Senator Barack Obama will accept his party’s nomination for President on August 28, the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The punditry that will follow is likely to be more self-congratulatory–the achievement of King’s dream–than historical analysis of what has taken place. Already we’re in hype-mode. Obama will give his speech before more than 75,000 people in Denver’s Invesco Field, home of the Broncos, as billions more watch on television around the world. Media analysts will likely summon up images of Reverend King delivering his celebrated speech in 1963, which will fade to Obama giving another historic speech in 2008.
Obama has not been shy about encouraging Americans to associate him with Martin Luther King Jr. and the modern civil rights movement. Although the two men signify how much our world has changed in forty-five years, there are manifest differences between them that are worth recognizing. At times, Obama evokes a Christianity that in this day and age resonates more with the conservative Southern black Baptist theology of Martin Luther King Sr., rather than the younger King’s modern liberal theology that extolled a gospel of social equality.
Much has been written about Obama and his faith claims. He was raised in a polyglot of secularism. His maternal grandparents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists and his stepfather has been described as a “nominal Muslim.” Obama joined Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ when he was in his 30s for largely political reasons. His hyper-Christianity has been attributed to his effort to reassure voters that he is 100 percent “American,” and to counteract some peoples’ narrow-minded belief that his foreign-sounding name and his forebears’ Muslim history are evidence that he is an outsider and therefore not qualified to be President. When Obama evokes Jesus before some audiences, especially in the South, it is not clear whether we are witnessing calculated opportunism or that he has not examined the way mainstream Protestant theology has changed over time. In some ways, he more resembles King’s father than he does the more famous King who dared to dream.
When King Sr. assumed the pulpit of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1932, his experiences had been limited to small rural churches. Like many of his generation, he had not attended college. His theological education took place informally and in Atlanta’s Baptist Ministers Union, where pastors from the city’s Baptist churches convened every week to discuss church and worldly matters. He had little interest in the big theological battles over Christian fundamentalism; but then, neither did other southern Christians of his generation, because the dominant force in southern Protestantism, black and white, was so conservative that there was little to fight over. The first thing King did when he arrived at Ebenezer was take control of the church’s finances. Using a business model that he adopted from the black-owned Atlanta Life Insurance Company on Auburn Avenue, he put the floundering church in the black. Later he was elected to the boards of trustees of Morehouse College and the Citizens Trust Bank. The senior King’s theology was grounded in what I call Black Christian Nationalism, a worldview that had more in common with the advertising executive Bruce Barton than with a post-1945 social gospel that we have come to associate with the modern civil rights movement. (Barton’s book, The Man Nobody Knows, presents Jesus as a businessman; it topped the nonfiction bestseller list in 1925.)