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For many years, apart from sporadic eruptions in American society, the issue of race has played Banquo’s ghost at the American evangelical banquet: an unsettling, unwelcome, somewhat passive guest. But recent trends in American public opinion, fueled by reports of police violence, have made race an inescapable topic, fierce and divisive. Critical race theory (CRT), promoted by progressive activists and adopted by many evangelical intellectuals, has become the shibboleth: Are you for it? Or are you against it? A movement already strained to the breaking point by the Trump presidency now faces the very real possibility of coming apart over race.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Southern Baptist Convention. At its annual meeting in 2019, the SBC passed a motion “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.” The goal was to hold the two sides together. The motion subordinated CRT to the Bible but allowed that it offers helpful tools.

This effort at moderation did not satisfy hard-liners on either side. In July, Pastor John Onwuchekwa took his Atlanta congregation out of the Convention because of what he regarded as the SBC’s failure to treat racial issues with sufficient urgency. Just months earlier, a new group of SBC pastors founded the Conservative Baptist Network, a coalition for those who see the SBC as dangerously soft on “wokeness” in the ranks. More recently, the presidents of the six seminaries of the SBC issued a public statement, declaring that CRT is incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message (the doctrinal standard of the SBC). The polarized response to this statement indicates just how deep the disagreement on CRT in Southern Baptist circles now runs.

Critical race theory, like other critical ­theories—postcolonialism or queer ­theory, for example—is self-certifying. Its basic claims, for example, that racism is systemic or that being non-racist is impossible, are not conclusions drawn from arguments. They are axioms, and they cannot be challenged by those who do not agree with them. Those who ­dissent or offer criticism are, by definition, part of the problem.

This pattern can be seen in the reactions of pundits to the fact that in the recent election, Donald Trump increased his support among Latinos and African Americans. Most of us would read these electoral results as indicating that perhaps supporting Trump was not as racist as many pundits have claimed. But better, more telepathic, minds disagreed. Charles Blow, columnist for the New York Times wrote: “This is so personally devastating to me: the black male vote for Trump INCREASED from 13% in 2016 to 18% this year. The black female vote for Trump doubled from 4% in 2016 to 8% this year.” Rather than revise his view of Trump, he said the results showed that “some people who have historically been oppressed will stand with the oppressors, and will aspire to power by proximity.” Trump’s gains among minorities were thus not evidence that he was less racist than claimed. They were merely evidence that the oppressed are so dim that they frequently vote for their oppressors.

Nothing brings out the elitist paternalism of intellectuals on the left more quickly than the fact that those it seeks to liberate from oppression so often fail to support progressive causes. Critical theory began in the 1930s with the work of men such as Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and ­Theodore ­Adorno. These men evolved Marxist doctrines to explain why the proletariat in places like Germany flocked to the nationalist parties of the right, such as Hitler’s National Socialists, instead of allying with the left to precipitate communist revolution. The proletariat, they concluded, suffered from false consciousness.

Critical theory, whatever form it takes, relies on the concept of false consciousness—the notion that the oppressors control society so completely that the oppressed believe their own interests are served by the status quo. This is a wonderful idea. It allows every piece of evidence that might refute one’s ­theory to be transformed into further evidence of how deep and comprehensive the problem of oppression is. If factory workers buy houses in the suburbs and vote for Republicans, that’s not a fact that requires rethinking Marx’s theories; it’s a sign of how all-­powerful bourgeois ideology has become.

Erich Fromm and company thought in terms of class and economics. Ibram X. Kendi and his allies think in terms of race and discourses of power. But the postmodern twist does not change the basic logic. As a former colleague used to quip: same horse, different jockey. Critical race theory is the Marxist horse, ridden by the jockey of identity politics rather than the jockey of class warfare.

Compare the logic of critical race theory with Chairman Mao’s infamous circular of May 16, 1966, a foundational document of the Chinese Cultural Revolution:

Just when we began the counter-offensive against the wild attacks of the bourgeoisie, the authors of the outline raised the slogan: “everyone is equal before the truth.” This is a bourgeois slogan. Completely negating the class nature of truth, they use this slogan to protect the bourgeoisie and oppose the proletariat, oppose Marxism-Leninism, and oppose Mao Tse-tung’s thought.

Substitute “white” for “bourgeois” and “race” for “class”: Precisely this logic allows CRT to assume the illegitimacy of anything that questions its account of reality.

