As debates over the compatibility of Christianity and Critical Race Theory (CRT) continue to roil the evangelical church, a common refrain among some evangelicals is that we can “eat the meat and spit out the bones” of CRT. Unfortunately, few people go beyond this slogan to ask exactly what it implies or whether it is appropriate. In this essay, I’ll suggest four reasons we should be hesitant to employ this analogy.
The most common defense of “eating the meat and spitting out the bones” is the assertion that “all truth is God’s truth.” This observation is correct, but it cannot –by itself– justify “eat the meat” language with regard to CRT or anything else. After all, elements of truth can be found even in fundamentally corrupt ideologies. Would we tell Christians to “eat the meat and spit out the bones” of Porn Studies? Could we imagine Elijah encouraging the Israelites to mine Baalism for insight or the apostle John telling the early church to affirm the positive aspects of gnosticism?
I’m not denying here that even the most dangerous systems of thought get some things right. Indeed, it’s the admixture of lies with truth that makes the lies so potent and so deadly. What I’m showing is that the “meat and bones” illustration is faulty, unless we’re prepared to be consistent and to apply it to everything from Queer Theory to eugenics. Whatever metaphor we use needs to convey the seriousness of the errors made by these ideologies.
Merely superficial agreement
A second common defense of the “eat the meat, spit out the bones” analogy is an appeal to areas of agreement between Christianity and CRT. For example, I’ve said before that when I read large CRT anthologies, I usually find that 60% of the articles are –on their surface– unremarkable, 20% are genuinely insightful, and 20% are completely insane (see some of my reviews if you’re skeptical). When people hear that, they often think “well, CRT can’t be that bad, can it? 80% certified ‘not insane’ sounds pretty good.” Similarly, Christians sometimes argue that CRT and Christianity are compatible by focusing on obvious, shared affirmations like “race is a social construct” or “we ought to seek justice.”
However, we should not make too much of this merely superficial agreement. For example, it’s quite possible to read books on parenting or leadership or time management by Mormon authors and agree with nearly all of what is said. In many cases, Mormons will even use words words familiar to Christians, like “grace” or “salvation.” Yet beneath this superficial agreement lies deep theological disagreement. In the same way, superficial agreement is no reason to think that Christianity and critical race theory are fundamentally compatible, especially once you understand what CRTs mean by words like “whiteness” or “equity.”
The key question in this discussion is not whether critical race theorists ever affirm anything that is true (they certainly do) or whether Christians can learn anything from reading the work of critical race theorists (we certainly can) but whether the central tenets of critical race theory are compatible with Christianity. While Christians who are friendly to CRT tend to define it nebulously, there is no shortage of CRTs who have drawn up explicit lists of the “defining elements” of their discipline. For the sake of space, I’ll focus on one claim that shows up again and again: CRT insists that racism, sexism, and homophobia are all “interlocking systems of oppression” that must be fought simultaneously.
Here are just a few examples:
“Critical race theory draws upon several traditions, including poststructuralism, postmodernism, Marxism, feminism, literary criticism, liberalism, and neopragmatism and discourses of self-determination such as Black nationalism and racial pluralism…. Critical race theory goes beyond liberal understandings of race and racism by exploring those of its manifestations that support patriarchy, heterosexism, and class stratification. The normative stance of critical race theory is that massive social transformation is a necessary precondition of racial justice.”Crenshaw, “A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Law and Politics” (1990)
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.Matsuda et al., Words that Wound (1993), 6-7
The intercentricity of race and racism with other forms of subordination… CRT acknowledges the inextricable layers of racialized subordination based on gender, class, immigration status, surname, phenotype, accent and sexuality.Yosso, “Whose Culture Has Capital?” (2006)
“[Critical race theory] insists that one cannot understand the inequalities within society if one fails to understand classism, sexism, religious intolerance, homophobia, transphobia, etc.”Bridges, CRT: A Primer, (2019), p. 14
Note that “oppression” and “subordination” here do not refer primarily to “discrimination, violence, and cruelty” but rather to the very existence of norms surrounding gender and sexuality that produce “social inequality.” This sentiment spans three decades of CRT scholarship and is found in some of the very earliest texts (Words That Wound) written by the movement’s founders (Matsuda, Crenshaw, Lawrence, Delgado) just four years after its creation (1993).
This belief exposes the folly of thinking that CRT can be applied solely to race. Critical race theorists themselves will be the first to insist that CRT is necessarily embedded in a larger liberatory project. To the extent that you affirm complementarian theology or traditional sexual ethics, you must reject one of the “defining elements” of CRT. Moreover, this disagreement –as serious as it is– is merely a symptom of a much deeper underlying conflict in how Christianity and CRT conceptualize ideas like “justice,” “equality,” and “oppression.”
This single contradiction is enough to show how deep the disconnect between Christianity and CRT actually is. And we need hardly go far into the culture or into the church before we see how embracing the ideas of CRT has led to the rapid abandonment of biblical teachings on gender and sexuality.
The Problem of Discernment
Finally, one of the biggest problems about the “eat the meat and spit out the bones” analogy is that it makes serious assumptions about the ability of the hearer to exercise discernment on these topics. Handing DiAngelo’s White Fragility to an unprepared Christian and telling him to “eat the meat” is a bit like handing a basket of cyanide pills to your 10-year-old and telling him “there are four Skittles in there. Go for it!” Of course, I think Christians should have a familiarity with primary sources when engaging with contemporary issues. But there’s a big difference between recommending a book negatively as a prime example of unbiblical and toxic thinking that needs to be resisted and recommending it positively as a source of profound insight that needs to be embraced.
If Christians are adamant in using this slogan, I’m begging them to specify exactly what supposed “meat” is to be found in these books and precisely which “bones” readers are likely to choke on. But I’d recommend a different approach: simply explain the “meat” on its own without any recourse to CRT. If common grace has allowed certain scholars to discover particular truths about race via the fundamentally flawed lens of CRT, then why not teach these truths directly, as they are discerned through general revelation and illuminated by Scripture? My fear is that vague sloganeering has, more often than not, allowed people to smuggle error into the church under the mantle of “plundering the Egyptians.”
Pastors, in particular, have a responsibility to shepherd their flock and protect it from danger. You can teach your people about our nation’s sordid racial past, about present-day discrimination, and about the unity we find in Christ without appealing to secular frameworks. (If you’re not sure how, see my article on “How to Preach Against CRT“) You don’t have to choose between embracing racism or embracing critical race theory. Reject both.