Can a Christian Be a Communist?
Martin Luther King, Jr.
September 30, 1962
King’s sermon highlights the incompatibility between transcendent religion and the materialist philosophy underlying Communism.
Communism, King writes, “regards religion psychologically as wishful thinking, regards religion intellectually as the product of fear and ignorance. And it regards religion historically as an instrument serving the ends of exploiters. This is what communism teaches about religion. And so, in a real sense, we disagree with this because we believe that history is moved not by economic forces but by spiritual forces.” In other words, a Christian cannot be a communist, King argues, because communism as a philosophical system denies the existence of anything beyond the material realm and, as a related principle, denies the existence of universal moral truth. Worst of all, it denies the essential quality of humanity: the freedom of the individual soul. For King, therefore, communism was a dangerous system, for it denied the only reasonable basis upon which men could relate to one another with any kind of dignity.
Although a Christian cannot be a communist, King declares that communism “is the only serious rival of Christianity” in the modern world because it does two things well and rightly that the majority of American Christians either fail to do, or do badly. Indeed, he says hauntingly, “It may well be that the success of communism is due to the failure of Christians to live up to the basic principles of Christianity.”
The first lesson to be learned from communism, King argues, is that Christians must take seriously the cries of the oppressed and assert themselves in the name of justice wherever it is lacking. Although “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.” Yet in America, many Christians have turned a blind eye to the systematic oppression of the black people, first under slavery and then under segregation. Worse still, “the church has too often been an institution seeming to crystallize the patterns of the status quo. Oh, we’ve identified the name of Christ with so many evil things. …We’ve identified that name with exploitation and with oppression and with so many of the evils of history.”
The second lesson is that Christians must be as fiercely committed to spreading the Gospel message of freedom and brotherhood as communists are to spreading their own doctrines. “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 observed. The teachings of communism are attractive in part, King argued, because communists are so ardent in their commitment. “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 biblical and theological literacy to prove it.
To succeed in the battle against communism, King observed, Christians must live their faith not only on Sundays but on weekdays, working not simply to secure material goods and security for themselves but to serve others in their professions, help the hungry and ill-housed poor, and defend human freedom. 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.” The sermon ends with a hopeful vision: if American Christians will meet the challenge of communism with a faith-based zeal for justice, they will “make this old world a new world”—a promise reminiscent of Winthrop’s claims of nearly four hundred years earlier.
Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to reproduce the text of the sermon, but you can access it online through Stanford University’s King Encyclopedia.
How does King portray America in relation to the divine? In what ways does he suggest American religion has failed in regard to Civil Rights? What remedies does he recommend for these failures? How did the religious rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement affect its ability to dissent from the established political and cultural order? What does King suggest Christians can learn from communism and how should they apply those lessons to America’s ongoing racial, cultural, social, and economic problems?
In what ways are King’s views of Christianity and politics and how human beings should treat one another similar to or different from those of Winthrop, Dixon, Fosdick, and Schaeffer?