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Would King Have Evolved on Gay Rights?

Recently, and not surprisingly, the emotional battle over LGBT rights has focused on America's moral giant Martin Luther King, Jr. and the question: "What Would Martin Do?"
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President Obama's declaration of support for marriage equality has created an uproar in Christian communities across America, and nowhere more poignantly than in the Black Church where the President is largely admired, but which has traditionally been more socially conservative on issues of sexuality.

Many African American leaders have come out strongly in support of same-sex marriage and the president as a fundamental issue of justice and civil rights. The NAACP made the decision to support marriage equality with the Chairman of the Board of Directors, Roslyn M. Brock, stating: "The mission of the NAACP has always been to ensure the political, social and economic equality of all people. We have and will oppose efforts to codify discrimination into law."

Likewise, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, said to his church: The question I believe we should pose to our congregations is, "Should all Americans have the same civil rights?"

Of course, many black Christian leaders are pushing back against the president and his "slap in the face of black clergy" and "declaration of political war against the venerable institution of marriage," according to Bishop Harry Jackson.

Recently, and not surprisingly, the emotional battle over LGBT rights has focused on America's moral giant Martin Luther King, Jr. and the question: "What Would Martin Do?"

A recent press release from Dr. Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr., came with the Headline: "My Uncle Martin Luther King, Jr. Did Not March For Same Sex Marriage." And MLK's daughter, Bernice King, famously said in a 2004 march against same-sex marriage with the now disgraced Eddie Long ""I know deep down in my sanctified soul that he [Dr. King] did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage."

The only time King publicly mentions homosexuality was in 1958 while answering a question in his advice column in Ebony magazine in which a boy asked:

"I am a boy. But I feel about boys the way I ought to feel about girls. I don't want my parents to know about me. What can I do?"

King answered: "Your problem is not at all an uncommon one. However, it does require careful attention. The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired. You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it."

Professor Michael Long, who is the editor of "I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin's Life in Letters" explains that King's response was notable for how temperate it was given that during this time LGBT people were commonly referred to as perverts and sociopaths by religious leaders such as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Billy Graham.

However, Long is clear that King did not ever publicly proclaim or embrace the views that fuels the modern LGBT civil rights movement. In fact, King remained silent during the beginnings of the homophile movement of the '50s which, at the time, was taking inspiration from the black civil rights movement.

But the question that remains open: had he lived to see this day, would Martin Luther King, Jr's view of LGBT peoples have 'evolved' (to use the president's word) to full acceptance and in support of same-sex marriage?

My take on this stretches back a couple of generations to my great-grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch who was a prominent preacher in the early 20th century, most closely identified with what is known as the Social Gospel.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was influenced by Rauschenbusch and stated:

"Rauschenbusch gave to American Protestantism a sense of social responsibility that it should never lose. The gospel at its best deals with the whole man. Not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well being but his material well-being."

Yet what King politely omitted was the relatively scant attention Rauschenbusch paid to the question of racism. While he decried slavery and Jim Crow as a modern-day sin, Rauschenbusch never addressed racism squarely, and at some points expressed a world view whose racism makes one cringe in embarrassment.

Yet there is no question that Rauschenbusch would have supported the black civil rights movement. Walter would have evolved as he came face to face with more African Americans and recognized their struggle for basic dignity and rights as part of the call of the Gospel.

Never a fundamentalist or Biblical literalist, Rauschenbusch understood passages in Scripture that apparently condoned racism or slavery as errant in the extreme, and saw through people who used them for oppressive ends as theologically lazy or willfully mean.

Rauschenbusch's non-fundamentalist approach to the tradition and the Bible would have allowed him to continue to evolve on the question of race until he had repented (and it does call for repentance) of the racism that dominated his time and place and embraced the civil rights movement as God's Spirit continuing to move in the world.

King was also not a fundamentalist or Biblical literalist. In King's time, many black churches, and more white churches, were wary of King's justice work. Churches and traditions that then (and still today) used a fundamentalist approach to theology and literalist approach to Scripture were deeply suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, King's civil rights and poverty work.

Yet King's non-fundamentalist approach to faith and Scripture freed him to hear the Spirit moving in his own time. Transcending centuries of racist teachings to the contrary, he knew that the core of the Gospel was justice, dignity and freedom for all people.

Throughout his life, King expanded his circle of concern to include the civil rights movement, to the Vietnam War, to the plight of poor people of every color. Dr. Wallace Best, a religion and African American studies professor at Princeton put it succinctly: "Fundamentally, King stood for justice, equality and fairness and certainly against any kind of discrimination."

There has been a lot of talk about how the president's evolved view showed a weakness of conviction. This is a completely false reading. The ability to evolve actually demonstrates an openness to the lifelong process of growing in wisdom and compassion. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s wife, Coretta Scott King certainly evolved into a great supporter of gay rights, and she has been followed more recently by the NAACP, Otis Moss and many others. Even Bernice King, in a recent MLK, Jr. unity rally seems to have softened her former stance.

Knowing what we know about the whole of King's life and person as a non-fundamentalist Christian lover of Justice, it seems clear he would have evolved to welcome ALL people into the beloved community -- including the LGBT communities.

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