Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Irreverent Right

Rejecting Progressive Historiography

My friend and colleague-through-marriage, Delano Squires, is suspicious of Charlie Kirk. Squires’ no-nonsense attitude has made him a real rising star in the evangelical and political world, and for good reason. I know he desires first the Kingdom of God, and many other things have been added unto him. But his defense of Martin Luther King to Kirk leaves something to be desired, precisely because of its uncharacteristic lack of heavenly mindedness. 

Squires identifies three lines of argumentation from the “irreverent right” (he only names Kirk, but there have been many more critics on social media): first is King’s theology, second his social and economic philosophy, and third, his moral failings. He then eyeballs these issues by the measuring stick those same “irreverent right” commentators use to defend men like Thomas Jefferson, and declares, “he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

For Squires, Kirk and the “irreverent right” (I still prefer Susannah Black-Roberts’ “Decadent Cavaliers”), are really taking aim at the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an aim which is not only “historically unsustainable and politically unwise” but also “intellectually dishonest.” He later backs off but still declares the attacks on MLK to be “sloppy thinking.” After all, it threatens to miscommunicate to the black voter about what conservatives actually want: is it a racialized society or a liberty-driven future?

Delano is probably right to cast doubt on some MLK critics’ motives, but he swallows whales to strain at gnats. Asking why MLK is the only American to get a national holiday is an entirely legitimate question; making the move from the Civil Rights Act to the modern DEI machine is not the task of sophists but the hard study of many educated political philosophers; and finally, to attribute to MLK-critics a double-standard in their judgment of heroes is to accept the upside-down morality of the 60s Revolution, if not earlier. 

Firstly, why the criticism of MLK at all? It is not merely because he was an unrepentant adulterer (he and JFK have that in common), or a heretic (he and Jefferson have that in common), or a plagiarist (though he and Claudine Gay have that in common) or a communist (he wasn’t, but bad friends do corrupt good morals). It is because, in addition to being a deceptive and sexually immoral false teacher in the church of God, he was the face of a political movement to build protected classes of the US citizenry based on race. Whatever MLK wrote in a Birmingham cell or shouted from the steps of Lincoln’s temple, he built his legal legacy on the politicization of a minority to use as leverage for a radical social engineering project. 

This is why some conservative Christians can and do see MLK as a barrier to the establishment of a just America. There is no just or self-governing America while the federal government is the official custodians of protected classes. For Kirk as for many other Americans this past MLK day, it seems clear that paying national honors to the man who sold out his black friends to the permanent custodianship of the federal government, who in turn ran all sorts of vile social, political, and economic experiments on them in the 1960s and since, was a bad deal for everybody. 

Contra Squires, this is not using an “intergenerational daisy chain of political views to link one person’s ideas to someone who practices the opposite of those ideas later on.” King himself supported all the policies one could support in 1968 to get us to where we are now. He practiced the very thing that got Harvard’s president fired. He was just as sexually degenerate as the progressive movement is now, and he even used Scripture to encourage his sexual accomplices, just as theological progressives do in justifying their wickedness. He was educated by and supported the very theological liberals who gutted the black churches and the WASP Mainlines. He was part and parcel of the 1960s revolution. His Civil Rights legislation, which was opposed by his own denomination, the National Baptist Convention (the largest black Protestant denomination in the United States) as being too radical, led him to leave the denomination and help start the Progressive National Baptist Convention which began ordaining women the year after he was killed and has never taken any public stance on marriage–the crippling problem of the black community by Squires’ own admission. 

Great and irreligious men can be appreciated from a distance, even by Christians. This is how many Evangelicals admired the willpower of Napoleon Bonaparte and currently admire Donald Trump. But few levelheaded Evangelicals would support a federal holiday in the name of either “great man.” Tough, rugged men can be admired, and have their statues erected with some disagreement about the merits of their life’s work or their morality. That’s how civic processes work. If that were the extent of MLK’s role in the pantheon—a commemorative stamp every few years, a couple of states’ holidays, a place in Statuary Hall, a recognition of the significance of his march on Washington, and due tribute to the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham—I do not think anyone would be criticizing him. It is precisely the juxtaposition of King’s singular prominence and his personal failings, his oft-quoted words and his legal resume that make him such a glaring example not of the paradox of the Christian faith or sola gratia, but of American Christians being suckered. 

