Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel
by Gary Dorrien
Yale University Press, 2018
The revitalization of religious left activism has been in the news a lot lately. Last year, Reuters, Bloomberg, and The Washington Post reported on the religious left as a resurgent political movement. Last June, The New York Times featured front-page coverage on the phenomenon, explaining, “After 40 years in which the Christian right has dominated the influence of organized religion on American politics … left-leaning faith leaders are hungry to break the right’s grip on setting the nation’s moral agenda.”
The man at the center of the movement, and the leader whom these stories all reference, is the Rev. William J. Barber II, an African American minister from North Carolina who has been called the Martin Luther King Jr. of our time. Like King, Barber and his fellow activists have demanded racial justice, voting rights, peace, and a national solution to poverty. The problem is that Barber rejects the label of “religious left” most media stories attach to him. In fact, he disdains all terms of division, save for moral right and moral wrong. According to the Times, at a rally in Raleigh, Barber told his audience: “If you think this is just a left-versus-right movement, you’re missing the point. This is about the moral center. This is about our humanity.”
Barber’s mission is also about reasserting the “moral center” of the social gospel, an American religious tradition that began at the turn of the twentieth century when urban industrial problems prompted them to take seriously Jesus’ mandate to feed the poor, care for the sick, and side with the oppressed. “Without strong voices from the social gospel movement,” Barber contended in a Think Progress op-ed, there may not have been a New Deal or a civil rights movement. Since the late nineteenth century, the term “social gospel” has been associated with liberal theology and the belief that humans could cultivate the Kingdom of God on earth by addressing the social and economic inequality that undermined God’s will. While some social gospelers were leftists, and even socialists, most identified as liberals or progressives in an era of Progressive politics. According to many histories of the topic, these social gospelers were white, at least until the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow civil rights activists revived the social gospel movement in the 1950s and 1960s after a four-decades-long slump.
Gary Dorrien’s new book tells a slightly different story. In Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, Dorrien gives due credit to a host of African American activists in the 1920s through the 1950s, who carried the social gospel forward during a time when most deemed it dead. An Episcopal priest, Dorrien is a professor at Columbia and Union Theological Seminary; the latter also houses Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign—a renewal of King’s last project. In his latest book, Dorrien concentrates less on King (the story does not land on King’s biography until halfway through the book) and more on the intellectual and religious milieu that informed King’s belief system by the mid-twentieth century. Instead, Dorrien delves into the “black social gospel,” which he defines as a distinct tradition in its commitment to social justice and, particularly, racial equality, that some religious scholars have overlooked. As he put it: “very few books even refer to the black social gospel, and until now there were no books that dealt with this tradition as a whole.” Without these black social gospelers, Dorrien claims, King might never have projected social Christianity into the late twentieth century. However, the hinge of Dorrien’s argument, that black social gospelers inspired King, can be both illuminating and limiting. By separating the “white” social gospel from the “black” social gospel, Dorrien reflects the historical truth of segregation and suppression, but distorts the social gospel’s theology and political purpose by delineating racial division. Theologically and politically, the social gospel’s core premise amounts to bringing people together, fostering solidarity and fellowship to advance the Kingdom of God on earth. In theory, if not always in practice, social gospelers reject disharmonies that kept people alienated from each other. It is unlikely, in fact, that either King or Barber would accept such a dichotomy. As social gospelers, their goal was and is reconciliation, not division.
Despite the misleading subtitle, Dorrien’s research and his effort to broaden the canon of social gospel thinkers is most welcome. As he put it: “The case for considering black social Christianity as a tremendously significant tradition, far outstripping its famous white social gospel counterpart, was always there.” Of course, he is not the first scholar to note the importance of black social gospel reformers; in 1991, Ralph Luker did so in his book, The Social Gospel in Black and White. Though Luker focused on the early twentieth century, Dorrien pushes that story forward into the era of King and liberation theology, challenging the racial trope that he acknowledges has been remedied in part since Luker. Before that, the typical narrative of the social gospel centered on a handful of Protestant preachers who brought Christian conscience to bear upon social problems, men such as Lyman Abbot, Francis G. Peabody, Josiah Strong, George Herron, Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, W.D.P. Bliss, and Charles M. Sheldon, proponents of what would later become known as the “classic” social gospel movement. These men, of course, were all white, and they form the core of what Dorrien calls the “white social gospel.”