Critical race theory is American in its origin and content, but Black Lives Matter has given it currency worldwide. People in countries where racism is not a function of skin color or of the history of slavery have adopted its slogans and actions. In this we see the latest act of American pop-cultural ­imperialism, emanating from elite university seminar rooms rather than Disney World.

The attraction is obvious: Critical race theory rests on simple, therapeutic premises. It leaves no room for argument or doubt. For all its sophisticated language, CRT portrays life as a zero-sum game. Some people do not have power. They struggle and do not ­flourish. This happens because somebody else has seized power from them and oppresses them in an ongoing and unrelenting way. The oppression has solidified into a self-justifying system. There is a comprehensive explanation for all the evils we suffer.

Those premises speak powerfully to the moral imagination of our age. We harbor a belief that, with enough goodwill, intelligence, and resources, our social problems can be solved, and evils eradicated. This was the conceit behind the War on Poverty in the 1960s, as well as other ambitious endeavors to transform society. If we believe solutions are available, then it follows that someone is to blame for persistent problems such as poverty or racial imbalances in achievement. Those in power must lack the will to find solutions, or they are too selfish to allocate resources. Utilitarianism as a moral philosophy adds to this presumption that someone is to blame for social evils. Jeremy Bentham held that most social evils could be alleviated if rational people applied the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. That they do not do so can be explained only by their perfidious character and bondage to old-fashioned ways of thinking.

Given these very modern approaches to the problem of evil, critical race theory is extremely ­seductive. Who wants to be guilty of standing on the side of the oppressors rather than in solidarity with the victims of injustice? The theory is likewise hard to oppose, since it denies the legitimacy of arguments that call it into question. The he-who-is-not-­with-us-is-against-us rhetoric ensures that even tentative reservations will sound, well, racist. How many of us want to identify ourselves as not “­antiracist”? Who wants to appear to deny that black lives matter?

All-embracing and transformative views often have a religious quality. Critical race theory is no exception. It has a creedal language and liturgy, with orthodox words (“white privilege,” “systemic racism”) and prescribed actions (raising the fist, taking the knee). To deviate from the forms is to deviate from the faith. Certain words are heretical (“non-racist,” “all lives matter”). The slogan “silence is violence” is a potent rhetorical weapon. To fail to participate in the liturgy is to reject the antiracism the liturgy purports to represent—something only a racist would do.

How has it come to pass that radical thinking of this sort now shakes American evangelical institutions such as the Southern Baptist Convention to their foundations? Part of the answer can be found in Jemar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise. Tisby’s account of American evangelicalism contains much that is true. There is undeniably a shameful story to be told about the white Protestant churches of America and their connection to slavery, segregation, and racism.

George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards were the most important leaders of the Great Awakening in colonial America, and they loom large in the ­pantheon of evangelical heroes. Tisby highlights their roles as slaveowners and casts them as advocates of slavery. These are not new revelations, and there are nuances: Edwards, for example, argued against the slave trade even as he deemed slavery a biblically authorized institution in a fallen world. The bill of indictment is not confined to Edwards and Whitefeld. In his treatments of Presbyterian ­stalwarts James Henley Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney, Tisby raises hard questions. He then moves to the more recent history of the church’s ­involvement in segregation and its opposition to civil rights.

These truths about evangelical complicity with slavery and later forms of racism have often been acknowledged by evangelical writers. But the acknowledgment usually functions as throat-clearing and precedes arguments in favor of the tradition’s grand figures and the movement’s accomplishments. Tisby forces evangelical readers to face the dark side of their heroes and engage in some soul-searching. He concludes with suggestions for how today’s Christians should address the past: making Juneteenth a federal holiday, reparations, and the establishment of black-only seminaries.

The Color of Compromise pointedly raises important matters for legitimate public discussion and persuasion. Yet the evangelical race debate is moving beyond the hard challenges Tisby outlines. He and others now insist that racism is of the very essence of white American evangelicalism.

Tisby’s review in the New York Times of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones offers a striking example. The final paragraphs contain a summary assessment of the implications of America’s history of racism:

White Christians have to face the possibility that everything they have learned about how to practice their faith has been designed to explicitly or implicitly reinforce a racist structure. In the end, White Too Long seems to present a stark choice: Hold onto white Christianity or hold onto Jesus. It cannot be both.

Everything taught in Sunday School and proclaimed from the pulpit is antithetical to true Christian faith? That is a very dramatic statement.

