There was a lot going on in November of 2020. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and a White House administration stoking baseless claims of a stolen election, you could be forgiven for missing a joint letter signed by all six presidents of the nation’s Southern Baptist seminaries. The letter stated definitively that Critical Race Theory and “any version of Critical Theory” is “incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.”
There’s an old joke about how many Baptists it takes to screw in a lightbulb. Hundreds, goes the joke, to form all the various committees and subcommittees needed to approve the lightbulb’s replacement. There’s truth to that, so it’s fairly remarkable that six Southern Baptist presidents were able to agree on such a decisive, sweeping statement. It’s a little less remarkable when you realize that all six men are White.
The fallout to the letter was swift and disastrous. Several Black pastors very publicly left the Southern Baptist Convention, including prominent faith leaders like Chicago, Illinois’ Charlie Dates, as well as Ralph West and John Onwuchekwa, both of Houston, Texas.
The laboriously named Council of Seminary Presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention attempted to backpedal a little in January, expressing regret that the “statement inadvertently caused significant hurt among some Black brothers and sisters” while standing by the “genuine concern about what we see as dangerous ideologies.” But for many, the damage was done.
For Kyle Howard, it made no sense. “Somehow the Gospel is so feeble, so anemic, that some legal theory is going to somehow circumvent the Church and overthrow it?” he asks, incredulous. “And it’s going to prevail over the kingdom of God while the gates of hell won’t. It’s the most preposterous thing that I can ever imagine.”
Howard is a public theologian who helps Christians who’ve experienced spiritual abuse and racial trauma in the Church. He says he thinks many Christian CRT critics are ignoring more important conversations.
It was among the first microcosms of the American Church’s monumental struggle with the subject of Critical Race Theory, a once-obscure field of legal scholarship that has become a flashpoint in the culture wars. The whole thing has resulted in a number of contentious dustups that speak not just to a historically consistent pattern regarding the Church’s fumbling of racial justice issues, but whether or not the Church will be seen as a viable champion of justice by younger generations for whom racial equality is a core principle.
To think sensibly about Critical Race Theory, we have to first understand what Critical Race Theory actually is. That’s easier said than done, since there’s a lot of misinformation out there about CRT.
For many Americans, CRT has become a catch-all shorthand for all things racially “woke” (which has itself become a catch-all shorthand for various strains of social progressivism). This bad faith flattening of CRT is deliberate, and can largely be credited to Christopher Rufo, a political activist who has helped engineer a moral panic around CRT. He got his start stoking fears about the negative implications of workplace diversity training and by late 2020 found himself on Tucker Carlson, asking then-President Donald Trump to sign an executive order “abolishing critical race theory trainings from the federal government.”
Within days, Rufo got his wish. Trump issued an executive order banning any federal program from teaching that the “United States is an inherently racist or evil country or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”
On the surface, such a ban sounds benign or even commendable. But critics warn that such bans are being used to censor accurate teachings of American history. For example, a proposed CRT ban in Texas schools would remove Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech and “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” from the mandatory curriculum. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick defended the legislation, saying “parents want their students to learn how to think critically, not be indoctrinated by the ridiculous leftist narrative that America and our Constitution are rooted in racism.”
Rufo has publicly admitted to intentionally distorting the concept of CRT, tweeting that “the goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”
“We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans,” he continued.
It’s a clever plan and it has been, by all measures, spectacularly successful. Elected officials in at least 16 states have introduced legislation “seeking to limit the teaching of critical race theory within public institutions,” according to InsideHigherEd. Another 11 states have already passed such legislation. Education Week notes that in Tennessee, school districts found to have “knowingly violated” state guidelines around the teaching of “systemic racism, White privilege and sexism” will be levied fines starting at a million dollars. Matt Hawn, a teacher in Bountville, Tennessee, was fired after assigning his high school students an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
On the other side of the culture war, you find some would-be advocates for CRT who flatten the concept in a different direction, assuring critics that Critical Race Theory is simply talking about racism, no more and no less. These people are doing more harm to their cause than they think, since CRT is far more complex than that.
At its core, Critical Race Theory was first introduced around 40 years ago as a way of explaining how the injustice in the American legal system disproportionately affects Black Americans. Legal scholars like Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Richard Delgado were among the first to introduce CRT as a social structure in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
CRT rests on a few basic premises. First, racism is both real and relatively unremarkable in the U.S.
That is to say, while CRT does not necessarily argue that the country is fundamentally racist, it is premised on the belief that racism is fairly ordinary.
Second, racism exists for a reason. CRT proposes that the legal system sorts American citizens into various striations of power and privilege, and that White supremacy was a major (if not the major) factor in how citizens were sorted. Therefore, racism still serves a purpose of keeping White people in positions of power and privilege. This remains true even for White people who despise racism. They might very sincerely loathe the idea of racism, but CRT proposes that they don’t have a lot of incentive to get rid of it because they benefit from it, whether or not they’re consciously aware of it.
Finally, but crucially, CRT argues that race is a construct with no basis in genetics or biology. There is some debate in CRT circles about whether the construct is primarily social or economic, but the key point is that there is no material difference between a person from Beijing, a person from Nairobi and a person from San Francisco. That’s important, because if race is a construct, then the construct can be changed to suit the needs of the majority. Irish immigrants in the U.S., once an oppressed minority, can be subsumed by the ruling class if it suits them.