King’s path to the social gospel is typically told in these terms, emphasizing the role of white influencers such as Walter Rauschenbusch, the prominent social gospel minister who gained national attention after publishing his best-selling book Christianity and the Social Crisis in 1907. As King often related, Rauschenbusch served as the crucial fulcrum for his turn toward the social gospel. “I came early to Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis,” King wrote in 1958, “which left an indelible imprint on my thinking by giving me a theological basis for the social concern which had already grown up in me as a result of my early experiences.” Yet Dorrien does us a service by emphasizing important influences on King, detailing the contributions of black social gospelers such as Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin E. Mays, and Howard Thurman. Johnson, the long-standing Howard University president, bequeathed the social gospel to generations of students and faculty, including Mays, who was teaching at Morehouse College when Johnson delivered a speech on religion and racial justice. Thereafter, Mays, according to Dorrien, modeled his career upon Johnson, and ended up inspiring Morehouse students such as Thurman, and later King, to embrace social theology. As social gospel scholars and practitioners, Mays and Thurman encouraged scores of young would-be civil rights activists to apply their religious values for the sake of social change. King studied under Thurman while pursuing graduate studies at Boston University. He met Mays, years earlier, at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Both men inspired him. As Dorrien concludes, “American Christianity has no greater legacy than what King got from Thurman and Mays.”
By bringing black scholars to the forefront of King’s formative experience, Dorrien is making an astute intervention into King studies, particularly the debate over King’s intellectual origins (black southern churches or white northern schools). But, Dorrien collapses some binaries and raises another by drawing a color line across the history of the social gospel. Throughout the book, he refers to the “white social gospel” and the “black social gospel,” a division that may reflect the historical truth of segregation, but not the social gospel’s universalism and eschatology. Social gospelers looked forward to an end time of human harmony called the Kingdom of God on earth, the beloved community, or the brotherhood of man, in which everyone held God-given dignity. There was no place for racism in the Kingdom of God. Racism, in fact, presented a formidable obstacle on the progressive road toward divine fellowship. It could not stand if the Kingdom was to come. And though some social gospel advocates sidelined race issues in favor of what they considered more pressing problems (the jingoism of Josiah Strong comes to mind here), most folded racial justice into their universal theology, and many fought for interracial accord. In other words, both whites and blacks leveraged social gospel values to break white supremacy and build a brotherhood of mankind.
What’s more, black activists did not absorb the social gospel exclusively from black mentors. Benjamin Mays encountered “classic” social gospel luminary Shailer Mathews at the University of Chicago Divinity School. And the great Quaker writer Rufus Jones exerted a profound influence upon Howard Thurman at Haverford College. Rauschenbusch inspired them all: Johnson, Mays, Thurman, and King, as well as countless others. Dorrien’s color line is problematic because it muffles the legacy of these social gospel interlocutors and runs the risk of essentializing “white” and “black” versions of social gospel theology. However, Dorrien insists that this “overlooked tradition” of the black social gospel must be studied in isolation, “in a way that distinguishes the broad social gospel from the specific one that led to King.”
Dorrien’s dichotomy also impedes the mission of social gospel advocates today, those like Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, his co-chair for the new Poor People’s Campaign, which is a clear homage to King and the social gospel. Their moral mission is to address issues of racial injustice, wealth inequality, and political corruption. Broad coalitions, composed of black and white citizens, poor and rich, people of all faiths, they contend, are key. In his book The Third Reconstruction, Barber describes this as “fusion politics.” Drawing lines along racial, religious, gendered, or class lines won’t help, whether those divisions are provoked by conservatives or deepened by progressives aligned to identity politics. Barber instead wants to offer up “powerful images of solidarity.” He writes, “All faith traditions are not the same, but the common ground among faiths is a firm foundation upon which to stand against the divide-and-conquer strategies of extremists.”
But the question remains: Does the American political left have a tradition of religion on which it can draw for morality and truth claims? Yes, it’s the social gospel. Dorrien concludes that “it remains the basis on which many hold fast to the dream of the Beloved Community.” In order to build the beloved community, however, progressives must transcend divisions both in action and in scholarship. Dorrien does well to shine a light on the achievements of black leaders as well as the blind spot of white privilege that has kept some social gospelers from identifying race as a central problem. But his dissection of the social gospel along racial lines remains too stark. Barber writes in his book that “black folk can never move forward by ourselves. We had to find a way to stand with others, acknowledging their connections with us and our issues. Dr. King had understood this.” Dorrien does too. But, he could have produced a more powerful social gospel history had he reflected the beliefs of social gospelers, both black and white, that division and discrimination hindered the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Vaneesa Cook completed her doctorate in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently teaches U.S. history at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Her first book, Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the Remaking of the American Left, will be published in 2019 from the University of Pennsylvania Press. She has also written on religion and the American left for Dissent and Raritan.