Critical Theory Within Evangelicalism

Critical theory is an ideology that divides the world into oppressed groups and their oppressors and aims to liberate the oppressed. In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly alarmed by the influence of the ideology of critical theory among professing evangelicals. ACTPyramids a result, I’ve read thousands of pages of primary sources in order to understand and analyze critical theory carefully, charitably, and biblically. When I’ve given talks and lectures on the conflict between critical theory and Christianity, the overwhelming response has been positive. I’ve had numerous Christians say “Once you see it, you can’t un-see it. Now that I understand critical theory, I recognize how pervasive it is in our culture.”

However, I’ve encountered a few evangelicals who are skeptical. They usually agree that critical theory and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible as worldviews and that the acceptance of critical theory will have devastating effects on core Christian beliefs. Yet they deny that critical theory is influencing evangelical thought. Instead they see accusations of ‘critical theory’ (or, more commonly, “cultural Marxism”) as disingenuous attempts to shut down important conversations about race and justice. In their view, ‘critical theory’ is a bogeyman used by critics to silence evangelicals who are broaching difficult subjects.

In this article, I want to address this concern. It’s certainly true that the accusation of “cultural Marxism” can be used as a conversation-stopper. But it’s also true that critical theory is an extremely serious problem among evangelicals that needs to be explicitly addressed and repudiated.

In what follows, I will provide examples of prominent evangelicals making claims that are 1) false and 2) rooted in critical theory. I have removed identifying information from these quotes because I have no interest in ‘calling out’ certain Christian leaders (if you would like links to all of these quotations because you doubt their veracity, please email me privately). If you recognize the origin of some of these quotes, I am not giving you license to dismiss these teachers as ‘Marxists’ or ‘Social Justice Warriors.’ I merely want to demonstrate that critical theory is a growing threat to biblical theology.

Critical theory and identity

Critical theorists insist that our individual identity is inseparable from our group identity as members of oppressed or oppressor groups. Consequently, there is an inherent moral asymmetry between individuals from different groups. For example, Stephanie Wildman and Adrienne David write: “All whites are racist in this [systemic] use of the term because we benefit from systemic white privilege.” – Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 56. Critical race theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic concur: “The narrative behind this assumption [that affirmative action is unjust] characterizes whites as innocent… By contrast, many critical race theorists and social scientists hold that racism is pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained. If we take this perspective, then no white member of society seems quite so innocent.” – Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, p. 91.

Compare these ideas to the following quotes from prominent Christians.

Here is an evangelical author with 10k+ Twitter followers:

“Racism isn’t only a part of who we’ve been [as white people]. It is, in ways we don’t even comprehend, who we are.” And “White people suffer from a malady [called] ‘shriveled-heart syndrome.’ It is rooted in the experience of white people enslaving black people.”

Here is an evangelical author with 40k+ Twitter followers:

“Without confession to the sin of white racism, white supremacy, white privilege, people who call themselves white Christians will never be free — free from the bondage of a lie, a myth, an ideology, and an idol. White Christians, since the founding of America have been living a lie. What does that do to your soul — to live a lie? Confession means to tell the truth — to God and to the world — so Jesus can set us free.”

Here’s a popular blogger and evangelical seminary student with 3k+ Twitter followers:WhitesplainTweet

The cult of personality that has developed around certain theologians is evidence that white people don’t believe anything that hasn’t been thoroughly whitesplained by a white man.

Here is a Christian professor with 20k+ Twitter followers who teaches at a Christian school:

“black people in America have relied on God’s word to help them survive white people. When you’re white & in the dominant culture, you’ve never needed the Old Testament covenant-keeping Redemptive God. Yours became a Christianity of moralism & your kids walked. Evangelicals will be confused by the black church because they’ve never needed the God who acts through miracles to redeem them from something that’s not their fault. So of course they will eventually question the reliability & veracity of text. Life’s been pretty easy. One of the privileges of being white in America is never needing God to stop a society from trying to destroy you & your family. So the Bible is a book for evangelicalism, disciple-making, & teaching morals. Not a book for personal AND social, cosmic survival, so your kids walk. As such, Great Commission Christianity doesn’t know what to do with they [sic] Old Testament. They have to make Jesus (& Paul) appear in the OT in order for the text to have meaning. The traditional black church is far more Trinitarian about the whole counsel of God than evangelicals.”

