the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader who had been King’s associate. It is highly unlikely that King would have approved of these white evangelical political stances had he lived long enough to see them. And white evangelicals likely would’ve been far less approving of King were he still alive in the late 1980s and championing causes similar to the ones Jackson endorsed.

In attributing their prior rejection of King to past racist sins for which they had now repented, some of the white evangelicals who adopted King as a prophetic hero failed to fully grapple with the theological distance between King’s message and their own.

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It wasn’t merely hatred of Black people or opposition to racial integration that had prompted evangelicals in the 1960s to repudiate King; it was profound differences in theological and political orientation. Those differences were as wide as ever in the 1980s and 1990s, but now that King was dead, it was easy for white evangelicals to ignore them.

The King that they now heralded was a mythical King who was far more evangelical and conservative than he ever had been in real life.

King as conservative hero

At the very moment that white evangelicals were beginning to rediscover King, many younger African Americans and white liberals were starting to distance themselves from him. The release of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X in 1992 popularized Malcolm’s Black nationalism for a younger generation of African Americans who were tired of seeing white people herald Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of nonviolent Black passivity.

PBS’s landmark documentary series Eyes on the Prize (1987) and Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (1988) represented the high-water mark for hagiographic treatments of King from American historians.

After the late 1980s, depictions of King became more critical, with historians much more likely to note his condescending (or even abusive) treatment of women and his conflicts with younger activists. These new histories suggested the most courageous people in the struggle were actually local activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses or Black Power advocates like Stokely Carmichael.

In this context, white conservative evangelicals doubled down on their appropriation of King, lauding him not only as a believing Christian (in contrast to Black Power radicals who were not) but also as a colorblind conservative whose dream of a world where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” offered an implicit critique of affirmative action. The fact that the real King supported affirmative action and democratic socialism during the final years of his life was lost on those who understood King only through his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Understanding King today

As a white evangelical Christian who is also an academic historian, I face three questions as I think about King: (1) How should I understand King as a historical figure, in the context of his own time and place? (2) How should my understanding of King affect my own understanding of Christian theology and the Bible? and (3) How should my understanding of King and Christian theology affect my response to issues of racial justice today?

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The first question is the easiest to answer: King was a complicated figure, but it seems clear that his theological and political views differed substantially from those of white evangelicals both then or now. To understand King’s views, we have to understand the history of the Black social gospel, as theological historian Gary Dorrien has argued.

The second question is more uncomfortable: Does white evangelicalism’s resistance to the ethics of King show that we’ve gotten our theology wrong, and should we therefore become converts to the Black social gospel?

We need to choose our Christian theology based on our understanding of biblical truth, not merely on our attraction to a particular way of life or our admiration of a Christian principle in action. But whenever we find evidence that our own theological tradition hasn’t adequately rejected a given sin, like racism, we should identify the theological blind spots that kept our tradition from seeing that evil. We should adopt instead a theological corrective that includes not only our own understandings of the Bible but also whatever biblical truths we find in other Christian traditions, including King’s theology and the theology of other Black Christians.

Regardless of our understanding of King, we also need to answer the question of how we should respond to racial injustice today—and whether we should appeal to King’s words when we do so. Because it’s easy to quote King selectively or out of context, we need to be careful about using King to weigh in on current policy debates, especially if we’re tempted to use his words to argue against a particular form of Black activism.

At the same time, King’s example of active resistance to evil through nonviolent love is still just as inspirational as it was during his lifetime—it can still convict and inspire us, even if we might not agree with all his theological views. I appreciate the humility of the white Christians of the late 20th century who recognized that King’s attitudes were far more Christlike than theirs and who found in King an impetus to repent. Their historical understanding of King may have been incomplete in some cases, but their humility was laudable.

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And so, on this 95th anniversary of King’s birth, I think we need to approach King with a similar humility. We need to realize that his story is not our own, and his understanding of the Christian faith was probably different from ours. He was a man of both deep flaws and profound insights. He was not the only civil rights hero or even the best one.

But he was deeply engaged with the Christian message of justice and reconciliation, and there is much we have yet to learn from his life as it was—not as we might wish or imagine it to be.

Daniel K. Williams teaches American history at Ashland University and is the author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship.

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