Jamie Smith hailing Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) as the next Christian Realist and successor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr is almost as hilarious as it is painful. But Smith is repeating a time-tested secular liturgy at this point, namely taking a nominally religious figure (in this instance Sen. Warnock), and baptizing him in the “pluralistic Christian/American” stream which is just vague enough to include W.E.B. DuBois, Billy Graham, Abe Lincoln, William Penn (just barely) and Rhode Island’s First Synagogue, while excommunica–er, excluding General Lee, Booker T. Washington, the Puritans (after the first Thanksgiving), and occasionally Thomas Jefferson. This official timeline of religio-politically acceptable Americans is an excellent way of controlling the narrative. It gives the Evangelical in the pews (or on Fox News) plenty of creative ways to come up with Judeo-Christian founding which is more or less harmless, and one which all secular historians can wink at because they all hold the leash on the other end of The Light and the Glory

It is the precise instinct of the acceptable religio-political mind that sets up the dichotomy of Mr. Squires. He rightly notes that according to the agreed upon deBois-Graham-Lincoln-Penn-Synagogue model of American history (Long Arc of JusticeTM for short), we can’t “unfairly judg[e] an important historical figure using modern terms and ideas that don’t fit the realities of the past.” To Mr. Squires’ credit, if this is the defense mounted by the irreverent right when it comes to their other heroes, they deserve this three-day weekend in mid-January, equitable warts and all. 

Squires and I both believe in a Creator who acts in time and will judge all men at the end of time according to a singular, unchanging standard. This ought to bring every man to his knees. But for those freely chosen by no merits of their own, Jesus Christ becomes the only hope in life and in death. “He has fully paid for our sins by his precious blood.” But this great leveling does not mean the righteous are necessarily paragons of civic virtue or that the wicked are necessarily conniving Neros, thus we have to judge public life by a standard beyond personal piety. Men’s public actions, a man’s greatness, must be a standard of applause. And it is in this category too that MLK fails to meet the very high burden of a stand-alone holiday. He was a significant public figure in the United States, but that’s not why he has been elevated to the deistic status he has now. 

This Long Arc of JusticeTM model of history has two tricks that are played against conservatives and Christians. The first is the belief that the current cultural moment has more or less identified the standard by which man ought to live. This has been combated by Fundamentalists in every age who reject the premise outright and has been adopted by more winsome, reasonable conservative types who cede the point while rearranging the furniture of their latest intellectual prison cell to make it more palatable. It’s in this latter category that the “we can’t judge old men by today’s standards” comes in. The implicit premise is that our standard is actually the right one, objectively. And while that might be true, it is usually assumed rather than demonstrated. It cedes the present to the Long Arc of JusticeTM folks, but preserves a past, less educated time before fill-in-the-blank cause was lost. This is a remnant of Social Darwinism applied to history, wherein X defect in man is historically permissible before it became obsolete or unnecessary to human flourishing (the missing link is usually discovered in Abraham Lincoln’s first term). 

Clearly, a rejection of this historical Social Darwinism is dangerous, because it means Evangelicals will have to reconstruct an American history that will force us to confront many more injustices against nature and nature’s God in our history than we have at first realized, while still living and governing in the dystopic present under the command to honor our father and mother. This project would also require genuine faith and trust between black and white Christians. After all, black Christians would have to give up protected status and reject not just DEI but also MLK and the Civil Rights Act, something that would make me very wary were I a black man or woman. Deus nos vindicet. 

The second and far more subtle trick can only be played once every century, but it’s the real end-game move: the Great Man trick. The first part is to find a more-or-less martyred hero which represents the Cathedral’s values but is prima facie representative of a disenfranchised minority. This is what the Royalists did with Charles I after Cromwell, inserting his martyrdom service into the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, it’s what Positivists and Darwinists did with Christopher Columbus in the early 20th century, and what modern Progressives did in the 1980s with Martin Luther King. Christopher Columbus was a Romanist Zealot who wanted to inaugurate the last days by laying waste to the Ottoman Empire, and he thought by traveling around the world and opening new trade routes, he could destroy the Muhammadan armies once and for all, or at least inaugurate the kingdom of God. 

While this apocalyptic project didn’t really appeal to the old Progressives (if they ever knew of it), many secular Darwinists were able to remold Columbus into their historical forbearer: a muscular Copernicus whose courage pioneered modern science and overcame stifling organized religion. As Christopher Columbus statues were erected across the United States between the 1890s and the 1930s, an organized effort was carried out to secularize and modernize the American university. The push for his Romanist canonization from Italian nationalists and Americans had long since fizzled out, but his place in the American pantheon was firmly in place. Columbus served his purpose: elongate American history beyond the Puritans and Calvinist Jamestown and turn the narrative of American history into one of immigration from all religious and social backgrounds, united by a post-magisterial search for scientific truth.  