Taken together, this theory of race can be used to explain various legal injustices. As just one example, taken the government’s literal red lines around real estate they considered to be a bad financial investment. Those lines were often drawn explicitly because of the racial makeup of the areas in question. This “redlining” meant banks refused to offer loans to the Black people who lived in those neighborhoods, largely barring Black families from the tide of upward mobility experienced by White families in the country’s post-war boom.
This is just one example. Historians can also point to inequality in how the G.I. Bill was administered, or federal laws around allowing Black families to buy homes in White housing developments, as ways racism embedded itself at a systemic level in the American legal system that had enormous impact on Black livelihood today. The average Black household has about a tenth the wealth of the average White household, and CRT draws a line between racist laws implemented decades or even centuries ago to modern realities. It argues that such systemic issues have had at least as much impact — if not more — on the wellbeing of Black Americans as individual racists.
“A Profound Distraction”
While CRT began as a primarily legal framework, it has been conflated with a number of other social movements, including anti-racism, social justice and cultural marxism. In fact, some critics now associate CRT with virtually all racial diversity programs, whether or not those efforts use CRT. There are a number of criticisms, but maybe the most common is this: CRT teaches that White people are inherently racist.
This is not accurate, strictly speaking. CRT teaches that racism is an ordinary part of the American experience at a deeper level than the beliefs of American individuals. If racism is coded into American laws at a systemic level, then White people can make decisions that uphold racism even if they, themselves, “don’t have a racist bone” in their bodies.
In other words, a White person doesn’t have to be a racist to do racist things. It is perfectly possible for a White person who does not actively care if his neighbor is “Black, White, green, red or purple” to nevertheless move into a gentrifying neighborhood and start calling the police on his or her new Black neighbors. A White person may be more than happy to put a Black Lives Matter sign in their front yard and still move their children out of a school with predominantly Black students. Their reasons for doing these things may be innocent or even defensible, but CRT argues that they are unwittingly supporting a system that is designed to benefit them. As Ezekiel Kweku writes, “racism functions quite smoothly without ‘racists.’”
This brings us back to the Southern Baptist Convention, and the six presidents’ condemnation of CRT.
In reading the statements and the six men’s individual follow-up comments, it is striking that none of them detail their actual points of disagreement with Critical Race Theory. The statement itself declares “that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.”
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s president Danny Akin vaguely noted that “no unbiblical ideology can solve the social issues that confront us.” Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Jason K. Allen wrote that “the closer you look into the history, advocates, and aims of Critical Race Theory the more troubling it becomes.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Albert Moher wrote the longest statement, saying that he stood with his colleagues “in stating that we believe that advocating Critical Race Theory or Intersectionality is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message, and that such advocacy has no rightful place within an SBC seminary.”
The other three presidents’ comments are even more ambiguous, only noting that “CRT is not endorsed by any of our faculty members or administrators” (New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Jamie Dew), advocating for preaching the Gospel instead of focusing on “prolonged debates about new ideas that gain cultural traction” (Gateway Theological Seminary’s Jeff Iorg) and assuring students that they “can take confidence that their seminaries are offering clarity and conviction when it comes to racism and other worldviews antithetical to the Bible and the only Gospel that can save, such as Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality” (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Adam W. Greenway).
While the statement itself and the various follow-ups were all explicit in denouncing racism, they were all equally forceful in condemning CRT. Opposing racism is not, on its own, a stance that requires much explanation. But why an obscure area of legal study is incompatible with Southern Baptist doctrine would seem to require a little bit of explanation. Without it, these statements could be seen as causing more confusion than clarity.
“It’s nothing more than a racialized distraction from engaging with the more severe, serious issues that are impacting the White evangelical church in this hour,” Howard says. “I think that this is a profound distraction for much more serious issues.”
Howard maintains that few would argue CRT’s central argument: that race played a role in the formation of American law. Howard says there may be room for experts to disagree on the extent of that role, but “that has no bearing on the Church or the influence of the Church.” He believes the Church needs to learn how to use CRT as a tool for understanding modern racism.
Anchored in Christ
Howard draws an interesting analogy from his years at seminary, where he says professors would encourage and even assign theology reading that may not have squared entirely with accepted doctrine, but still had valuable lessons.
“I’ve been assigned numerous books of things where we disagree with where they’ve been like, ‘Hey, chew the meat, spit out the bones,’” he says. “And so I find it curious … when it comes to racial equality and racial justice, that’s the one area where we’re not allowed to investigate, to consider, to reflect.”
“I think that’s super revealing,” he continues. “And so what I would say is I think that when it comes to Critical Race Theory. like anything, there’s a ton of truth to it.”
So Howard encourages Christians to consider CRT thoughtfully, as one of many possible tools for understanding how racism operates in American institutions.
“With any kind of ideology, you assess it, you analyze it, you reflect on it, you consider it, you weigh it according to the Word of God,” he says. “Where there’s consistency, you can run with it. Where there’s not, you say, ‘OK, there’s not.’”
And above all, he encourages Christians not to fear new ideologies, but to work to understand them. “If you take on a posture where you’re threatened by some ideology, you have to have some serious insecurities in your own convictions and faith to be so easily threatened by other people’s opinions and perspectives,” he says. “I don’t share that level of doubt or insecurity in my Christian faith system. I’m anchored in Christ.”