Near the end of 2020 the council of Southern Baptist seminary presidents issued a statement condemning Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Intersectionality stating:
“In light of current conversations in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), we stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form and we also declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.”
That statement seems to contradict the 2019 SBC resolution on CRT. That resolution defined CRT as “a set of analytical tools that explain how race has and continues to function in society.” This set of tools must be subordinate to Scripture. However, Southern Baptists may carefully glean information gained from these tools.
The seminary President’s statement prompted prominent Southern Baptist churches to break from the convention. The question of CRT continues to be a significant point of debate within the SBC.
The controversy in the SBC is only a microcosm of CRT in the broader culture. Within Christian circles “Critical Theory” and accusations of “cultural Marxism” have become reasons for immediate dismissals of any calls to address racism at the structural level. On the other side, if one criticizes CRT, he will be accused of not caring about racism, or worse, of being a racist.
To add to this confusion, it’s hard to find a shared definition of Critical Race Theory. Evangelical defenders of CRT define it as a set of analytical tools. Opponents refer to it as a worldview that stands in stark contrast to the Biblical worldview.
I’m not nearly enough of an expert on the subject matter to offer my own opinions, but I want to point you to a few Christian thinkers I’ve encountered over the past several months:
Jemar Tisby, The Witness
According to Tisby, “Critical Race Theory” has become nothing more than an epithet used to shut down anyone who wants to talk about racial justice:
“Do you want to talk about systemic racism? That’s Critical Race Theory.
Do you support the Black Lives Matter movement? That’s Critical Race Theory.
Do you think white men may have a blind spot about race because of their social location? That’s Critical Race Theory.
Do you think that people who identify as both Black and female face racism and sexism’s compounding effects? That’s Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.”
No substantive definition of “Critical Race Theory” is given. Instead, it is only a way of putting racial justice advocates in the “box” of “the wrong kind of Christian.” By condemning CRT “the seminary presidents take aim at virtually anyone who advocates for racial justice beyond hugs, handshakes, and symbolic statements”
Worse, the statement fails to address the more significant issue in the SBC, namely Christian Nationalism, which Tisby sees as “the greatest threat to Christianity in the United States.”
David Fitch, on The Holy Post Podcast
The Holy Post podcast, hosted by Phil Vischer and Skye Jethani regularly discusses contemporary social issues, especially through Skye’s interviews. In a recent episode, Skye interviewed theologian David Fitch on the topic of Critical Theory.
Fitch described Critical Theory as a way of breaking down the layers of our cultural frameworks and deconstructing our assumptions, especially about power. He agrees that Critical Theory should not serve as the basis for building a theory of justice but says that we can use Critical Theory as an effective diagnostic tool to identify the functions of power in our world. We abused Critical Theory when we mistake the diagnostic tool for the cure.
How can Critical Theory be used as a tool? It offers the discourse (language) by which we can talk and think about power. For instance, Fitch talked about “whiteness” (see Tisby’s article above for a short description) as a linguistic framework that sets the standard of what it means to be successful. By identifying this structure we can then deconstruct it. For the Christian, this deconstruction would be done in the light of the gospel.
Alisa Childers, Another Gospel
Another Gospel? (review) chronicles Alisa Childers’ deconstruction and reconstruction of her Christian faith. She tells the story of how she attended a class led by a progressive pastor who challenged core aspects of her faith. She then recounts how progressive Christianity differs from historic Christianity and shows how progressive Christianity comes up empty.
In one portion of the book, she specifically addresses Critical Theory (not Critical Race Theory specifically). She is among those who label Critical Theory not as a set of tools but as a worldview that stands in opposition to Christianity.
According to Childers, Critical Theory seeks to understand and critique power along the lines of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc. It sees the world as a struggle between the oppressed and oppressors and then seeks to re-align the power structures in favor of the marginalized. Additionally, she points out that Critical Theory is marked by its approach to gaining knowledge and discerning truth. It prioritizes lived experiences over rationality and argues that one’s privilege produces blind spots that can only be overcome by listening to the marginalized.
She goes on to explain how Critical Theory functions as a worldview in answering life’s fundamental questions. Who are we? According to Biblical Christianity, our identity is defined by our image-bearer status. In CT, our identity is found in how we related to other groups based on our gender, race, class, etc. What is the problem with the world? According to Biblical Christianity, the problem is sin. According to CT, the problem is oppression. How can it be fixed? According to Biblical Christianity, our sin problem is fixed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. According to CT, oppression is solved through activism, awareness, and the overthrow of oppressive systems of power.
Childers goes on to say that Christians should strive for good works as a response of faith but that Critical Theory establishes a works-based false gospel, apart from faith in Jesus.
David French’s article “On the Use and Abuse of Critical Race Theory in American Christianity” deserves a more significant treatment than I can give in this context, but here are a few of the highlights:
- Good: CRT analysis “helps me not only understand the reason for persistent disparities, but it should also build empathy and motivate action. What can we do to ameliorate the effects of this disparate power and privilege?”
- Not-so-good: Race is not always the best lens by which to view the world, so CRT doesn’t always view the world accurately. It’s a hammer that sees everything as a nail.
- Bad: The explicit rejection of liberalism found certain forms of CRT create “subjective authoritarianism” which “rejected any form of objective test for harassing speech.”
- Worst: Extreme forms of CRT place race at the center of human identity, contrary to Galatians 3:27-28.
French pulls it all together like this (emphasis mine):
“In that construct, critical race theory can be an analytical tool (one of many) that can help us understand persistent inequality and injustice in the United States. To the extent, however, that it presents itself as a totalizing ideology—one that explains American history in full and prescribes an illiberal antidote to American injustice—it falters and ultimately fails. Moreover, as a totalizing ideology, it contradicts core scriptural truths.”
Interestingly, French concludes by pointing the reading to the 2019 SBC resolution linked at the beginning of this article.
There’s much I could say about each of these perspectives but I’ll conclude with four observations.
First, I agree with Tisby that “Critical Race Theory” (and I’ll add “Cultural Marxism”) are frequently mere labels given to anyone who supports structural or systemic reform, even if those reforms have very little to do with CRT, either the analytical tools or the “totalizing ideology.”
Using labels in this way endemic in our culture and is not unique to CRT.
Second, I wish the SBC presidents had defined CRT, showing which aspects of it are opposed to historic Christianity. I appreciate that Childers did just that, but because of the polarized world in which we live, I fear that many people read “social justice” as “critical race theory” and therefore would conclude that entertaining social justice talk means that one has fallen into a form of progressive Christianity that represents a false gospel.
Third, I agree with Fitch and French that CRT may have value as a diagnostic tool. Power and oppression are not the primary filters by which we should view the world, but they are real factors of the world in which we live and they have real consequences. Power and oppression are tied to systems and structures. To the extent CRT can help us identify those systems, it has value.
Fourth, I agree with Childers, French, and Fitch that Critical Race Theory fails as a totalizing ideology. At best its insights can supplement our understanding of the world. At its most extreme, it presents a false gospel.