Critical race theory is a hot topic today and a part of evangelical culture wars. This post attempts to do an overview of this complicated topic. From the history of the theory to what it means. Another challenge is that you have traditional conservatives and the hyper, or John Birch conservatives as I like to refer to them. In working on this post I had to wrestle with this topic which was challenging. This blog would suggest that some of the debates also fall in the Calvinistic and Arminian divide. And in doing a brief survey of modern evangelical denominations this blog asses that the Southern Baptists are going to be more impacted by critical race theory than other denominations, and it has to do with its history.
“It’s not the duty of the church to correct every injustice. It’s the duty of the church to extend the gospel as we warn that justice is coming.”
Tom Buck at the Wokeness and Gospel Conference
My son, if your heart is wise,
then my heart will be glad indeed;
16 my inmost being will rejoice
when your lips speak what is right.
Proverbs 23:15-16 ESV
Its an issue that is deeply divisive inside the Southern Baptist Convention. But what about greater American evangelicalism? What is the debate over critical race theory mean? And how should it be looked? And what is critical rare theory itself? This post that I am publishing has consumed me for the last four days. I’ve spent many late nights and a weekend reading up on critical race theory and looking at it from different perspectives. Below is a summary of this topic and what this blog believes the impact will be for American evangelicalism. One ground rule that this blog wants to establish for this post is a willingness to learn and share different views. We live in an age of post-truth, and highly partisan sound bites. So share what you have to say, and this blog will encourage that; but don’t resort to shouting partisan sound bites that are similar to what you can find on cable.
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical race theory is not new, the ideas that come from it originate in the teachings of W.E.B. Du Bois, Fannie Lou Hamer and Pauli Murray. DuBois was the first African-American to earn a doctorate form Harvard and one of the founders of the National Association of the Advancement of Color People in 1909. Fannie Lou Hamer was a Civil Rights activist in the 1960’s. In reading about her this blog would suggest one of her greatest historical contribution is to organize Freedom Rides in Mississippi with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was in the Mississippi Freedom Rides that the Ku Klux Klan targeted and murdered James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in the summer of 1964. If you ever have seen the Gene Hackman and William DeFor movie Mississippi Burning, its about this dark period of history. Pauli Murray was known for her civil rights activism. Murray was the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, in the first year that any women were ordained by that church. Murray was deeply respected by Thurgood Marshall who was the first African-American appointed to the United States Supreme Court. In modern times the individuals known for advancing critical race theory is both Derrick Bell who taught at University of New York School of Law until his death; and also Kimberlé Crenshaw who teaches law at UCLA and Columbia Law School.
Here is a working definition of critical race theory as defined by Kimberle Crenshaw. “Critical race theory is a practice. It’s an approach to grappling with a history of White supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it,” Those who believe in critical race theory would say that racism and discrimination is an everyday experience for those of color. Racism is systemic and built into the system. They would also say that society and civilization was established and built up to protect whites and give them preferential treatment. Critical race theory has been used in academia to explain how we got to where we are and it has been accepted by many, The modern version has been around for at least four decades it appears. Those who are attacking it right now are on the far right. And when I saw that let me differentiate. You have regular conservatives and then the John Birch style conservatives that are also into conspiracy theories. Those attacking critical race theory right now at the John Birch style conservatives. But if you want to read more you can do so in,
- CNN, “What critical race theory is — and isn’t.”
- Education Week, “What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is It Under Attack?“
- American Bar Association, “A Lesson on Critical Race Theory.”
My Experience, Racism is Both Systemic and Individual
In working on this post I had to ask myself where do I fall on this issue? I am a by-product of having lived in California, Montana, Wisconsin and now the Washington, D.C. area. I have seen racism of both a systemic level and also a personal, or perpetuated level. Racism in the United States is complicated and is not easy to define. Let me illustrate, when I grew up in Fresno, California I heard a lot of racism about Mexican, Hispanics and people questioning if they were legal. I have a now deceased relative that used a horrific name for Mexicans. For me that is racist, to assume that someone who struggles to speak English and is Mexican decent is illegal is wrong. In Los Angeles race is different because you have the inner city of Inglewood and Watts. However the issue is complicated because of the gentrification that is also taking place in urban areas. When I lived in Montana I heard racism directed towards the Indians which were on the reservations. I heard people describe them as drunks. When I attended grad school in Milwaukee I first experienced what a segregated city looks like. Inner city Milwaukee is black, and all the whites fled to the suburbs. You also had some Hispanics to the south of the city and a large Black population north of downtown Milwaukee. It was in Milwaukee that I first began to struggle with white privilege and did that internally. When I moved out to Washington, D.C I became familiar with urban Washington, Anacostia, and NE D.C. Trips to Baltimore and Philadelphia opened me further to how cities are laid out and how they are structured. I began to see how racism is systemic especially when one part of the city has poorer schools, less social services, as compared to other neighborhoods.
