Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race: Part 3 - Gospel Politics

Matthew Tuininga
In his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" Martin Luther King, Jr., charged the "moderate white clergy" with failing to grasp the clear implications of the Gospel for the South's social institutions. "I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, 'Follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.' ... In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, 'Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,' and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular."[1]  

At the time the vast majority of conservative southern Presbyterians dismissed King's rhetoric as yet another manifestation of the liberal Social Gospel that was dragging the mainline churches away from confessional orthodoxy. Committed to their doctrine of the spirituality of the church, southern Presbyterians were confident that while the Gospel required them to love their black brothers and sisters, and even to maintain spiritual unity with them, it did not require them to embrace these neighbors socially or politically. A good number of them, on the contrary, believed that such an embrace would lead to sexual amalgamation in violation of God's natural moral law. As I demonstrated in Part 2 of this series, they were convinced that the Old Testament confirmed this belief.

King accepted the most basic Reformed tenants about the authority of God's natural moral law. Indeed, he appealed to the great theologians who first articulated the set of distinctions between the moral, civil, and ceremonial law on which those Reformed tenants were based. In explaining when civil disobedience is and is not justified, King invoked Augustine's distinction between just and unjust laws, including the tenant that "An unjust law is no law at all." How might one determine whether or not a particular law is just? "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law."[2] 

With all of this King's southern Presbyterian critics would have readily agreed, as it comported nicely with the teachings of the Westminster Confession of Faith. But whereas conservative southern Presbyterians tended to interpret the relevance of God's natural moral law for society and politics through the prism of the Old Testament, King interpreted it in light of what he understood to be the meaning of the Gospel for the dignity of the individual human being: "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality... Isn't segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?"[3] 

All of this might sound awfully abstract - and suspiciously liberal - in the ears of a conservative evangelical. King did, after all, cite Paul Tillich when offering his definition of sin, and his language about human personality came from the personalist school of thought that was preeminent at Boston University, from which King had received his Ph.D. Yet as Rufus Burrow, Jr. argues, King did not come to believe in the dignity of human beings through his academic study of personalism, but through his evangelical upbringing in Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church. His fundamentalist parents - his father was Ebenezer's pastor - emphasized that human beings have infinite worth because they are made in the image of God and they are the children of a loving God.[4]  As King put it, "The worth of an individual ... does not lie in the measure of his intellect, his racial origin, or his social position. Human worth lies in relatedness to God. An individual has value because he has value to God."[5]  

For King, however, it is the Gospel of Christ that demonstrates how much human beings are loved and valued by God. It is the love of Christ that informs the moral order according to which God governs the universe, and which he calls human beings to imitate. King's understanding of the moral law was informed not primarily by Old Testament shadows, therefore, but by its New Testament fulfillment in the love of Christ. His social vision centered not on the Tower of Babel or the separation of Israel from the nations, but on the beloved community established in Christ. This meant that it emphasized inclusion rather than exclusion. "When we love on the agape level, we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them."  It is this sort of love, according to King, that should inform and characterize our social and political engagement.

It is important to stress that King was no utopian idealist. He wholeheartedly embraced Reinhold Niebuhr's critique of the liberal social gospel, with its insistence on the pervasive sinfulness of human beings. It was precisely King's realism about human nature, and about what should be expected from social and political structures, that persuaded him of the need for prophetic activism on behalf of justice. Justice wasn't going to come about by itself. Segregationists would not suddenly be persuaded to give up their power and treat black people fairly by spiritual appeals to love. Civil rights activists had to work through the creative tension of civil disobedience to bring about coercive legal and political change. Thus the Gospel had to inform the goals and methods of political activism (love and nonviolence), but it could not be conflated with such activism or its accomplishments. Black Christians knew better than anyone that in a sinful world the path of loving engagement is often that of suffering and self-sacrifice. 

My intention here is not to defend King's theology as a whole, nor is it to suggest that King provides a good model for pastors wrestling with the appropriate level of civic engagement. The former is beyond my expertise. With respect to the latter, there is no question that King's degree of activism became the inspiration for a generation of clergy activists of both the left and the right, and while King's own impact was decisively salutary, the political activism of those who followed him has often been much less so. There are reasons for that, beyond the scope of this essay, and they tend to support the claim that pastors should focus on preaching and teaching the word of Christ rather than on leading political campaigns.

My concern, however, is to encourage evangelicals to wrestle with King's determination to allow the Gospel to shape Christians' civic and political engagement. To be sure, we must take care not to conflate the two. King himself did often conflate the kingdom of Christ and temporal politics in his rhetoric, I believe, as did the broader trajectory of mainline clerical activism that took its inspiration from him in following decades. We cannot use political means to establish the kingdom of God, nor should we confuse the liberation that comes through Christ with the justice that can be accomplished through politics.

