Wayne Flynt addresses southern religion in Martin Luther King Jr.’s and the modern era

(01-31-2012)

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”—Martin Luther King Jr. With these powerful and resounding words, Wayne Flynt, a historian on the Deep South opened his keynote speech.

Held on January 19, in the Richardson Auditorium, was the formal highlight of Martin Luther King Jr. Week on the Adams State campus. As a highly recognized and celebrated professor, author, and historian, Flynt addressed southern religion in relationship to class, politics, and race.

“America is the most fervidly Christian country in the world. Despite the decline in Christianity in recent years, it is still ahead by a large margin,” said Flynt. The problem is how is this reflected in American ethics.

“Many Europeans would argue that they are more ethical than Americans because they have healthcare for all citizens, which is a human right,” said Flynt. This is a modern example of people facing hardships based on their class. In King’s day, the issue was that people couldn’t attend school or pay their taxes because of their devastated economic situations and lack of social mobility.

Flynt continued to explain how the church supported George Wallace, a candidate for Alabama’s governorship in King’s time, despite his racist and oppressive views. Wallace won due to the devout support of the Baptist voters.

Flynt related this event to the current phenomena when modern leaders, such as Bush and Obama, won votes not because of their political opinions, but because of their religious appeal.

Finally, the starkest contrast Flynt made was between the two Southern Baptist congregations. “They disagreed on the public application of ethics,” said Flynt. Although they both have very literal interpretations of the Bible, the African American congregations were much more liberal than their white counterparts. The African Americans took the stance of equality in the kingdom of God, and they resisted unjust laws. “With such different interpretations, it is easy to forget that these views are based on the same textbook,” said Flynt in reference to the Bible.

Overall, the white pastors, school Christians, and missionaries knew that racism and social inequality was wrong, yet they preached it. In the midst of these conflicts, the Vietnam War, tax reform, and many other social changes, King faced a social situation far more complex than what is. It is well known that King used his religious ties to ignite the flame of social reform, but the quantity and intensity of ramifications that this implies are hardly understood by society.

“Making social strides amidst such elaborate social elements—what a legacy,” said Flynt in closing.