Martin Luther King Jr. is our Christopher Columbus, and the exact move has been played on conservative Christians. The only difference is that the Cathedral was able to elevate a man who already shared their ideals, they didn’t need to remold him. By taking their Great Man from the poorest and perennially disenfranchised minority, MLK would bind together straggling remnants of the black population into their protected class, and his ministerial credentials would provide sufficient fodder to keep conservatives building alternative and harmless histories that could mold the Civil Rights Agenda into a victory for Thomas Jefferson’s newly concocted Judeo-Christianity. 

Delano Squires is more than justified in his frustration with Charlie Kirk and the irreverent right if they adopt the historical lens of their progressive enemies. To criticize MLK for being the vessel of DEI but then accept the Long Arc of JusticeTM historiography is to keep the system in place which made the abuse possible to begin with, and to remain on the metaphorical plantation. While criticisms of MLK are proper, that cannot be the end goal, but rather a first step towards a Christian historiography independent of the secular Cathedral or racialized materialism. Until further steps are made toward that end, Evangelical political consciousness will remain sublimated, and many blacks will understandably continue to prefer their Martin Luther King to an unclear, unprotected minority status in a post-Christian Right.

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Jackson Waters

Jackson Waters is a Virginian living north of the Potomac with his wife, Emma Leigh, and daughter, Elizabeth Anne. He graduated from Union University and is the former Managing Editor of Providence Magazine. He studies at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is a former Cotton Mather Fellow with American Reformer.

3 thoughts on “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Irreverent Right

  1. The first move by authoritarians use to counter beliefs and positions that they object to is to try to discredit the sources of those beliefs and position rather than to engage with the facts and logic employed in those beliefs and positions. And so Waters’ writing on King shows that he is leaning toward being authoritarian.

    I could address criticisms of King’s plagiarism by referring to Michael Eric Dyson’s take on it and on how cultural practices were involved.

    I could address King’s tragic moral failure of practicing adultery by, without excusing it, noting that not one of his sexually pure white critics ever had to face the tensions of continually seeing family and friends be the brutal victims of racism, or of having multiple attempts or their lives made, or of having their houses bombed while their wives and one of their children were inside.

    I could mention that just as King could not accept Christian Fundamentalism because he believed it to be overly simplistic, he rejected Liberal Christianity because, if memory serves, he found their assessment of people to be over optimistic. And yet he found ways of blending parts of ideologies he could not accept such as when he criticized Capitalism for forgetting that life is social as well as Marxism for forgetting that life is individual. So he proposed that a hybrid of the two isms be made.

    Note that Waters does not examine the facts and logic of any of King’s words. Rather, he prefers to use the rejection of at least some of King’s words by his original denomination an attempt to discredit King without mentioning what spefically was being rejected and why. In addition, Waters is writing from a small government, states-rights conservatism. Note the following quote from his article:

    –‘This is why some conservative Christians can and do see MLK as a barrier to the establishment of a just America. There is no just or self-governing America while the federal government is the official custodians of protected classes.’–

    But wasn’t the federal governments concern against slavery what the Civil War was about and isn’t the position of those conservatives Christians Waters mentions the position of the South when defending slavery? Doesn’t our current form of The Constitution make the federal government the final judge of how to protect certain classes of people? And doesn’t rejection of the federal government’s role in protecting certain classes of people not only unconstitutional, but a return to the days of antebellum when the states could determine which groups had rights and which groups did not? Apparently, the fear that many conservatives have over the power of the federal government is absent when concerning the power their state’s government.

    Finally, as I mentioned at first, Waters works to discredit King without discussing any specifics of what King said, wrote, or promoted. Yes, King was a flawed individual. Couldn’t we say the same thing about some of our heroes like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, and J. Gresham Machen?

    Now below is a quote from King when speaking against America’s participation in the Vietnam War. So perhaps Waters could work just as hard in analyzing the quote as he did in trying to discredit King. BTW, as demonstrated in the quote, King was about much more than battling racism. Part of what King said when speaking against America’s part in the Vietnam War is below:

    –‘I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

    A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. n the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.’–

  2. The writer of this article speaks as if MLK arose in a vacuum. If the church of Jesus Christ had challenged the racial injustices of its day during slavery and the Civil Rights era, MLK would have been unnecessary. His existence is a rebuke to the church’s moral cowardice, weak understanding of the Imago Dei, its racial prejudice and its living out of step with the Gospel (during those critical periods). When His people fail to do what’s right, God appears to use sinful, “unsuitable” men (like MLK) to get the job done. The idea that pursuit of basic racial equality is seen as the creation of a “protected class” is laughable at best and mean spirited at worst. The comfortable often see the pursuit of justice on behalf of those who suffer as “going too far”.

    1. BTW, I can applaud King’s great work in the pursuit of civil rights whilst at the same time, condemning his sin and theological heresy.

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