Two weeks ago, David French wrote an article about the battle over Critical Race Theory that has engulfed both our culture and the evangelical church. If you haven’t read it in its entirety, I suggest stopping now and reading it here. Because French cited Dr. Pat Sawyer’s and my Gospel Coalition article “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity,” I’d like to offer a few points of agreement/pushback.
Issue #1. The term “Critical Race Theory” is sometimes used extremely broadly and carelessly.
I agree. We can all find pundits and politicians who rail against CRT (or anything else) without apparently understanding what that term signifies other than alignment with their political opponents.
However, French writes that the label “CRT” has been “fundamentally and intentionally changed by conservative activists to encompass an enormous number of arguments and ideas about race, including arguments and ideas that have nothing to do with CRT.” This statement is more questionable, mainly because the category of “CRT” has evolved substantially over the last three decades.
For example in 2001 –long before “CRT” had appeared on the radar of most conservative pundits– CRT cofounder Kimberle Crenshaw wrote: “the name Critical Race Theory [is] used as interchangeably for race scholarship as Kleenex is used for tissue.” Similarly, in their seminal text CRT: An Introduction, Delgado and Stefancic state plainly that “although CRT began as a movement in the law, it has rapidly spread beyond that discipline” (Delgado and Stefancic, CRT: An Introduction, p. 7). They go on to mention education, political science, ethnic studies, sociology, theology, and health care as fields in which critical race theory has taken root (ibid, p. 7-8). Even more recently, the African American Policy Forum –which is led by Crenshaw herself– wrote that “Critical race theory originated in law schools, but over time, professional educators and activists in a host of settings –K-12 teachers, DEI advocates, racial justice and democracy activists, among others– applied CRT to help recognize and eliminate systemic racism.” Consequently, suggesting that conservative activists like Chris Rufo were solely responsible for the broadening of the term “CRT” is incorrect.
That said, when French states that “extreme manifestations of CRT can clash with Christian orthodoxy,” he’s implicitly recognizing that these ideologies are indeed properly included under the heading of “CRT.” So we may be in agreement here.
Issue #2. CRT is not the best term for the ideology Christians are concerned about.
On the one hand, I think we should use terms as accurately and precisely as possible. When I talk about the all-encompassing oppressor-oppressed worldview permeating our culture, I tend to use terms like “contemporary critical theory” or “critical social justice” rather than “critical race theory.”
On the other hand, we also should be wary of playing an endless semantic shell-game: We can’t critique “cultural Marxism” (“a Neo-Nazi conspiracy theory!”); we can’t critique “wokeness” (“cultural appropriation of African-American vernacular!”); we can’t critique “postmodern Neomarxism” (“Jordan Peterson’s made-up bogeyman!”); we can’t critique “critical race theory” (“it’s just a legal discipline!”). And on and on. This strategy makes it impossible to offer any critique whatsoever because any term we use will be deemed “problematic.”
To illustrate, this same strategy could easily be deployed against French himself. In 2018, French wrote an article entitled “Intersectionality, the Dangerous Faith” in which he repeatedly compared intersectionality to a religion, writing:
rising in the heart of deep-blue America are the zealots of a new religious faith. They’re the intersectionals, they’re fully woke, and the heretics don’t stand a chance.”
I’m hardly the first person to make this argument [that intersectionality is a religion]. Andrew Sullivan has noted intersectionality’s religious elements, and John Sexton has been on this beat for a year. Smart people know religious zeal when they see it.
There’s an animating purpose — fighting injustice, racism, and inequality. There’s the original sin of “privilege.” There’s a conversion experience — becoming “woke.” And much as the Christian church puts a premium on each person’s finding his or her precise role in the body of Christ, intersectionality can provide a person with a specific purpose and role based on individual identity and experience.
If I were a critic, I could write a long diatribe claiming that French is misusing the term “intersectionalty.” I could point out that the academic literature describes “intersectionality” not as a religion but merely as “an analytic tool [that] gives people better access to the complexity of the world” (Collins and Bilge, Intersectionality, p. 2). I could add that in his 2022 article, French says explicitly that Crenshaw’s 1989 article on intersectionality was “immediately enlightening.” I could therefore portray French’s 2018 article as a slanderous hit-piece aimed at pandering to his conservative base and riling them up over an esoteric sociological framework.
But, of course, all of that would entirely miss French’s point. Clearly, there is some set of extremely pernicious ideas that has a vice grip on our culture, our elite institutions, our major corporations, and even on some churches. What we choose to call it (whether “intersectionality” or “critical race theory” or “cultural Marxism”) seems like a secondary issue. And, to be fair to French, it is indeed possible to show that the concerns French had in 2018 about a “hierarchy of oppression” and the valorization of “lived experience” can indeed be traced to both intersectional scholarship… and to critical race theory.
For my part, I’ve emphasized over and over in my talks that what matters is the ideas themselves, not the labels we use to describe them. Moreover, even apart from considerations of precision and accuracy, conservatives need to recognize the practical importance of focusing on ideas rather than labels. If you firebomb a particular term like “woke” or “CRT,” scholars will simply swap out the offending term and continue promoting the same bad ideas under a new heading.
Issue #3. “Anti-CRT” bills don’t actually target CRT.
French writes “No critical race theorist worth his or her salt would read Tennessee’s anti-CRT bill and think for a moment that the legislature captured the essence of the theory.” When it comes to legislation, there are several distinct issues.
Most importantly, poorly-worded bills may have serious unintended consequences. Hopefully, no one wants to prohibit students from reading MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail or Washington’s Up from Slavery. Similarly, while parents (via legislatures) can and should have some control over what is taught in public schools, there are always underlying questions about exactly how much control they should have. I think both these concerns are valid.