But I also had another experience that I am grateful for. When I was involved in Mark Batterson’s National Community Church I was involved in the homeless ministry. The guy who led it was Black and one time he told me about his fear of being pulled over by a policeman. I sat and listened and was deeply troubled by what I heard. Then I later had another situation that was eye-opening. During one of the COVID lockdowns I was out exercising and walking and I was stopped by a policeman. I was searched, told to spread my legs and had my junk touched. The cop was rough and on a power trip. I was let go and ordered to go home, but I was so shaken up it gave me an idea as to what Blacks must experience and live in fear of
However racism also happens in different forms. Racism also happens to Asians, and we have a long, sad history of that as well. California and the Western United States discriminated against the Chinese, which is a shameful part of our history. I remember in California growing up and having an elderly Japanese-American explain to me how his family was detained during World War II. You can read about that in, “What a College Kid Learned from a Japanese-American who was Interned During World War II; Are Evangelical Christians Going to Take Responsibility for the Current Refugee Crisis?” What does critical race theory mean for those who are Asian or Japanese? Its a question that I don’t have an answer. So I would present to you that racism can be systemic and built into the system like I saw in Milwaukee, Baltimore and here in Washington, D.C. And then racism can also be individualistic.
What About Critical Race Theory in American Evangelicalism?
As a part of doing this post I spent the last few days researching different versions of American evangelicalism. And during this writing I saw that there was a conference about the Woke Gospel down in Texas that took place this past weekend. Religion in the United States is deeply complicated. Lets first look at the topic in the Calvinist and Arminian divide. In the past as well as currently many of the Neo-Calvinists have been talking about racial issues and social justice. Individuals like David Platt, Matt Chandler. Mark Dever, Tim Keller and others have made racial injustice a key part of their ministries. This past weekend Owen Strachen called those Calvinists out, and he did so as a current Calvinist. But Strachen has been staking a position on critical race theory for well over a year. Last year he called on “woke” Christians to be excommunicated, and then he later left the Southern Baptists altogether. It appears there is a small divide in the Calvinists over this topic, and it will be interesting to see how this argument progresses. Meanwhile this blog would suggest that others fighting and shouting over being “woke” should be looked at in the traditional Calvinist vs. Arminian divide. Let’s look at David Platt for example in this following tweet.
David Platt is being criticized for addressing racial injustice issues at McLean Bible. Those that oppose him from this point of view also claim that people like David Platt are Marxists, Leninists, and dangerous as they are “woke.” In this construct I would analyze and say that those from this position attacking David Platt are doing so from the Arminian side, and that this is the latest salvo in the Calvinist, Arminian food fight. Ken Peters is a Christian nationalist pastor who this blog has written about in the past as well. But stop and consider how some traditional conservatives are treated by the fringe crowd. In September of 2020 David French published, “On the Use and Abuse of Critical Race Theory in American Christianity.” French wrote that while critical race theory can be used to identify problems. it can also be abused and warned about it in some cases. And for that David French was attacked, criticized and dragged through the mud. French is not liberal in his theology or even his politics, and yet the fringe John Birch side went after him in many ways. But getting back to the above tweet attacking David Platt. For me such arguments and sound bites are really theological laziness because it ignores the bigger problems with reformed theology;. For example the problem of evil is made worse by reformed theology because of how God’s sovereignty is defined. What ends up happening in this case is that people bring their political opinion and lay it atop their theology and waging the culture wars. That is all people like Ken Peters are doing.
And What About Evangelical Denominations?
