Trump’s religious advisers are out of step with Rev. King’s legacy

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on July 2, 1964. Photo by Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office (WHPO) via Creative Commons

(RNS) — Participating in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations at Brightmoor Christian Church in Novi, Mich., and another at Bethel AME Church in Ann Arbor, Mich., last week got us to thinking about the role President Trump’s unofficial religious advisory council plays in his administration.

Does it serve as a moral justification for his or their agenda?  Or, do its members serve as a moral conscience to push the president to contemplate the impact his policies have on the most vulnerable members of our nation and world — as did the churches that participated in the civil rights movement and later the anti-war movement of King’s day?

Roughly 55 years ago, King penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which he called on religious persons and all of good will to push political leaders to enact policies that respect the dignity of all, as all persons, as children of God, are worthy of such.

READ: All the president’s clergymen: A close look at Trump’s ‘unprecedented’ ties with evangelicals

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who served with King in the anti-war group Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, recognized that religious leaders are themselves fallible. He nonetheless urged them to push their congregants and others to contemplate God’s will in protecting human freedom and increasing social-economic opportunities for all.

Clergy should take such stances, he argued, even when doing so is against the law and at odds with the nation’s interest — as did he and King when protesting racial oppression and the Vietnam War.

King and Coffin argued that to be moral guides, religious leaders must be willing to serve as a check on state power. To do so, religious leaders must, like Jesus, who resisted Satan’s temptation to rule over all nations, remain on the outside of power.

King and Coffin makes us think more deeply about the ethical role of Trump’s religious advisers, most of whom are white evangelical Protestant men. In September, it first appeared that the council would take a moral stand on behalf of undocumented migrants. Members argued that their insider status within the Trump administration would allow them to more effectively express their concerns about dismantling DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

However, that’s not what we heard from these advisers following Trump’s recent remarks on the matter.

Ronnie Floyd, from left, Rodney Howard-Browne, Adonica Howard-Browne, Johnnie Moore, and Paula White stand behind President Trump as he talks with evangelical supporters in the Oval Office at the White House. Photo courtesy of Johnnie Moore

Trump held a Jan. 11 meeting with key congressional Democrats and Republicans to strike a deal over protecting DACA recipients in exchange for support of a multibillion-dollar wall to keep undocumented Mexicans out of our nation. In that meeting, Trump expressed his displeasure with U.S. programs that admitted Haitians and Africans. Few of Trump’s religious advisers had anything to say about the president’s views; and, some that did speak up offered tacit support for the president’s sentiments. Some argued that his language may not have been acceptable but that his views are.”

READ: Trump’s alleged ‘s***hole’ remark seems to discomfit some of his evangelical advisers

Trump’s unofficial religious advisory council seems unwilling to embrace the message King made clear in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” sermon, in which he juxtaposes the ethics of funding of war with cuts to anti-poverty programs. One could imagine that if King and Coffin were with us today, they would similarly juxtapose the ethics of funding a multibillion-dollar wall with the recent tax bill, which disproportionately benefits wealthy Americans; reduced funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program; and the continuing effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

If we put aside the ethical problems that followers of King and Coffin may have with this council, we’re left with the fact that this group is largely out of step with the groups they claim to represent, religious Americans in general and evangelicals more specifically.

Every major religious group, including the National Association of Evangelicals, has passed a resolution and/or issued an official statement on race that decries the sins of racism. Every major religious group that has passed resolutions and/or issued statements on immigration calls for immigration policies that balance respect for immigrants with national security.

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Along these lines, over half of evangelical church leaders report their churches providing a ministry and/or service dedicated to immigrants and refugees, which is similar to that of nonevangelical congregations. Six in 10 Americans, according to the 2016 National Politics Study, support religious congregations playing this role in their local communities.

Churches such as Central United Methodist Church in Detroit and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, which risk Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids by providing sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, probably go further in aiding immigrants than most Americans would support. Their immigration ministry more closely follows the tradition of King and Coffin, who prioritized the most vulnerable. It’s a tradition that Trump’s religious advisory council has so far declined to follow.