However, a final concern is that these bills don’t actually address CRT. Here, my response is two-fold.
First, French is correct that some manifestations of CRT are problematic, and these manifestations seem to be the target of the legislation in question. For example, in her best-selling book White Fragility Robin DiAngelo –who identifies herself as a “critical race and social justice educator”– writes that “white identity is inherently racist” and urges readers to become “less white” because “to be less white is to be less racially oppressive” (DiAngelo, White Fragility, p. 149-150). Similarly, in her book Being White, Being Good, Barbara Applebaum states that “white people, through the practice of whiteness and by benefiting from white privilege, contribute to the maintenance of systemic racist injustice” (Applebaum, Being White, Being Good, p. 3) and “Racism so understood entails that all white people are racist or complicit by virtue of benefiting from these privileges even though these privileges are not something they can voluntarily renounce” (Applebaum, Being White, Being Good, p. 27). Presumably, legislators are reacting to sentiments like these when they pass “anti-CRT” bills.
Second, the Tennessee bill French cites never uses the phrase “critical race theory.” This seems like a prudent, and hopefully intentional, decision. Rather than tie the law to disputed definitions of an admittedly broad field, it focuses on particular ideas that most people find objectionable. We can disagree with the bill on other grounds, but it at least forestalls objections that it is “misrepresenting CRT” since it never even mentions CRT.
Issue #4. As long as we don’t treat CRT as a worldview, it’s compatible with Christianity.
French and I agree that the “woke” worldview being embraced by large swaths of our culture is corrosive to our nation’s social cohesion and to Christian theology. However, people sometimes conclude that if we merely treat CRT as a tool and not as a worldview, then it is wholly unproblematic from a Christian perspective. However, that’s not the case.
Even if we look at the earliest iterations of CRT, when it was formulated almost exclusively as a legal discipline, it contained ideas that are incompatible with Christianity. Most relevant to contemporary discourse is the way that CRT has always seen racism, sexism, and heterosexism as “interlocking systems of oppression.” For example, Words That Wound was one of the very earliest CRT anthologies, edited by the movement’s co-founders just a few years after its creation. In that work, the authors write that one of the “defining elements” of CRT is its recognition that racism, sexism, and heterosexism are all interconnected:
Critical race theory works toward the end of eliminating racial oppression as part of the broader goal of ending all forms of oppression. Racial oppression is experienced by many in tandem with oppressions on grounds of gender, class, or sexual orientation. Critical race theory measures progress by a yardstick that looks to fundamental social transformation. The interests of all people of color necessarily require not just adjustments within the established hierarchies, but a challenge to hierarchy itself. – Crenshaw et al., Words that Wound, p. 6-7
This sentiment suffuses the CRT literature and is regularly listed as one of CRT’s central tenets. Scholars have subsequently added oppressions like “ableism,” “adultism,” and “cisgenderism” to their list, but they have never revised their fundamental assumption that racism, sexism, and heterosexism are all forms of systemic oppression. For a Christian who abhors racism but accepts a traditional Christian understanding of gender and sexuality, this assumption is a non-starter.
Issue #5. CRT is not really making inroads within conservative evangelicalism.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Over the last 5 years, there has been a steady stream of articles, books, and conferences which have embraced the ideas of CRT. Interested readers can consult my reviews of David Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Church, or Latasha Morrison’s Be The Bridge, or Sechrest’s Can ‘White’ People Be Saved? However, the most obvious example is Dr. Christena Cleveland, a former professor at Duke Divinity School. Seven years ago, Cleveland was writing a regular column at Christianity Today and speaking at Intervarsity’s Urbana missions conference and CRU’s National Conference. She now worships a Being she calls “the Sacred Black Feminine.” Her recent book God is a Black Woman includes statements like:
“toxic masculinity’s idols of knowledge [are] logic, reason, tradition, certainty, and consensus“ – Cleveland, God is a Black Woman, p. 54
“more than anything, we must eradicate the transphobia within ourselves and our communities. For if God is a Black woman, then She’s a Black trans woman. Obviously” – Cleveland, God is a Black Woman, p. 232
Of course, Cleveland is an outlier. But she’s an example of what can happen when you wholeheartedly embrace CRT’s outlook on race, class, gender, oppression, and justice.
Issue #6. The furor over CRT is partisan culture-warring.
Yes and no. Certainly, “CRT” has become a political football, just like “white supremacy” and “Christian nationalism” and “transwomen in sports” and dozens of other trending topics that have split our nation along predicable political lines. But my concern over CRT is almost entirely theological. I’m worried that very real churches containing very real people I love are being split and fractured by toxic ideas.
One does not have to be a “culture warrior” to grieve over a police shooting. One does not have to be captive to politics to want to protect children from indoctrination into Queer Theory. In the same way, we can be worried about the influence of CRT on purely theological grounds. The beauty of Christianity is that it is first and foremost a message of rescue. The gospel is not a list of commands that we must obey to earn God’s favor, secure earthly justice, or promote ethnic unity. Instead, the gospel is an announcement that God has met our deepest need –forgiveness– and has reconciled us to himself and to one another in Christ. If Christians come to view other Christians as oppressors based solely on their ethnicity or gender, if we exalt lived experience over the Bible, if we see oppression rather than sin as our fundamental problem, and if we see activism rather than Jesus as the fundamental solution, we’ll have deeply undermined this good news. God forbid.
- What is Critical Race Theory?
- Can We “Eat the Meat and Spit Out the Bones” of Critical Race Theory?
- A Short Review of Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Church
- A Short Review of Morrison’s Be The Bridge
- A Short Review of Sechrest’s Can ‘White’ People Be Saved?
- Breaking Point: A Short Review of Cleveland’s God Is a Black Woman
- Quotes from Sensoy and DiAngelo’s Is Everyone Really Equal?