MLK: Struggling sinner or skilled liar?

As you would imagine, folks here inside the DC beltway take monuments pretty seriously — especially those linked to the National Mall.

Thus, mainstream journalists are devoting, and rightly so, quite a bit of attention to subjects linked to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rites that will eventually be held (delayed by Hurricane Irene) to dedicate the new Tidal Basin memorial site in his honor.

Most of these stories, of course, are dedicated to the cultural, political and ethical impact of King’s life and work. Thus, the reflect a certain journalistic tendency to edit “the Rev.” from his name and title.

Over at the digital Washington Post page called “On Faith,” the former editor of the website offered some articulate reporting on why that is inappropriate, if not tragic, if the goal of the MLK National Memorial is to promote national understanding of King’s message and legacy. Here is a key part of that David Waters piece, from right up top:

Let’s hope one essential fact won’t be lost in the hubbub … This will be the only national memorial in Washington dedicated to a gospel preacher.

Indeed, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, told the Post this week that he believes his father was “anointed,” and “chosen by God to make the kind of impact that he made.”

“If we overlook the fact that Dr. King was a man of God, a follower of Jesus Christ, we miss the point of his life and his death,” said Kelly Johnson, founder of Two By Two prayer ministries in Memphis. … Johnson and others believe the ultimate legacy of King, a fourth-generation Baptist preacher, will be more theological and less social or political.

King, of course, knew this and once explained: “In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.”

By all means, read Waters’ piece. Note in particular the emphasis on how King tried, in his “I Have A Dream” speech, to focus his oratory on political themes — before setting his prepared text aside and launching into what can only be called a Bible-driven sermon.

However, the most interesting Post piece I have read so far on King was written by columnist Anna Holmes and ran under the headline, “Martin Luther King Jr., the advice columnist.” This piece focused on a large body of King’s words that has often been overlooked, namely the “Advice For Living” columns he wrote in 1956-58 in response to letters from Ebony readers, mostly from middle-class African-Americans.

This is a daring piece, in large part because it deals with tensions between King’s beliefs, his words and the details of his own moral life. However, I would argue that this essay falls short in grasping one crucial element of King’s — yes — prophetic ministry of truth telling. Here is how this crucial part of the story begins:

“Advice for Living” was also remarkable in terms of its content. King did not purport to have all the answers, and, for the most part, avoided making blanket condemnations, perhaps because of the dualities and hypocrisies in his own life. In response to one reader, a preacher’s wife concerned by the amount of female attention bestowed upon her husband, King said, “Almost every minister has the problem of confronting women in his congregation whose interests are not entirely spiritual … but if he carries himself in a manner representative of the highest mandates of Christian living, his very person will discourage their approaches.”

“Remember, this was an era when a common joke was that any upstanding preacher negotiated with the deacon board for a salary, parsonage and pick of the choir,” says Taylor Branch, author of the prize-winning trilogy “America in the King Years.” “But he couldn’t talk about that, because he was trying to make his name known and establish a record of wholesome conservative values for the civil rights movement.”

This leads to a crucial quotation, one that I believe would be disputed by many scholars who have studied King’s life and thought:

“There are a lot of contradictions between what he wrote and his personal philosophies,” says Tamura Lomax, a professor at Vanderbilt University with specialties in African American studies and feminist theory. “He was kind of in a prison. He couldn’t say, ‘Look, when I’m on the road, I have relations, as well,’ so he had to present this idea of the pristine figure, this kind of public piety.”

What, precisely, is meant by the phrase “his personal philosophies”? Is the author saying that “philosophies” equals “convictions” or even his Christian “beliefs”? Or is the point that King publicly professed one set of traditional Christian beliefs on matters of moral theology and failed to consistently live them out in his own life?

If so, Holmes really needed to talk with a scholar more familiar with, or more sympathetic to, King’s preaching and convictions.

It is one thing to say that King was a sinner who failed to live up to the truths that he so brilliantly argued in his sermons on matters of faith and personal morality. Anyone who knows anything about church history knows that more than a few prophets and even a few saints also struggled with temptations that often bested them.

But does this mean that King did not believe the words that he spoke and wrote? Not necessarily. To say that King was, at times, a hypocrite does not mean that he deliberately preached lies. In fact, it could be evidence that he knew the truth and also knew the pain of not being able to live according to that truth, day after day.

