Summary of Cline and Shenvi’s What if CRT Were Just a Legal Theory? A Christian Critique

While there is no shortage of opinions about the relationship between Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Christianity, there are surprisingly few academic papers addressing this subject. In an attempt to fill this gap, Timon Cline (JD Rutgers; MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) and I wrote a 10k-word, 85-footnote academic article which will soon be published by the Liberty University Law Review. We strongly encourage seminary students, pastors, and ministry leaders to read the article in full. However, I also wanted to summarize its main points here for readers who may not have the time to dive into the literature.


Anyone trying to get a handle on the debate over “CRT” will quickly hit a semantic barrier. When concerns about “privilege walks” and “deconstructing whiteness” are raised, they are almost immediately met with cries of “THAT’S NOT CRT!” Despite the fact that numerous educators have openly stated that CRT is being applied in teacher training and K-12 education, we’re occasionally still assured that it is “just a legal theory” and is only taught at the graduate level.

In the introduction to our paper, we note that such a narrow view of CRT is anachronistic and flies in the face of the explicit statement of CRT’s founders, who recognize its penetration into disciplines as diverse as medicine, philosophy, history, and theology. However, what if we did artificially restrict CRT to the field of law? What if we did pretend, for the sake of argument, that CRT was “just a legal theory”? Would it then be compatible with Christianity? By no means. In the remainder of the paper, we argue that “CRT, even narrowly construed as a merely legal discipline, is still in fundamental conflict with Christianity and is based on misguided and deleterious views of law, morality, truth, and justice” (p. 1).

Part 1: Origin Story

Part 1 of our paper is devoted to tracing the history of CRT, from its roots in the “legal realism” movement, through Critical Legal Studies (CLS), to its emergence as a distinct and even dominant field within legal theory. This section probably holds the least interest for the casual reader, although “understanding the historic antecedents of CRT is important for fully grasping its unique pathologies” (p. 2).

Part 2: Race and Law

Part 2 examines key themes in CRT scholarship. First, CRT combines modernist, postmodernist, and radical approaches to the law via intense pragmatism. Rather than trying to provide a universal, consistent basis for critique, it adopts whatever tools expose and challenge the operation of racial power. Second, CRT problematizes not just specific laws but legal reasoning in general, which is conceptualized as white and Eurocentric. Third, the law’s supposed universality is replaced by situational ethics such that “no situation is sufficiently like another to be decided under a general rule” (p. 8). Consequently, legal decisions are not grounded in universal standards of “right” and “wrong.” Finally, objective truth itself is challenged since it, like law, is viewed as a social construct that maintains oppressive hierarchies.

Part 3: Law and Praxis

If the themes in Part 2 seem nebulous and abstract, Part 3 shows how profoundly they shape concrete legal analyses and policy recommendations. For example, in 1995, Paul Butler argued in the Yale Law Journal that black jurors should exonerate some guilty non-violent Black offenders on the basis of their race because “criminal conduct among African-Americans is often a predictable reaction to oppression.” (p. 11). Free speech likewise comes under sustained attack, since hateful words are merely one expression of deeper, systemic forces. As Matsada et al. write: “We do not separate cross burning from police brutality nor epithets from infant mortality rates.” At a more popular level, slogans like “impact > intent” or Ibram X. Kendi’s proposed Department of Antiracism find ideological support in CRT’s insistence that racism is “normal, permanent, and pervasive” and therefore requires not incremental reform but “radical social transformation.”

Part 4: CRT and Christianity

Part 4 is the most relevant section with respect to the contemporary debate over CRT in the church. Here we move from merely explaining what CRTs believe to critiquing their beliefs from a Christian perspective. The conflicts are manifold.

First, CRT emphatically rejects the notion that human laws, insofar as they are just, are rooted in Divine Law: “CRT’s convictions about law not only fail to explain but actively undermine the idea that there exists some universal moral standard or divine law which human laws are meant to reflect” (p. 13). This belief is a non-starter for Christians, who believe not only in a God who gave a detailed legal code to the nation of Israel, but whose moral will is advanced as the basis for human justice throughout the Bible.

Second, CRT’s attitude towards law is deeply cynical since all law is viewed as little more than a power play. “In insisting that law is no more than group self-interest, CRT discards basic Christian principles and resorts to pure political pragmatism to the great detriment of the common good” (p. 14). The cynicism of Critical Race Theorists effectively provides them a blank check to “see through” every law as a product of white supremacy. This attitude is profoundly corrosive to any semblance of a functional society. What’s more, it’s obviously false. Surely, there are some laws that are actually just and ought to be retained! Yet CRT proffers a universal acid whose critique has no obvious stopping point.

Third, CRT’s rejection of “procedural justice” is in deep conflict with the Bible’s injunctions regarding impartiality and due process. Outcome rather than mere formal procedural equality is the measure by which CRT determines whether a law is “just.” But “equality of outcome cannot be the sole criterion by which ‘justice’ is measured. If it were, then wealth inequality could be immediately solved by looting the property of the wealthy and disparate incarceration rates could be solved by imprisoning the innocent (16).” The Bible commands us to show favoritism neither to the rich, nor to the poor which means that -contra Kendi- the solution to past discrimination is not future discrimination but a rejection of discrimination.

Finally, CRT views racism, sexism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, ableism, etc. as “interlocking systems of oppression.” This outlook is not new, but rather has been a “defining element” of CRT since its inception. “Obviously, these assumptions clash with the historic Christian belief that gender roles and sexual norms, rightly understood, are not oppressive social constructs, but are God-ordained” (17).

Part 5: Conclusions

Finally, we reiterate in the final section that our treatment of CRT as “just a legal theory” is purely hypothetical and, in actuality, inaccurate. I’ll quote our final two paragraphs in full:

one of the greatest dangers of critical race theory in practice is that it is not restricted to purely legal questions but naturally bleeds into other areas of inquiry. For example, a cynical view of legal interpretation flows seamlessly into a cynical view of biblical interpretation. Can we plausibly insist that jurists routinely and unconsciously manipulate the law to protect their white, male privilege yet insist that white, male theologians do not do the same? Can we insist that law is unavoidably Eurocentric and needs to be decolonized while continuing to subscribe to the Eurocentric creeds of the Reformation? Can we complain that universal legal values are an illusion while simultaneously insisting that God’s moral law is universally binding on all human beings across time and culture? Can we insist that gender roles and sexual norms are the oppressive product of the white supremacist heteropatriarchy while attending a church that supports traditional marriage and male eldership?

We believe that the kind of schizophrenic thinking required to maintain such distinctions is not only a theoretical but a practical impossibility. The doctrinal drift visible within some segments of the church today is a testament to how the assumptions of CRT will slowly (or quickly) erode basic biblical commitments. CRT will hinder, not help, efforts towards racial unity, justice, and healing. While we can appreciate truth when CRTs affirm it, we must firmly reject the ideology. (p. 17)

This summary has treated in brief what we present in much greater detail in our article. We hope that we’ve piqued your interested and encourage you to read the full text, paying particular attention to the numerous direct quotes from CRTs expounding their beliefs in their own words.

Read the full pre-print “What if Critical Race Theory Were Just a Legal Theory? A Christian Critique” here.

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