Commentary: it is untrue that we are morally stained by our membership in particular demographic groups (Ez. 18:1-24, Deut. 24:16). Moreover, the Christian’s ultimate identity is found in Christ, not in demographic markers. Fellow believers should be primarily viewed in terms of our common salvation in Christ, not in terms of their group identity (Gal. 3:26-29, Col. 3:11, 2 Cor. 5:16, 1 Pet. 2:9-10).

See more on the conflict between critical theory’s conception of identity and the Bible’s conception of identity here: Christianity and Critical Theory – Part 2

The epistemology of critical theory

One of the most dangerous aspects of critical theory is its insistence that the claims of dominant groups are thinly-veiled bids for power. Oppressor groups claim to be appealing to ‘reason’ or ‘evidence’ but these claims are merely attempts to justify their privilege and oppression. Moreover, people from oppressor groups are blinded by their privilege and need to defer to, learn from, and accept the claims of oppressed people, who have special access to truth.

For example, feminist Judith Lorber writes: “The process of gendering and its outcome are legitimated by religion, law, science, and the society’s entire set of values… Western society’s values legitimate gendering by claiming that it all comes from physiology – female and male procreative differences. But sex and gender are not equivalent.” – Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 205. Similarly, Margaret Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins write: “The idea that objectivity is best reached only through rational thought is a specifically Western and masculine way of thinking – one that we will challenge throughout this book.” – Race, Class, and Gender, p. 4-5

Compare the following quotes from prominent Christians.

Here is an evangelical pastor and author with 80k+ Twitter followers:

“we [whites] are blind wanderers who need help to see a world that functions according to a different set of rules than what we’ve been raised with.” And “It is particularly important for white Americans to approach this subject matter with the right goals in mind. Our goal must be sight. Our goal must be transformation. Our goal must be a renewed consciousness… Let’s pray like the blind man: ‘Lord, help me to see.’

Here is an evangelical pastor with 9k+ Twitter followers:

The person who has the exegetical advantage over all when it comes to understanding the scriptures is not the trained theologian. It’s the poor, socially powerless person on the margins, for whom many of the narratives of scripture serve as a mirror to reality.

Here’s a graduate of a conservative evangelical seminary who has contributed to several conservative evangelical websites: MarginalizedTweet.jpg

“The Bible is written from the lens of the marginalized. If you come from a group or community that is historically not marginalized, you need these voices and perspectives or else your understanding of the Word, the gospel, and the Christian life will be thin and weak.” And again: “If the references in your pastor’s sermons, the books used in small groups, the resources passed between the laity, the music sung in worship, & even the reflection quotes in your worship bulletins are predominantly by White men, your church is promoting a truncated Christianity.

Here is an evangelical author with 20k+ Twitter followers responding to Pastor Tim Keller’s recent op-ed in the NYTimes:

Tim Keller has NO AUTHORITY to teach on justice—NONE… How INCREDULOUSLY PRIVILEGED for Keller—a RICH WHITE MAN WHOSE MINISTRY TARGETS RICH PEOPLE—to fashion himself as the judge of whether or not injustice rises to the level of OPPRESSION!!! No!!!! The only ones with divine authority to define the bounds of oppression are the oppressed themselves! Oppressed and colonized people wrote every single word of The Bible. The Jewish people were colonized people. Jesus, himself, was a brown, indigenous, colonized man. Not one person who the scripture was written by or originally written for sat in the social location of Tim Keller… No!!!! Keller has NO authority to speak or teach on justice. His silence when called on to speak helped pave America’s path to White Nationalism.”

Commentary: the bare fact of one’s gender or ethnicity or skin color does not give a person an advantage when it comes to correctly interpreting Scripture. Furthermore, any advantage provided by social or cultural location is greatly outweighed by other factors like intensive study, access to good scholarship, and -most importantly- a sincere and humble heart. A pastor’s authority to teach on justice or on any other topic comes from his calling as an elder and his adherence to Scripture, not his social or cultural location (2 Tim. 3:13-17, 2 Tim. 4:2, 1 Tit. 1:9).

See more on the problems with critical theory’s epistemology in the articles: Should We ‘De-colonize our Theology’? and Was the Bible written from the perspective of the marginalized/colonized/oppressed?