Let me stress that this does not lessen King’s legacy, this evidence that he was a sinner and that he knew he was a sinner. This section of the Post piece ultimately suggests that, due to changed elements of his “personal philosophies,” King did not believe that his private behavior was, in fact, sinful.

Many King scholars would consider that statement heresy, if not slander.

Why hear only one voice on such a crucial, controversial, topic about this pivotal figure in American history and, yes, our nation’s religious history? Trust me. There are other voices out there to engage in this debate. It would have been easy to find them and quote them.

IMAGE: The MLK National Memorial.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave G.

    I find the whole MLK thing to be rather interesting. As a child of the 70s and 80s, it’s an unfolding lesson on how, in the overall scheme of things, people just don’t change that much over the ages. Just looking at how this subject is being handled. Quite interesting indeed.

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

    Fortunately King, like most sinners, had the decency to be a hypocrite. But unlike many of his critics, he was never a cynic.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    More importantly than the hypocrisy angle, that first excerpt reveals King to be one of them thar dominionists Bill Keller’s been warning us about, right?

  • Jerry

    This section of the Post piece ultimately suggests that, due to changed elements of his “personal philosophies,” King did not believe that his private behavior was, in fact, sinful.

    I read over that Post piece more than once and have no idea where that statement came from. Basically we have a modern feminist stating that by current standards MLK does not come up to the mark. So I absolutely don’t see what you allege the section ultimately suggests. What it suggests to me is that he was a man of his era and was a sinner.

    The Post piece strikes me as 20/20 hindsight vision that says by the standards of today, someone in the past was not so great. This compares to evaluating the person in their own historical context which to me is a much better enterprise.

    If someone finds that he preached against men committing adultery, then, yes, hypocrisy would be a fair charge. But I’ve not yet seen a reference to such a sermon on his part.

  • Mike O.

    Johnson and others believe the ultimate legacy of King, a fourth-generation Baptist preacher, will be more theological and less social or political.

    To me, legacy is more about the ends than the means. I have no doubt that what drove him was his deep and fervent faith, but his legacy will be his major role in fighting for social justice. Would those same people say Mahatma Ghandi’s legacy is more social or religious?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    This is not the place to air your views on MLK. Please read the post and respond to the journalism issues raised in it.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    Let’s back up.

    What do you think the term “personal philosophies” means, in the context of this story?

  • Will
    If someone finds that he preached against men committing adultery, then, yes, hypocrisy would be a fair charge. But I’ve not yet seen a reference to such a sermon on his part.

    But isn’t that lining up with the attitude, which has been criticized in other posts (http://www.getreligion.org/2011/06/cnn-only-social-conservatives-can-be-hypocrites/), that “hypocrisy” is the only sin? Are you saying that King was “not a morality hypocrite” and therefore his vices can be overlooked?

  • Gabriel Austin

    The statue looks like the work of an escapee from the Soviet School of Realism. Has anyone noted how much it resembles statues of Lenin?

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “Why hear only one voice on such a crucial, controversial, topic about this pivotal figure in American history and, yes, our nation’s religious history? Trust me. There are other voices out there to engage in this debate. It would have been easy to find them and quote them.”

    Especially so when it’s a liberal media that praises plurality and tolerance for a diverse variety of viewpoints and voices.

  • Amy P

    That statue is really oddly proportioned. The lower part of the body is very thick and the head is very small, and I suspect that the effect is even worse in person, staring up at it from knee level. The expression is really unfriendly–as somebody else said, the statue looks like it’s about to say, “Get off my lawn”. They should have

    1) Not given the commission to a Mao sculptor.

    2) Built it at a more approachable, human scale. It’s a little sentimental, but MLK surrounded by children would work better.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Looking at this with an African-American friend, we agreed that the statue doesn’t look like him all that much, and, worse, it looks like he’s guarding the entrance, sternly keeping people out. That’s historically and theologically wrong.

    As it turns out, though, all that rock is supposed to have a different meaning.

    I’m not the only one thinking these sorts of things:

    From The New York Times, which does mention Dr. King’s status as a minister.

    And a response to the criticism.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X