Martin Luther King Jr. yanked the burnt Ku Klux Klan Christian cross from his front lawn as his child looked on. It was 1960. Many Black families in Atlanta woke to charred crosses left as a warning to civil rights activists.
Sixty-one years later, a Christian nationalist group called Jericho’s Road stoked the January 6 insurrection with prayer vigils and marches. A right-wing mob waving flags emblazoned with “Jesus 2020” and “Jesus is My Savior” stormed the Capitol, armed and threatening to kill Democrats and Republicans. Outside, men prayed near a giant cross. A year after the January 6 attempted coup, the Christian far right is more isolated, extreme and preparing to strike again.
White Christian nationalists, the extreme fringe of the religious right, are increasingly turning to violence. They want to make Christianity the state religion, ban abortion, reinforce conservative gender roles and dramatically cut immigration to ensure a white majority. MLK Jr. endured attacks from racist evangelicals, using redemptive suffering and taking the moral high ground to unite a multiracial coalition, the Poor People’s Campaign. What worked for him then can work for us today.
The Cross or the Switchblade
Christian nationalists don’t turn the other cheek, they turn to the gun. Whether the targets are abortion doctors, mosques or immigrants, a rifle’s crosshairs is the real cross they pray to.
The United States has the largest number of Christians of any nation. Out of 333 million people, roughly 64 percent are Christian, a number in dramatic decline but nevertheless one that includes Catholics and evangelical Protestants, among others. More important is that conservative Christians, according to Pew Research, tend to be white, older, less educated, pray daily, believe in a literal Hell and Heaven, and skew Republican. They also tend to cultivate racist ideas and deny the reality of systemic racism.
On the conservative fringe are Christian nationalists, a toxic brew of American jingoism and Bible thumping. In an interview with The Young Turks, Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, said, “It basically is the idea that America is founded as a Christian nation … we’ve moved away from that and the right kind of Americans need to take it back … it divides ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ the ‘pure’ from the ‘impure’ … it is an organized quest for power.”
In this biblical struggle, white Christian nationalists imagine themselves as the foot soldiers of Jesus. Secular society looks to them, Stewart said, to be “Satanic. Demonic. Inhuman.” It is a theology that is anti-democratic and juvenile. It is a simple-minded story of good and evil that demonizes whoever is different; the gay person, the Muslim, the immigrant. Finally, the unconverted must kneel at the foot of the cross, by court order or force if needed.
“We should be proud to be Christian nationalists,” boasted Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the latest face of the movement. Today’s upsurge of white Christian nationalism is a reaction to the social protests that have rocked the U.S. — Black Lives Matter, the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage, #MeToo and Occupy Wall Street. Each protest disrupted long accepted power dynamics and exposed the dirty underside of the “American Dream.”
How does one effectively handle this hatred? Turning to the past, we see that MLK took the Gospel back and used it to effectively expose their racism, sexism and classism.
The Two Faces of Christ
“I had to know God for myself,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in a 1967 sermon. “I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage … it seemed at that moment I could hear an inner voice saying, ‘Stand up for truth! Stand up for justice!’ … I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘fight on’; he promised to never leave me.”
You can hear the fatigue and sorrow in his thunderous but trembling voice. The FBI file on King showed hundreds of threats against him, from bomb threats targeting planes he flew on to the KKK trying to hire a hit man. He lived in the shadow of death. A contract was put on his life, a cross burned on his lawn, his house bombed and finally King was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, just a year after he wearily said, “Jesus promised to never leave me.”
Jerry Falwell, Sr., a Southern fundamentalist preacher, relished attacking the civil rights movement and King specifically as either ignorant, secret Communists or going against God’s will. He did not publicly advocate violence, but he laid the foundation for Christian nationalism with his mix of racism, patriotism and Bible scholarship.
“If Chief Justice (Earl) Warren and his associates had known God’s word … I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate,” said Falwell in his 1950s era sermon, Segregation or Integration: Which?. “When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”
Just to put a fine point on it, Falwell added, “The true Negro does not want integration.”
In a contest over public support for civil rights, King and Falwell were two faces of U.S. Christianity. King read the same Bible as Falwell, but instead of Falwell’s vengeful Jesus, casting sinners into the fiery pit of Hell, King saw Jesus as a revolutionary pacifist.
What King found in the Bible were the Black voices, who across the generations had called out to God for deliverance from slavery. They prayed for the return of loved ones sold on auction blocks. They prayed to go from sunup to sundown without a whip cutting their skin to bloody rags. They prayed to walk free, to read and question and wonder, to hold children and dance with neighbors and live, just live.
King’s Jesus was a Black Jesus. He loved the poor. He healed the sick. He was willing to break an unjust law for the greater moral good of love. King wrote about unjust laws in his 1963, Letter from Birmingham Jail, “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
King’s Jesus did not reduce anyone’s humanity to skin color, class or sex. The Christian tradition he represents always transcended the limits of the Bible’s text to reach its spirit. In order to make it real, King and the millions who followed him risked their lives and suffered, in hopes to redeem — really rescue — the racists trapped in their hatred.
Falwell’s Jesus would have none of that. His Jesus was the Jesus of punishment and terror. It was tradition, too. A corrosive line can be drawn from the 1741 sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards, who ranted, “Men are held in the Hand of God over the Pit of Hell; they have deserved the fiery Pit, and are already sentenced to it,” to Falwell saying after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “The pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle … I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”
Fire. Brimstone. Punishment. The secret of Christian nationalists is they are sadists. They love Jesus for the authority it gives them to hate others. And they hate Christians like King, who took the Bible back and made everyone into angels.
The Return of the King
The crisis today is the collision of these two traditions: King’s Jesus versus Falwell’s Jesus. As the United States (and the West overall) becomes more diverse while sliding into a deepening social chasm of inequality, the appeal of white Christian nationalism will grow for a shrinking majority.
King died in ’68. Falwell, in 2007. They live on in their legacies. In 1971, three years after King’s assassination, Falwell founded Liberty University, a think tank for the Christian right, and in 1979 established the Moral Majority, a political lobby hub for evangelicals. The Moral Majority got “souls to the polls” for Republicans and eventually in the ‘90s was overtaken by the Christian Coalition, a non-profit voter registration group, which is now controlled by pro-Trump Christian nationalists.
In 1971, Jesse Jackson, who fought alongside King, founded the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. He later ran for the presidency and said at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lies only a few miles from us tonight. He must feel good as he looks down upon us. We sit here together, a rainbow, a coalition.” He picked up where King had left off: “What’s the moral challenge of our day? We have public accommodations. We have the right to vote. We have open housing. What’s the fundamental challenge of our day? It is to end economic violence.”
Today the theological and political descendants of King and Falwell again fight for the direction of the nation. Former President Donald Trump seeks to lead a ramshackle, fascist coalition of Christian nationalists, Ayn Rand fanatics, plutocrats and hucksters. Should he fail, a new cast of characters are hungry to lead like Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and failed Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.
Contrast them to King’s followers, a growing multiracial, democratic socialist America led by Dream Defenders, Cooperation Jackson, Extinction Rebellion, Rev. William Barber, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Christian socialist intellectual Cornel West and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The George Floyd protests were a glimpse of a possible future when the progressive youth outnumber and overpower MAGA reactionaries.