But in recent decades evangelicals have struggled with the opposite problem of conflating God's law with his will for American politics. This tendency was illustrated by segregationist theologians' willingness to appeal to the Old Testament to justify the politics of exclusion, but it found new expression in the clerical activism of the early Christian Right, determined as it was to restore "Christian America" according to the precepts of the Bible and the promises of God for Israel (such as 2 Chronicles 7:14). Whatever was intended by pastors such as Jerry Falwell, James Robison, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye, their witness was received by America as one of judgment rather than of justice. Like those southern theologians who defended segregation (Jerry Falwell, of course, was one of them), they too often embraced the politics of exclusion rather than inclusion, taking their inspiration from Israel rather than from Christ. The same self-righteousness that led their forbears to defend racial segregation in the name of God led them to demonize their opponents, railing against homosexuals, feminists, liberals and socialists with rhetoric more akin to that of war than to that of a just peace. Christian conservatives have often been good at identifying the economic policies necessary for society as a whole to thrive, but as Sean Lucas points out, they have not taken nearly as much care to wrestle with how these policies, implemented after centuries of oppression, have left others behind.

How should the Gospel shape our political engagement? It seems to me that at the very least, the Gospel calls us to interpret the demands of God's natural moral law and its implications for society not through the lens of the Tower of Babel or of Old Testament Israel but through the lens of the one who fulfilled the law perfectly, and to whom, if the epistles of Peter and Paul tell us anything, we are called to be conformed even in our social and political relationships. Embracing the call to be conformed to the image of Christ means not that we parade around trumpeting the lordship of Christ, but that, like Christ, we take up the form of a servant, humbling ourselves if necessary even to the cross. Thus we fulfill the law not by enforcing its every jot and tittle at the point of the sword, excluding from the political community those who refuse to tow the cultural, moral or religious line, but by loving and serving those with whom God has placed us in community, paying particular attention to the needs of the poor and the weak, the marginalized and the oppressed.

Yes, we are called to participate in the administration of a sword-bearing government, restraining the worst offenses against justice that threaten to undermine our communities. But this is a call that we share even with those with whom we profoundly disagree, and therefore one that we must fulfill in a manner that includes our fellow citizens rather than excludes them. What justice requires in terms of practical policy for varying times and circumstances will always be a matter for dispute, but our arguments should be as characterized by humility and respect as they are by conviction and determination. Our goal is not to establish a Christian America, let alone a new Israel, but to witness to Christ by promoting policies that ensure peace and justice for all of our neighbors, not only those who are most like us or with whom we most agree. 

To stress that the Gospel calls us to the politics of inclusion is not to abandon political realism for lofty idealism. As I have tried to show in this series, the very issue at stake in the theological disputes over segregation was whether or not the New Testament, with its emphasis on the unity of all peoples in Christ, required that white people accept black people into their churches and communities on a level of equality. Simply put, does Pentecost have anything to do with our politics? King said yes, and far too many southern Presbyterians said no. But what do we think today? 

As confessing evangelicals we cannot afford to abandon our witness to the Gospel when we enter the realm of politics. It is true that our social engagement must seek the ends of the moral law, but we must remember that it is Christ who reveals and fulfills the moral law in its substance, and it is to his image, including his manner of life as a servant, that we are called to conform. It is true that the Gospel does not immediately erase all distinctions of nation, gender, or economic status, but it is equally true that the unity of all things in Christ does call for the rejection of their unjust abuses. It is true that we must be realistic about what can be achieved through politics, but our realism should lead us to champion the weak rather than the strong who oppress them under the cover of law. It is true that we may not be silent about what God's Word teaches, even when it comes to such controversial matters as human sexuality, but it is equally true that our judgment regarding how God's will should take expression in politics is fallible, that we must learn to love, serve and work with fellow citizens who disagree with us, and that our public rhetoric is only Christian if it is infused with the grace of Christ. Finally, it is true that salvation only comes to those who place their faith in Christ, and about that we must always be clear, but it is equally true that as believers we are called to embody that salvation socially by bearing one another's burdens, forgiving one another's transgressions, and caring for one another's needs.

Matthew J. Tuininga teaches politics and core studies at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, and was recently appointed assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a licensed exhorter in the United Reformed Churches of North America and he blogs at 


[1] Martin Luther King Jr., "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," in I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World (ed. James M. Washington; New York: Harper Collins, 1992), p.96.

[2] King, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," p.89

[3] King, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," p.89

[4] Rufus Burrow Jr., "Personalism, the Objective Moral Order, and Moral Law in the Work of Martin Luther King, Jr.," in The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Boundaries of Law, Politics, and Religion (ed. Lewis V. Baldwin; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), pp.213-228.

[5] Burrow,  "Personalism, the Objective Moral Order," p. 222.

[6] Burrow,  "Personalism, the Objective Moral Order," p.236.