Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Christianity: Are They Compatible? – Part 1

Last week I spoke about “Race, Class, and Gender: The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Ideology of the Social Justice Movement.”  If you were heard the talk, you’ll realize that I try to take a nuanced approach to these issues. Yes, I do have reservations about the social justice movement and the ideology of critical theory, which informs large segments of that movement.  But there are very few ideas or movements from which we can learn absolutely nothing. When we fail to acknowledge the elements of truth in various ideologies, even those which are fundamentally flawed, we actually weaken our case against them and are less likely to reach people who are influenced by them.

Last week, I talked about the ideology of the social justice movement from a largely secular perspective. That is, I didn’t assume a Christian worldview when I pointed out its problems and inconsistencies. Tonight, I want to approach this issue from an explicitly Christian perspective: what are the conflicts between critical theory and Christianity? I want to add a second important question as well: if the secular social justice movement is often rooted in an unbiblical worldview, what is the alternative? How should Christians think about ‘social justice’?

But before we discuss those issues, let’s return to the question: why should we care? Last week, I explained that even non-religious people should care about the social justice movement because of its political, cultural, and ideological relevance. However, that’s not why I became interested in the social justice movement or critical theory.


Several years ago, I noticed a theological drift in some conservative Christians, both people I knew personally and public figures. (And no, those are not actual texts; I don’t even own a smart phone). The drift often began with an interest in social justice.  These individuals expressed a dissatisfaction with what they saw as unreflective, partisan politics among evangelicals and what they perceived as a lack of concern for the vulnerable and downtrodden. There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment. Christians should think carefully about all their beliefs, including their political commitments, and should constantly be bringing their behavior in line with Scripture.

But then these individuals began expressing other ideas that were harder and harder to reconcile with orthodoxy. Sometimes, they even left the Christian faith altogether. I saw this process play out repeatedly and I couldn’t understand the connection. How do you get from “sexism is a sin” to “Christianity is just one of many paths to God”? 

I was still trying to understand how people moved from point A to point B when I read the book Race, Class, and Gender, a 500-page anthology of writings touching on topics as diverse as Marxism, feminism, critical race theory, and queer theory. Everything suddenly made sense. People were not merely adopting a few new beliefs about politics. They were adopting a new worldview, which was gradually eroding their Christian worldview. That’s why I’m concerned. I see more and more Christians, especially young Christians, following a similar trajectory today and I want to prevent it. By showing people how to recognize the fundamental assumptions of critical theory, I hope to equip them to evaluate it carefully and biblically.

Let’s begin by reviewing last week’s talk. I apologize if you were here last week. It shouldn’t take very long and we’ll need to understand basic concepts like ‘social justice’ and ‘critical theory’ before we can analyze whether they are compatible with a Christian worldview.

What is Social Justice?

First, what is social justice? There are three major ways in which people define the term ‘social justice.’ First, the term ‘social justice’ can be used to summarize the Catholic Church’s teaching about what a just, fair, righteous society looks like – a society which promotes human flourishing.  Similarly, some evangelical Christians take ‘social justice’ to mean “the application of biblical principles of justice to society.”


Second, ‘social justice’ can be a positive but imprecise phrase that means something like “applying justice to laws and institutions.”  This usage is common but is extremely vague. A libertarian and a communist could both support ‘social justice’ in this sense; they would both insist that they want laws to be just. In fact, is there anyone walking around saying “Yes, I oppose social justice because I want an unjust society”? Consequently, this second definition is almost completely meaningless because it doesn’t answer crucial questions like “what is justice?” or “what is a just law?” which would provide some means for evaluating political beliefs.

The third definition is the one I want to focus on tonight because it’s the definition that I think is most likely to be used on college campuses.  According to this third definition, “social justice” is “the elimination of all forms of social oppression,” where ‘oppression’ is defined in terms of an ideology known as critical theory. The dictionary defines ‘oppression’ as “prolonged or unjust cruel treatment,” but  critical theorists use the word to refer to the ideological power that dominant groups wield over subordinate groups. In this sense, sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, colorism, anti-Semitism, and ageism are all forms of oppression from which ‘social justice’ seeks to deliver us. When it’s used to refer to ‘liberation from oppression,’ ‘social justice’ is defined within the framework of critical theory.

What is critical theory?

Critical theory is a set of beliefs or ideas that is foundational to many different disciplines in the humanities: Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, Critical Race Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Feminism, Anthropology, Literary Criticism. Last week, I identified seven basic premises of critical theory.

First, critical theory insists that our individual identity, who we are as individuals, is inseparable from our group identity. In particular, our individual identity depends on whether we are part of a dominant, oppressor group or a subordinate, oppressed group with respect to some given identity marker like race, class, gender, physical ability, age, and so forth.

Next, premise #2: “Oppressor groups subjugate oppressed groups through the exercise of hegemonic power.” Hegemonic power is the ability to impose your values, expectations, and norms on the rest of society. In this way, hegemonic power is distinguished from money, or influence, or mere numbers.

Premise #3: “Different oppressed groups find solidarity in the experience of oppression.” People with very different identity markers are united by their shared oppression. It doesn’t matter whether you experience oppression because of your race and I experience oppression because of my gender. We’re both oppressed and that can draw us together.

Premise #4: “Our fundamental moral duty is freeing groups from oppression.” Critical theorists will rarely talk about the moral duties of chastity, marital fidelity, kindness, honesty, and generosity. Their central moral concern, which overshadows or even overrides all others, is ‘liberation from oppression.’

Number 5: “‘Lived experience’ is more important than objective evidence in understanding oppression.” Story, narrative, personal testimony, and lived experience are seen as better ways to understand oppression than evidence, statistics, or reasoned argument.

Number 6: “Oppressor groups hide their oppression under the guise of objectivity.” Oppressor groups claim that their observations are neutral, but this claim is only a strategy to conceal their will to dominate.

Number 7: “Individuals who are part of multiple oppressed groups experience oppression in a unique way.” This is the concept of intersectionality.

That’s a quick overview of the basic tenets of critical theory. If you’d like more detail, my talk from last week is available here. Let’s turn next to the question of whether Christianity and critical theory are compatible.

Next: Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Christianity: Are They Compatible? – Part 2

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