Politics, Theology

The secularisation of Martin Luther King

MLKMartin Luther King remains a hero to a wide range of people. But alongside the appreciation of his life and work, there is a consistent tendency of commentators to downplay or eliminate the Christian faith that King’s civil right’s activism was rooted in.

A Baptist Minister

Many people don’t even know that King was, and always remained, a Baptist Minister until his death.  Despite the campaigning, the marches, the imprisonments and the Nobel prizes, almost every Sunday he would preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery or later on at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta.

It was because of his role as a church Minister that, aged 26, he was asked to lead the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery.

It was due to his role as a Minster that he developed his amazing powers of oratory.

And it was as a Minister that he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago and said

‘I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope…With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.’

King’s life and work simply make no sense when detached from his theological commitments and its roots in the Church.  Its understandable when people abbreviate his title from ‘Rev. Dr’  to ‘Dr’.  But why did he even have the title ‘Dr’?  It was because he had a PhD in theology.

Beyond the media

The secularising of King’s legacy runs deep.  My eldest son’s class studied him at school and he was taught all about the bus boycotts, the marches and the speeches.  But not once did anyone mention that King was a Church Minister.

Another example is the memorial erected to commemorate King in Washington.  On the monument, 14 of King’s quotes are re-produced.  Whilst all these quotes are powerful and inspirational it is telling that none of them include any overtly spiritual or theological references.

Secular ideology

This treatment of Martin Luther King is just one example of a secularising ideology which marginalises aspects of history that do not fit with its worldview.  It is an ideology which is far more comfortable when Christianity is portrayed as oppressive rather than liberationist, regressive instead of progressive and hate-filled rather than hope-filled.

It wants to simultaneously celebrate the achievements of Martin Luther King because of his work for justice and inclusion but also deny the spiritual motivations which fired his work.  It approves of the fruits of faith, but despises the roots from which these fruits grow.

I have seen this time and again within the charity world in which I work.  It leads to history being re-written; priests and ministers who started charities in the past are now described as social activists or reformers.  Faith has become an embarrassment and is airbrushed away.


Of course, no one can pretend that the Church is blameless.  Like most prophets, the target of most of King’s criticisms were religious people who wanted to maintain segregation.  Just as King used theology to attack injustice, there were plenty who used theology to maintain injustice.

But this reality does not justify an anti-historical secularisation of King’s work.  Just as Wilberforce’s campaign for the abolition of slavery, or Shaftesbury’s action against child labour, the US Civil Rights movement had faith at its very core.

An integrated spirituality

The best example of how integrated Christian spirituality was in the Civil Rights movement is a simple one-page pledge which King’s campaigners were asked to sign during his campaign in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 (the same year as the famous speech).  This Pledge is re-produced in a short book called The Words of Martin Luther King. It reads:

I hereby pledge myself – my person and body – to the Nonviolent Movement.
Therefore I will keep the following Ten Commandments:
   1. Meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus
   2. Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
   3. Walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love.
   4. Pray daily to be used by God that all men and women might be free.
   5. Sacrifice personal wishes that all might be free.
   6. Observe with friend and foes the ordinary rules of courtesy.
   7. Perform regular service for others and the world.
   8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue and heart.
   9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. Follow the directions of the movement leaders on demonstrations.

This pledge show so clearly the integration of justice and faith which was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement.  It makes a nonsense of any attempts to secularise the work of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King.

19 thoughts on “The secularisation of Martin Luther King”

    1. Hi Ian – yes we have used them a bit in my home group to start thinking about what a pledge could look like for us living in our community – bit like a ‘rule of life’. Its great to see the small elements of community organising used behind the scenes – only a fraction of the civil rights movement was the big events – most of it all was the small acts of commitment and faith done by ordinary people


  1. Jon – superb work.

    We do need to confess the failings of Christians past and present (ourselves included) on social justice, but we also need to compile a positive telling of the Christian story to undermine Hitchens et al with their abuse of historical memory to try to discredit Christian faith. We need to find ways to publicly challenge these secularisations, and challenge the idea that if it weren’t for God we could just “stop worrying and enjoy our lives”.

    I have just finished reading “unapologetic” by Francis Spufford, who makes this point excellently in ch 1 of his book. He also starts down that road in chapter 8, but then (to my mind), doesn’t offer enough evidence of goodness in the church, simply turns to his analysis of why and how the church messes up (in his view). If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend it, though it ends up in a slightly too liberal place for my liking…

    Anyway – good blog.

    John Bav


    1. thanks John – hope your return to Bradford is going well. So many people have recommended that Spufford book to me so I will deffo get hold of a copy. God bless mate and thanks for the encouragement


  2. Maybe part of the problem is the fact that we have been seen to do so little in our day or are unwilling for take the praise and so hidden our service like light under a bushel?!

    Maybe it is time to parade our successes. I think of ACET and its work to help victims of aids. I think of Human Trafficking; Street Pastors; Food Bank; etc. But maybe we are still not hitting the mother lode issues that by addressing would change history and transform society. I like the idea of Big or Good Society and see church as the means to see this accomplished.


    1. Thanks Richard – Its interesting how KIng felt that the finger of history was on him – that he was chosen by events which propelled him to lead the movement. I think we need to get on building churches of people with real commitment to their local areas and towns and cities and await what history brings us. I am sad that no significant social action network exists for Christian activists – Steve Chalke was the man to do this but Faithworks never really developed the broad, deep coalition that it could have.


  3. A great post about a great man. Many people such as myself have recently found their faith and R&R has been pivotal in how the church can or should play a part in fighting social injustices. It maybe that our collective voices are not loud enough or that we are too scared, unlike MLK, to proclaim our faith as being a motivational force for the cause. We can do, look at the IF campaign that was extremely well supported. Perhaps all that is needed is a great orator to unite us all. Is there anyone today, that can deliver a speech that from 50 years from now still bring us to tears and hold that much power? I’m not too sure. But maybe we can begin by persuading/reminding our law makers, politicians etc. of the Nonviolent Movements pledge….It would be a good starting point of the great mans legacy..


  4. Dear Jon I was there to the right of the platform in horn rimmed specs. it is reliably recorded that a still small voice commanded he abandon his notes – the result was transfixing for me – And for the nation – I will never forget it it as long as I live Rooted in secularism? What utter rubbish! Doc


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