On MLK's "Can a Christian be a Communist?"

History is moved not by economic forces, but by spiritual forces.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1962, Martin Luther King asked his congregation to consider the question, “Can A Christian Be a Communist?” At times sounding more like a professor than a preacher, King warned his congregation that communism—whatever its potential attractions—was inimical to Christianity (indeed, to all religion) because of its essential materialism. Communism, King pointed out, dismisses religion as “wishful thinking… the product of fear and ignorance,” and what is worse, often the tool used by the powerful to exploit the fearful, ignorant, and weak.

Communism presented itself as a philosophical system based on the observable and tangible “facts” of material existence. Such a system is equalizing, in some ways, King admitted (more on that in a minute), but it is a dangerous equality, one that depends upon believing that human nature is defined by the limits of the physical realm. Historically, this pursuit of equality led to horrific violence. But the worst damage done is to the spirits of those who live under such regimes: communism’s denial of any permanent basis for morality (not rights, not God, not reason itself) ultimately means that it undermines human dignity. It demands the whole person’s investment in the political and economic project of making heaven on earth.  As a secular political project, communism denies the essential spiritual freedom of individual human persons—the only reasonable basis upon which men could relate to one another with any kind of dignity.

King’s sermon in no way denies the possibility that specifically Christian experiments in radical community might set themselves apart from the world. It is probably unsurprising to readers of this site that the only historically successful experiments in communistic living have been small, theologically-homogenous social groups. (And one might further note: these have all lived under the protective umbrella of relatively liberal market-oriented societies.) King’s focus here was on what seemed most pressing: the Christian temptation to make common cause with Soviet-style communism.

King's Longer History with Communism

King’s sermon was delivered at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta as part of a series on love. It was not the first time King had addressed the temptations communism offered to the oppressed: In August 1953, he gave an early version of the same message to the people of Ebenezer. That sermon was retitled and revised for inclusion in King’s first major publication, Strength to Love (1963). King continued to speak against Communism even while opposing the United States’ intervention in Vietnam, arguing in a sermon at Riverside Church in April 1967 that “communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Ironically, King was often accused of being a communist; he repeatedly refuted the charge and his message remained the same: that Christianity and Communism were irrefutably and fundamentally opposing ideologies, that Christianity alone was actually redemptive, but that Christians, by their failure live out the gospel in love and justice to the poor and oppressed, had essentially created the space within which communism and other false teachings that seemed more responsive to social justice issues could flourish.

Although he rightly notes a Christian cannot be a communist in that vein because of the essential contradiction between materialism and spirituality, King does not end the sermon there. Rather, he carefully addresses the reasons Christians might be tempted by communism in the modern world: their yearning for justice, and their earnest desire for community. In these two areas, he writes, Communism has succeeded in part “due to the failure of Christians to live up to the basic principles of Christianity.”

While Jesus taught his disciples not only to preach the good news of salvation but to serve the helpless widow, help the hungry and ill-housed poor, and defend human freedom, American Christians had far too often failed to match actions to words. Christians must not only “talk about a future good over yonder,” or “in terms of a new Jerusalem, but I want to see a new Atlanta, a new New York, a new America, and a new world right here.” As a system, Communism appeared to offer immediate and practical hope to the oppressed and weary in a nation where Christians had too often been content to offer merely platitudes about a far-off “better place” while remaining complacent (complicit?) in perpetuating a status quo of systematized racism, sexism, elitism, and other forms of injustice. Yet though “The Communist Manifesto might express a concern for the poor and the oppressed,” he argues “it expresses no greater concern than the manifesto of Jesus.”

This leads into King’s second major point about the allure of communism: it’s evangelistic fervor. Communists, King argued, make their philosophy seem attractive in part simply because they are so openly passionate in their commitment. Their zeal is infectious, their camaraderie warmly inviting, their associational structure clear and easy to join in ways that churches—too cold, too formal—were not. Americans, lost in the splendid isolation of individualism, long to be part of something bigger than themselves – but it had become apparent to King that such longings were no longer being fulfilled in the traditional associational settings of a local church or a town meeting.

“The only way that we can defeat communism is to get a better idea, and we have it in our democracy. We have it in our Christianity,” King asserted—but too often, American Christians lack the basic civic and theological literacy to prove it. We relentlessly pursue comfortable material goals, and even our seemingly loftier political goals all too often are too focused on the material needs of our lives rather than our spiritual ones.

In American politics today, the specter of communism no longer looms quite as large as it did in the middle of the twentieth century. (Even Bernie Sanders, who reintroduced the term "socialism" to common political discourse, seems to be defending a robust form of market-driven social democracy, as are many of his younger followers.) Yet the very same materialist attitudes that King attributes to communism were already commonplace in the  political culture of his time, and are still present today.

 Martin Luther King, Jr. leaning on the lectern at a press conference, March 6, 1964. Photograph by Marion S. Trikosko, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsc-01269.

Martin Luther King, Jr. leaning on the lectern at a press conference, March 6, 1964. Photograph by Marion S. Trikosko, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsc-01269.

King’s prescience in seeing the threat of materialist philosophy is only too evident when we consider the myriad ways in which we are told every week that our bodies are ourselves, our destiny and identity inextricably wrapped up in our sexual identities, or alternatively, the sort of neurological materialism at work in startups like Nectome. As King said, the only way to succeed in the battle against materialism is to combat it with the better idea of human freedom—an idea that is embedded in our national documents and institutions in a form that was rooted in a Christian understanding of human flourishing. We can do this—but we must understand those documents first. Understanding our principles can help us defend our institutions.

“If a man could tell a lie and turn a nation upside-down toward an evil end, it seems that we could tell the truth about Jesus Christ and turn this world right side-up,” King said. Our goal here at the Center for Christian Civics is to tell that truth boldly and well—and to equip you to do so also.

On this day where we commemorate King, we should be mindful that his political theology should not simply be defined by race: we should also recall his wisdom about the limited ends of politics. Communism (like so many other “-isms” that generate intense partisanship) desired to transform human beings and the world we inhabit to produce perfect justice in this world. As Christians we are called to strive for justice, but should always bear in mind where our real hope lies.