Honoring Martin Luther King Jr., evangelicals weigh their response to racism

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Martin Luther King Jr. and Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. (Photos: Bettmann/Getty Images; Angie Wang/AP)

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., evangelicals gathered in Memphis on Tuesday to assess where their movement stands in relation to King’s mission and ministry. The consensus of the speakers was they were falling short.

“Why is American evangelicalism so white and so middle class?” asked Russell Moore, an evangelical leader who was an outspoken opponent of Donald Trump in 2016. “Why are we not cultivating the future? Why are we not bearing one another’s burdens?”

Moore took direct aim at tolerance for racism and systemic injustice within the white evangelical church, and said that the failure of the white American church when it comes to healing and rectifying the ills of racism have caused a “crisis of faith” for many younger Christians.

It is now a well-known fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election, and that fact formed part of the context for Moore’s remarks, and of the other sermons at the conference, titled “Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” and organized by Moore’s organization, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, as well as the Gospel Coalition.

The global Christian church, Moore said, “is multi-ethnic.” Referring to Jesus Christ, he said, “The church is headed right now by a Middle Eastern homeless man.”

“When it comes to issues that affect our black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ, white evangelicals, why do we say that doesn’t matter? Why is it the case that we have in church after church after church young evangelical Christians who are having a crisis of faith?” Moore said. “It is because they are wondering if we really believe what we preach and teach and sing all the time.”

During the 2016 election, Moore wrote in a New York Times op-ed that Trump’s candidacy had “cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country” and he denounced “not-so-coded messages denouncing African-Americans and immigrants” and the dismissal of “concern about racial justice and national unity … as ‘political correctness.’”

Trump attacked Moore as a “nasty guy with no heart.” After Trump won the presidency, Moore was targeted by Trump supporters, who tried unsuccessfully to get him booted from his post as head of the ERLC, the chief public policy arm of the Southern Baptist denomination.

SEE MORE of our coverage of ‘The King Assassination – 50 Years Later’ »

Moore, on Tuesday, did not mention President Trump. But the preacher who spoke after Moore, Rev. Charlie Dates, made a clear reference to the president in a fiery passage of his sermon.

“This is what has frustrated many black churches with our white evangelical brothers and sisters, those of you who have a fine grasp of orthodoxy, who understand the finer tenets of the gospel,” said Dates, senior pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago.

“We have expected you to be our greatest allies in the struggle against injustice,” Dates said. “We wanted you to use your influence with your governors and your politicians to end the long night of systemic injustices. We wanted y’all to cry about the public school to prison pipeline. We wanted you to see that states like Illinois spend more money on mass incarceration than they do education, that the prison industrial complex is a wicked big business swallowing black men and brown boys.”

“We wanted you to tell your city fathers that contract leasing, redlining and neighborhood improvement laws intended to keep us living in segregated quarters was offensive to God, and that you wouldn’t stand for it by the strength of the Lord Jesus Christ. We wanted y’all to unflinchingly deny the politics of fear and the alt-right racism that elected playboys, while denouncing a black man who was loyal to his wife all his years in office, and took care of his kids, and did not disgrace America,” Dates said to raucous applause from the crowd.

“But instead of finding allies in the fight for justice on the grounds of righteousness, we have encountered antagonists,” Dates concluded.

The conference was scheduled to continue Tuesday evening and through the day on Wednesday, April 4, the date of King’s shooting 50 years ago.

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