Were Tisby’s claim simply that white Christians need to recognize the cultural dimensions of their worship practices and acknowledge that they are not natural and normative for all, it would not be particularly controversial. My wife and I came as adults to the U.S. For years after we arrived, we often remarked to each other that we never felt more like aliens than on Sundays, which is ironic, given that we share a faith with those with whom we worshipped. But the church services here are different. The hymnbook is not the Scottish Psalter. Even in familiar hymns, different lyrics are often played at a faster tempo. “There is so little lament in American worship,” my wife often says. The sermons have more jokes, less existential urgency, different doctrinal priorities, fewer practical applications. In short, we have found worship to be very American and often alienating. It is saturated in American culture, as our worship back home was saturated in Scottish Highland culture. But we do not move from that to the conclusion that everything American Christians believe is wrong.

Tisby is not merely claiming that the outward aesthetics and doctrinal emphases of white Christianity pose problems for black Christians; he is effectively claiming that Christians who are white cannot be Christians in any true sense. Such a categorical judgment is startling. It is also irrefutable on its own terms, given the inherent denial of legitimate status to anything white Christians might believe or say in response. “Of course, white Christians will object to my summary dismissal of their faith,” we can imagine Tisby saying. “That’s what their racist debasement of Christianity teaches them to do.”

Now, we must be careful not to read too much into a writer’s sharply worded comment. We have all said things for dramatic effect that we would ­nuance or withdraw if challenged to be more rigorous. But there are signs that these kinds of all-or-nothing judgments are making inroads into mainstream evangelical thinking.

In an article at The Gospel Coalition titled “Why I Hate August,” K. Edward Copeland, an ­African-American pastor, writes with passion about the recent events in Kenosha, triggered by the police shooting of Jacob Blake and culminating in Kyle Rittenhouse’s killing of two people involved in the subsequent protests.

Copeland’s passion is justified. But his approach is troubling. He insists that we must rule out from the start any thought of moral complexity:

If your default impulse is to try to justify the seven or eight bullet holes in Jacob Blake’s body—He’s no angel; What was in his system? He was probably reaching for a weapon; He should have complied; We don’t have all the facts—just consider the facts we actually do know about Kyle. He took lives in front of physical and digital witnesses. He’s alive. No bullet holes in his body. He will be charged and tried in court, not on the streets, as it should be in a just society.

Copeland is wrong to suggest that inquiring into the circumstances of the shooting of Blake must be an attempt to justify or minimize it. To ask questions about the context of an action is not in itself to excuse it or rationalize it. A Christian with a Pauline understanding of the fallen human condition should, of all people, be aware of the moral complexity of human agency. It is this awareness that leads us to distinguish between murder and manslaughter, between intentional harms and those caused by culpable negligence. Responsible moral judgment requires us to consider circumstances, contexts, and motives.

Copeland worries that some will respond to his thoughts with lazy cries of “critical race theory!” or “cultural Marxism!” The worry is well-founded. The evangelical world increasingly features reckless rhetoric on both sides of the critical race theory debate, rhetoric intended to foreclose the conversation before it has begun. Yet if one wishes to avoid being accused of using CRT, then one should avoid the flat moral register that treats very different historical wrongs in accord with a single theme of racial oppression.

Critical theories define central injustices as systemic. This means that everyone is complicit, even if no one in particular is responsible. The system is immoral; individual agents and acts reflect the evils of the system. This analysis generates a strong tendency toward a flattened moral register without scale or hierarchy. All racist, sexist, or homophobic deeds manifest and reinforce the evil of the system. All acts, and even words, are tinged with violence: An insult is described in terms we think appropriate to a blow with the fist (“verbal assault”). By talking all the time about “systemic racism,” we undermine our ability to distinguish among degrees of evil—which is ­necessary not in order to excuse evil acts, but to rank them on a moral scale. In his reflection, ­Copeland moves from Emmett Till through Martin Luther King Jr. to Jacob Blake—a sequence without distinctions. This is the register of critical theory, and so Copeland’s reader is not unreasonable to suspect he is ­encountering CRT.

An article in Christianity Today follows the same pattern. In “The Shocking Necessity of Racist Violence,” Christina Barland Edmondson writes: “The so-called shared faith of white Christians and black Christians does not guard against violence toward the Emmett Tills, Tamir Rices, or George Floyds of society.” The three names represent deaths in three very different circumstances: Till died at the hands of racists who deliberately set out to kill him; Rice was shot by a policeman while pointing a toy gun; Floyd died in the course of an arrest. The three incidents possess different degrees of moral complexity. To recognize this is not to excuse any one of the deaths or to declare any one of them justified. But to conflate the three implies that racist violence defines moral reality.

