In Fides et Historia, vol XXXII, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2000), I came across an interesting article by David John Marley; Martin Luther King Jr., Pat Robertson, and the Duality of Modern Christian Politics. I have mentioned the article earlier, in my Icelandic Bible blog when I was writing about Exodus 22.
Marley’s article addresses the constant religious tension between „social justice and personal righteousness“. Marley looks at two of the most influential religious leaders of the 20th century United States, Martin Luther King Jr. and Pat Robertson, and claims that they have many similarities.
These two sons of the South were born 15 months apart, raised in Baptist churches, and had influential fathers who helped propel them to an elite league education. Both went into the ministry, but were quickly attracted to the politics of their times, yet they are usually thought of in totally different circles, both theologically and historically. Both man portrayed their constituents as victims of an actively hostile society. They both had intensely studied religious beliefs and used their media savvy to benefit their respective causes.
In the article Marley looks at King’s teaching between 1966 and 1968 and on Robertson preaching between 1984 and 1988. Whereas King focused almost solely on social justice, while 20 years later Robertson considered the social justice agenda the cause of lacking personal righteousness.
Marley mentions how both King and Robertson changed theological course as young men. King moving away from a fundamental background and Robertson moved towards a more conservative strand than he was raised in.
Marley describes how the theological understanding of humanity and its relationship with God drove their different political agenda.
King believed that humanity was united by a common Creator, from the top down. Robertson believed that union was formed in the opposite direction: one’s personal relationship with God.
Their different understanding of eschatology can also be used to understand political views.
King looked for human works to bring about the kingdom on earth. … He believed that the second coming occurs, “every time we open our hearts to Jesus, every time we turn our backs to the low road and accept the high road”.
… Robertson spoke about the biblical warnings of wars and rumors of wars, people’s hearts becoming more hardened and indifferent toward their fellows, and other signs that the world is coming to an end.
Their ecclesiology was also at odds, while King emphasized a prophetic mission, Robertson saw the church as a spiritual safe haven, disassociated from the political realm.
Marley addresses their different views on war efforts, which can be understood based on their eschatology, and their different views on the federal government. Robertson’s battle for personal righteousness led to a distrust in all social structures, while King’s focus on social justice and common welfare, needed the federal government to become reality.
Marley’s overview of those two ministers and politicians, is useful in understanding the basis for political convictions. It is helpful to remember that questions about left and right in politics are not technical questions, but are based on our understanding of humanity, and in the case of King and Robertson, their understanding of humanity and its relationship with God.