Last week at the T4G conference, Pastor Mark Dever moderated a panel on Critical Race Theory between Rev. Kevin DeYoung and Pastor Bobby Scott. There were many things I appreciated about their very brief discussion, which I’ll mention below. However, their frequent expressions of agreement during the conversation made me wish they’d had time to explore other areas of potential disagreement, which are crucial for understanding the debate over CRT within evangelicalism today.
To start with, the fact that this discussion even happened is remarkable. It’s been exceptionally difficult to find evangelicals on different “sides” of the debate over CRT who are willing to sit down and discuss their points of agreement and disagreement, but it’s something the church desperately needs.
Second, I deeply appreciated Pastor Scott’s insistence that any discussion of CRT needs to take place in front of an open Bible. It’s not merely enough to let both sides speak. Both sides must also be willing to submit their views to the scrutiny of Scripture.
Third, towards the end of the discussion, Scott was asked if any insights that could be gleaned from CRT could alternatively be gleaned from Scripture, and he responded “I hope so!” This was an important affirmation and, although this may surprise some readers, not even one I necessarily agree with. For example, we don’t demand that historical truths about the Revolutionary War or scientific truths about superconductivity be derivable from Scripture. So why should we think that Scripture must be able to independently provide us with insights into, say, the history of race in the U.S. or examples of modern-day racial discrimination? I would instead make the more moderate claim that any true insight offered by CRT or by any other discipline must be compatible with Scripture (see my review of Baucham’s Fault Lines for a longer discussion of the sufficiency of Scripture as it pertains to CRT).
Fourth, DeYoung opened with three important affirmations: a) reflexive, unwarranted charges of “CRT” should never be used to shut down conversation; b) CRT is an actual discipline, not some nebulous bogeyman conjured up by Republicans in 2020; and c) the central ideas of CRT are corrosive to Christian theology in numerous ways. Throughout the dialogue he expressed agreement with Scott’s affirmations that the legacy of historic racism affects us today, that racism exists today, that racism may be more pervasive than Whites realize, that “ignoring race” is the wrong approach to racism, and that Whites and Blacks still often experience de facto segregation even though de jure segregation has been outlawed. He insisted, correctly, that we can and should affirm all these statements and still reject CRT.
Fifth, Scott insisted that Christians need to reject “weaponized” terms like “white supremacy,” which have been redefined so broadly that they’re now routinely applied to anyone who expresses disagreement with CRT (including DeYoung himself).
Finally, it is clear that these two men genuinely love one another.
Given that DeYoung repeatedly agreed with Scott’s points and emphasized that many of them could be affirmed apart from any reliance on CRT, it’s unclear why Scott didn’t immediately respond “good, I also reject CRT.” Now, for all I know, he does reject CRT. But I detect a certain hesitancy among some pastors to unequivocally say “CRT is not compatible with Christianity.” I suspect that some of this hesitation comes from a fear that people will take the statement “Christians should reject CRT” to mean “Christians shouldn’t talk about racism.” But this hesitation may also come from an uncertainty about exactly what CRT is, which is my next concern.
At no point in the discussion was CRT clearly defined and carefully explained. Twice, Scott referred to CRT as “a legal theory.” But this is not quite right. CRT did indeed “[begin] as a movement in the law, [but] rapidly spread beyond that discipline” (Delgado and Stefancic, CRT: An Introduction, p. 7). Similarly, Scott suggested (and DeYoung agreed) that CRT asks interesting questions like “Are formally colorblind laws sufficient to end racial discrimination?” and “What are the lingering effects of historic racism?” However, it was never mentioned that CRT does not merely ask such questions but provides answers. For example, CRTs consistently point to a set of “central tenets” or “defining elements” that distinguish CRT from other approaches to race.
- A belief that “Racism is a normal part of American life.”
- The idea that “liberalism, neutrality, objectivity, colorblindness, and meritocracy… camouflage [how] racial advantage propels the self-interests, power, and privileges of the dominant group.“
- ” CRT gives voice to the unique perspectives and lived experiences of people of color”
- The appeal to “Revisionist History [which] suggests that American history be closely scrutinized and reinterpreted as opposed to being accepted at face value and (sic) truth.”
- Criticism of the claim that “one can fight racism without paying attention to sexism, homophobia, economic exploitation, and other forms of oppression or injustice” (Harper, Patton, and Wooden, The Journal of Higher Education, 80(4), 2009, p. 389-414).
Although DeYoung alluded to these beliefs, he didn’t have much time to elaborate on them. And the centrality of these propositions is crucial in this discussion. It’s one thing to say “Marxism asks interesting questions about why workers feel alienated.” It’s quite another to say “We need to accept Marxism if we want to ask such questions.” In the same way, saying “CRT asks interesting questions about race” (which is true) in no way establishes that we need to accept CRT in order to ask these questions. (See my article Can We “Eat the Meat and Spit Out the Bones” of Critical Race Theory?)
The problem of vague definitions is exacerbated by the fact that, as DeYoung mentioned, many of CRT’s beliefs are “in the water” of our culture today. People aren’t getting these beliefs from Kimberlé Crenshaw or even Robin DiAngelo, but from Facebook and their Sunday night mom’s group. Consequently, rather than asking, “Do you endorse CRT?” it might be better to ask, “Do you think racism is a normal, permanent, and pervasive part of American life” or “Do you think racism, sexism, and homophobia are interlocking systems of oppression?”
Finally, I regretted that there was not more disagreement in this discussion, not because I want Scott or DeYoung (or anyone else) to embrace CRT but because disagreement best highlights fundamental conflicts between CRT and Christianity and opens the door to biblical scrutiny. As I’ve said before, a panel of six “woke” or six “anti-woke” Christians is not a panel; it’s a monologue. While I understand why conference organizers don’t want a discussion to devolve into a cage-match, the audience is often best-served when panelists are challenged on their beliefs, are forced to answer difficult questions, and are required to defend their claims with reason and Scripture. Yes, that can be uncomfortable. But if anyone doesn’t see a looming crisis both within evangelicalism and within our culture over the oppressor-oppressed narrative of which CRT is a part, I question how well they’ve been paying attention to this conversation.
I recommend starting with my review of former Christianity Today columnist Dr. Christena Cleveland’s new book God Is a Black Woman, in which she makes statements like “whitemalegod’s toxic trifecta of racism, sexism, and classism landed on my Black female body and kept me on his plantation” (p. 174) and “As I continued my spiritual path toward the Sacred Black Feminine, I wanted to stop asking, ‘What can I prove? What is orthodox? What can be substantiated by history or scripture?’ Instead, I wanted to ask ‘what nurtures hope in my Black female embodied soul?…What liberates my Black female embodied soul?‘” (p. 60). If you think CRT is merely an esoteric legal theory whose ideas are confined to graduate classrooms, you’re sorely mistaken.
The Scott-Dever-DeYoung panel was exemplary in terms of charity and open discussion. Both speakers made important points, but their conversation wasn’t especially substantive when it came to central areas of conflict between CRT and Christianity. I wish they’d had another 30 minutes to determine if, and where, they actually disagreed. Nonetheless, I’d like to see this panel as a first step toward more open dialogue in front of open Bibles.