But what about denominations? Are there particular denominations where one would be more likely to encounter racism issues? This is a complicated issue, so let me address some of this doing some quick research about some evangelical movements. The Assemblies of God was established in 1914 after the Azusa Street Revival. Foursquare is similar to the Assemblies of God and was established by Aimee Simple McPherson in 1923. Both were focused on spiritual gifts and had no problem with women leading or teaching. The Christian & Missionary Alliance traces it roots to 1897 in Maine and was very outward focused. The Salvation Army came form London and established a presence in about 1880 and was focused on helping the poor and downtrodden. It got a foothold in disaster relief in the United States after both the Galveston Hurricane in 1900 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The Evangelical Covenant Church was founded in Chicago in 1885 and is similar to the Evangelical Free Church of America which was formed in the 1950s in Minneapolis. Both churches have their origins in Scandinavian immigrants and have been outward focused. The Church of God in Anderson, Indiana traces its roots to the Holiness movement in Indiana and Michigan in the 1880s. It took a hard stand for pacifism and against racism in the beginning. Converge is a Baptist Christian denomination that traces its roots to Sweden who planted a church in Rock island, Illinois in the decade before the Civil War. Their roots are immigrant and this they push inclusion. The Church of the Nazarene was a product of a series of mergers tracing back to the 1890’s. They had its first meeting in Chicago in 1907 and eventually established their headquarters in Kansas. They wanted to follow John Wesley’s model and work with the poor and immigrant while preaching to them. The Disciples of Christ traces their roots top the Second Great Awakening. They have had much division and have become more liberal theologically as time moved on. The United Church of Christ denomination is active in civil rights causes. Meanwhile Calvary Chapel grew out of the Jesus movement and was founded in 1965. This movement grew out of Costa Mesa, California. Today its known for the culture wars and can have some challenges due to its practice of fundamentalism. Then you have the Southern Baptists who were founded in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia. Now my research was not in depth as this blog did a quick scan. But it appears that the Southern Baptists are the largest denomination to have been founded over racial issues. But it actually is much more concerning. The Southern Baptists also have a history with members tied to the Ku Klux Klan and at times supporting segregation. As I did a quick scan of a number of denominations this blog believes that the Southern Baptists will be more affected by critical race theory than other denominations inside evangelicalism.
Now as I write this I also want to stress the following. What I wrote above does not mean that racism can’t happen in any of the denominations written about. The fact of the matter is that when you look at the founding and origins of other denominations and then consider it with the Southern Baptists there is no comparison. And that doesn’t mean these other denominations do not have problems or challenges whether it be sex abuse, structural problems or congregationalism issues. Again, the point of this section is to emphasize how differently the Southern Baptists were founded as compared to other denominations.
So When It Comes to Critical Race Theory How Are We to Proceed?
This post hopes to start some discussion on critical race theory. In what I have written I also want to state that this blog does not have all the answers. There are a few posts about this topic that this blog would like to venture into. However, the challenge that exists today is that this blog doesn’t think that some evangelicals are willing or able to discuss racism or even consider the history of it. As I explained above in my view racism can be systemic and also individualistic. In my life I have witnessed examples of both. Critical race theory can illustrate problems, but what do you do when you live in a society with part of it that has rejected facts? This has been a hard post to compose and part of the reason is that there are different divinations. I tried to find one that I think describes critical race theory accurately, but others can and indeed make up their own facts. One of the challenges of disinformation is that if I reference it am I giving it life? The fringe will claim that critical race theory is Marxist, and I can’t contemplate how some can arrive at that conclusion. And I state that as an individual who studied 20th century European history and also took a class on communism and post-communist thought and worked with original material to learn the differences in communism between different nation-states. Soviet communism is different from Chinese communism which can be different from East German communism. But those who yell and scream this, I don’t think any are willing to sit down and talk and explain the differences between the two. And in that context I find it sad. There is one tweet I came across that has stuck with me and I will add it to this section. It suggests that the anger about critical race theory is about manufacturing noise.
I think this tweet has some aspects to consider. I don’t think some evangelicals are willing to embrace or talk about racism and evangelicalism, or more specifically the Southern Baptists. It like child sex abuse, there are many people who are in denial and can’t talk about this topic because they can’t face it. Not being able to face your problems only leads you to run. Maybe, we should consider those who reject critical race theory and any discussion on race as being modern day Jonah’s. But I will leave you to arrive at your own conclusion.