Critical theory and solidarity in oppression

Critical theorists define oppression in terms of hegemonic power, the ability of a dominant group to impose its norms, values, and expectations on the culture. Consequently, critical theorists unanimously view women, people of color, individuals in the LGBTQ+ community, and disabled people as oppressed. Furthermore, the common experience of oppression unites these disparate groups and forms a basis for solidarity.

Here’s sociologist Beverly Tatum: “Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism, respectively. In each case, there is a group considered dominant (systematically advantaged by the society because of group membership) and a group considered subordinate or targeted (systematically disadvantaged).” – Beverly Tatum, “The Complexity of Identity: ‘Who Am I?’”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 11

Compare the following quotes from prominent Christians.

Here’s an author who has written for national news outlets and whose essays are still featured on the SBC’s ERLC website:

evangelicalct3

“For white people or people with any other privilege granted by societal systems of oppression and supremacy (male privilege, abled privilege, cishetero privilege, citizenship status privilege, and so on), we act like intent is what matters most. We’re wrong.” On their website, the author recommends children’s books which include A is for Activist, an alphabet book for children ages 3-8, which includes statements like “L-G-B-T-Q! Love who you choose” and “T is for trans… Trust in the True: The he she they that is you.” Also recommended for children ages 5-8 is Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag.

Here’s an author who teaches at a prestigious divinity school and who writes for Christianity Today:

“I’ve been wanting to dive deeper into an intersectional exploration that examines both God’s blackness and femaleness on the cross, and the ways in which God explicitly relates to black women while on the cross. What does the cross say about black women’s flourishing, life-making, and magic? And what does God’s blackness and femaleness on the cross reveal about who God is and what God is passionate about?…I am eager to receive your feedback each week, especially if you’re a black femme and/or person of color who does not identify as male. This series is especially for you.”

Here’s a Tweet from a prominent Christian organization focused on issues of race and justice:

“Racism often compounds the adverse experiences of people in vulnerable populations. This week we’re praying for BBIPOC in other marginalized populations.” This Tweet was followed by the following statement: “Pray that God would protect BBIPOC [Black, Brown, and Indigenous People of Color] who are gender, sexual, and/or religious minorities, and that he would fill them with hope, joy, and peace. (Deut. 31:6, Rom. 15:13)” Not only does this Tweet apply verses of Scripture that are intended for Christians to the “BBIPOC” community (which includes both Christians and non-Christians), it includes “gender, sexual, and/or religious minorities” in this application.

Commentary: the Bible views humanity not primarily in terms of oppressed and oppressor, but in terms of those who are in Christ, and those who are outside of Christ (Eph. 2:1-10, 1 Cor. 2:14-16). Moreover, sin cannot be reduced to ‘oppression’ (Mk. 7:20-23). Human solidarity is primarily found not in a common experience of oppression, but in being made in God’s image, being fallen in sin, and -for Christians- being redeemed by Jesus.

The quotes I’ve provided come from social media posts, articles, newsletters, sermons, and books and are only a small sampling of many statements being made by evangelical leaders that are underwritten by the ideology of critical theory.

Conclusion

Let me repeat that it is not my intention to attack particular individuals or organizations. I suspect that some of these authors and pastors have not considered the logical implications of these statements or have not considered the broader worldview conflict in which they are embedded.

That said, we cannot refuse to acknowledge the dangers of critical theory or the inroads it is making into the church. It is a dangerous, and deeply unbiblical ideology. We must not dismiss those who are trying to raise concerns about the ideological underpinnings of the secular social justice movement as ‘haters’ or ‘fundamentalists.’ In precisely the same way, we must not dismiss any discussion of racism, or sexism, or social justice as “cultural Marxism.” These are conversations that we need to have and that I want to encourage, rather than discourage.

It is always easy to find people (on both sides) who raise their concerns with a spirit of self-righteousness and a divisive, fault-finding attitude. No matter. Let us commit to listening carefully to those with whom we disagree. We can’t capitulate to our culture’s increasing tribalism by retreating into our own echo chambers or by refusing to engage with criticism. Scripture shows us a better way. We’re called to constantly reform our thoughts to God’s revealed word and to work together as brothers and sisters in Christ to pursue love, truth, and unity. Let’s do so, for our good and God’s glory.


See all content on critical theory here.

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