Elsewhere Edmondson declares: “White Christianity’s very design exists to maintain false piety and sear the consciences of white people against the oppression and exploitation of blacks.” Again, were the claim that some—many, even all—white Christians are at some level involved in racism, one could debate the matter with appeals to evidence. But this is not an argument about white Christians. It is an axiomatic assertion about “white Christianity,” a category that remains undefined. Does it comprehend Russian Orthodox believers in Moscow? Progressive Lutherans in Finland? Are white-skinned people who gather to pray and worship inevitably practicing “white Christianity”? Edmondson speaks of the “so-called shared faith of white Christians and black Christians”—“so-called,” because the supposed faith of the one is in fact an instrument for oppressing the other. On this account, whites and blacks really share nothing. Is this because those formed by “white Christianity” are not Christians at all (“false piety”)?

Categorical statements and condemnations of the sort encouraged by CRT are hard to square with a faith whose founder ordered that we judge not, lest we be judged. But perhaps I am offering a white Christian take on the Sermon on the Mount. According to critical race theory, I am making a cynical power play to silence a voice with which I happen to disagree.

The two sides of the race debate are now well-established in American Christianity, especially among evangelicals. But they do not contend on equal terms. ­Edmondson talks of social power but seems unaware that social power is a complex matter these days. It is a paradoxical but pervasive truth that those who criticize “systemic racism” have access to the elite organs of the establishment, whether the New York Times or (in the smaller world of American evangelicalism) publications such as Christianity Today, a privilege not typically extended to their critics. To set forth one’s opinions in such influential publications without the serious possibility of being challenged in their pages—that is surely a form of social power.

This brings me to the most serious problem with the way today’s conversation about race is happening: It is not happening. That is not merely the result of the brickbats each side hurls at the other: “cultural Marxism,” “white privilege.” There is no conversation because organs such as Christianity Today fail to promote respectful and thoughtful engagement. R. Albert Mohler Jr. has written against CRT; but he did so for Public Discourse, not one of the evangelical organs one would think eager to publish his influential voice. We may be forgiven for wondering whether the editors of Christianity Today would give Mohler or any other critic of CRT the same access to column inches (much less the same immunity to criticism) that they have accorded writers who make sweeping claims about “white Christianity.”

Critical race theory’s allure for evangelicals and other Christians is obvious. Christians are supposed to speak up for the weak and the voiceless. Tisby’s narrative reminds us that when it comes to race, too often American Christians have done the opposite. Sympathy for victims and guilt for the past are powerful motivators to those whose master dined with prostitutes and tax collectors while pronouncing woe on the rich and powerful. It is not surprising, therefore, that a theoretical framework that allows for easy identification and denunciation of evil is appealing. But when that framework flattens our moral judgment and erases distinctions, makes “the system” the culprit, and guards its assertions with a self-certifying account of what must be affirmed, the scene is set not for Christian reconciliation but for cultural intimidation, as all dissent is denounced as racist.

Will any of the major magazines or websites of mainstream evangelicalism publish measured criticisms of critical race theory? If not, then evangelicalism is not having a conversation on race; it is reciting a liturgy. That is a tragedy because, as Tisby’s book shows, what is needed is a real conversation—not a conformist posture of “prophetic discourse” that imitates the secular establishment’s embrace of transgression and critique as marks of elite status. There are signs of hope. Race and Covenant, a new collection of essays from the Acton Institute edited by Gerald McDermott, faces the hard questions but avoids shrill simplifications. But the Acton Institute does not possess the social power of the New York Times, Christianity Today, or the Gospel Coalition.

Evangelical leaders need to count the cost of letting rhetorical assertions of the sort made by ­Edmondson and others go unchallenged. As the conceits of systemic evil, false consciousness, and hegemonic discourse are legitimated, we must prepare for other critical theories to use them against orthodox Christians. Consider this formulation: “Straight, cisgendered Christianity exists to maintain false piety and sear the consciences of straight, cisgendered people against the oppression and exploitation of queer and trans people.” The next jockey may wear a rainbow shirt instead of one with a BLM logo. But he’ll be riding the same horse. It seems that some of the most influential institutions in American evangelicalism have already bet on him to win. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.