So, what role does Trump’s advisory council play for this nation? It’s tough to say, but it doesn’t seem to push Trump or the citizenry to contemplate righteousness for righteousness’ sake, as advocated by King, Cofflin, Jesus and other religious figures. And the council’s members don’t seem to reflect the will of most religious Americans. Happy Belated Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

(R. Khari Brown is an associate professor in the sociology department of Wayne State University. Ronald E. Brown is an associate professor in the department of political science of Wayne State University. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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R. Khari Brown

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  • Blunt talk by MLK and Trump sometimes was/is needed to stress a significant issue. And Haiti meets the criteria.

    MLK was no angel as he also was part of the “MeToo” generation (looking at it from the other direction).

    MLK cheated on his wife. An important bit of information when necessarily denouncing politicians and entertainers for doing the same thing. Hoover went overboard in demeaning MLK but there is enough information to conclude that MLK was unfaithful in his marriage. The most damning information:

    “The evidence is quite solid that Martin Luther King, Jr. did cheat on his wife, but the claims that he engaged in orgies or that he had sex with prostitutes, white or otherwise, appear to be totally undocumented at best and complete bunk at worst. Ralph Abernathy, a close personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. and King’s successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wrote a tell-all memoir shortly before he died called And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, which was extremely controversial when it came out 1989, because of its discussion of King’s infidelities. According to this page on snopes.com, which quotes extensively from Abernathy’s autobiography, many African-American women found Dr. King extremely attractive, and King was not always successful in warding off extramarital temptation:

    Martin and I were away more often than we were at home; and while this was no excuse for extramarital relations, it was a reason. Some men are better able to bear such deprivations than others, though all of us in SCLC headquarters had our weak moments. We all understood and believed in the biblical prohibition against sex outside of marriage. It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation. ……….”


  • Rational: You don’t like the ideas, so you attack the messenger. I forget the name of that propaganda tool. Perhaps you’ll tell me. Your deflection would have worked better if you brought in something about the President’s advisers and something about it failing to be a moral equivalency, before you attacked the teachings of MLK, Coffin, and Jesus, by attacking the personal failings of MLK. You’ll do better next time I’m sure.

  • Got about 1/2 way through the article and came to a conclusion…
    He is trying to compare the illegal immigrants with the blacks. I think he is racist.
    Is he trying to say that people who were brought here on board ships where they starved, and died in chains in the equivalent of a type of Hell, are the same as people who crossed a border illegally?
    Is he trying to say that the children of slaves, who were sometimes raped by landowners and could not identify their dads is the equivalent to children who’s parents broke the law to enter the country and have tried to teach their children that lawbreaking is appropriate?

  • Trump’s religious advisers come from the background of those who opposed MLK. They are the remnants of the segregation movement who became the religious right. What they have always been out of step with were notions of civil liberties, decency and propriety. That group has always sought to use religion as a way to express malice in a socially acceptable format.

    So its not as if they sold out their values to support a lying adulterer cheat, swindler, bigot in the White House. They never had them from the outset.

  • Your premise seems to be that King’s infidelities rendered null the positive work he did to advance civil rights. They didn’t.

    Ad hominems are hardly rational conclusions.

  • As long as his history is duly noted as are Trump’s, Clinton’s, Kennedy’s and even Jesus’.

    To wit:

    Jesus was a bit “touched”. After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today’s world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their
    epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J’s gospels being mostly fiction.

  • The topic is MLK’s legacy part of which is his cheating on his wife which many forget.

  • All of our heroes have baggage and imperfections and we need to know what they are. And of course MLK was a follower of that imperfect Jesus.

    today’s followers of Paul et al’s “magic-man” are also a bit on the
    odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting,
    and exorcisms, and miracles, and “magic-man atonement, and infallible,
    old, European/Utah/Argentine white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed
    by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

  • Nonsense. The topic is Trump’s religious advisers and whether or not they honor the work King did in advancing civil rights. The rest is simply an agenda on your part to discredit that work.

    For what it’s worth, King’s sexual indiscretions are well documented, as are Jefferson’s, FDR’s, JFK’s, Bill Clinton’s and Trump’s. Sadly, that seems to be more the norm than the exception among powerful men. Hopefully, that will change.