Yesterday, the SBC’19 Convention approved Resolution #9: “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.” I first learned about the proposal from one of my Twitter followers who attended the convention. After reading the resolution twice, I posted it and noted that it seemed “careful, charitable, and nuanced” before logging off for a few hours. I was taken by surprise by the maelstrom of controversy that awaited me when I returned to Twitter, especially since many other theologically conservative evangelical critics of critical theory also reacted positively to the resolution, just as I did. In what follows, I’d like to walk through the text of the resolution and then comment on some of the concerns raised.
- “Are critical race theory and intersectionality merely ‘analytic tools’? Or are they worldviews?”
- “Are you sure CRT and intersectionality are really just neutral ‘analytic tools’? It doesn’t seem that way to me.”
- “Is it possible to separate CRT and intersectionality as analytic tools from ‘critical theory’ as a worldview?”
- “Even if these fields contain some elements of truth, isn’t it safer to rely solely on Christian scholars who are addressing these issues?”
- “So what’s the benefit of Resolution #9? Why did you recommend it?”
First, the resolution defines critical race theory as a “set of analytical tools that explain how race has and continues to function in society.” It defines intersectionality as “the study of how different personal characteristics overlap and inform one’s experience.” While the resolution affirms that evangelical scholars “have employed selective insights from CRT and intersectionality to understand multifaceted social dynamics” and that these “analytic tools can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences,” it also recognizes that these ideas “have been appropriated by individuals with worldviews that are contrary to the Christian faith,” that these tools are “insufficient to diagnose and redress the root causes of the social ills that they identify” and that they should “only be employed as analytic tools subordinate to Scripture.” Finally, it affirms that Southern Baptists will “carefully analyze how the information gleaned from these tools are employed to address social dynamics” and that we “repudiate the misuse of insights gained from CRT, intersectionality, and any unbiblical ideologies that can emerge from their use when absolutized as a worldview.”
The resolution itself is only a page long and I urge you to read it in its entirety. Given this brief overview, I’d like to address several concerns that I’ve seen raised on social media.
“Are critical race theory and intersectionality merely ‘analytic tools’? Or are they worldviews?”
The idea that Christians can fruitfully employ CRT or intersectionality (hereafter “CRT/I”) hinges on the idea that they are tools rather than fundamental ideologies. An apt analogy would be to the physical sciences. The majority of modern scientists are naturalists, who assume that Nature is all that exists, that miracles are impossible, and that atheism is true. Moreover, modern empirical sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology are usually practiced under the assumption of methodological naturalism, the idea that nature will follow regular, predictable laws that will not be altered by supernatural interference. Yet virtually no Christian believes that we must jettison the findings of science because most scientists are working under naturalistic assumptions. Instead, Christians insist that we can apply the tools of science without adopting the ideology of naturalism.
If we turn to the academic literature, we find that CRT/I is often narrowly defined as a tool rather than as a comprehensive ideology. For example, in their book Intersectionality, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins and feminist Sirma Bilge caution that intersectionality is only a tool, and can therefore be used “in defense of an unjust status quo” by “white supremacist literature” where it is deployed to “justify racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual segregation” (Collins and Bilge, p. 40-41). Throughout the book, they insist that intersectionalists must be independently committed to ‘social justice’ and ‘liberation,’ since intersectionality alone is insufficient to ensure any one particular social outcome.
Critical Race Theory can also be defined narrowly as an approach to “studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power” which considers “the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up [while placing] them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious” (Delgago and Stefancic, CRT, p. 3). Obviously, many different conclusions are compatible with this methodological approach or emphasis.
“Are you sure CRT and Intersectionality are really just neutral ‘analytic tools’? It doesn’t seem that way to me.”
This is where things get tricky. Like many terms, ‘Critical Race Theory’ and ‘intersectionality’ can be defined narrowly or broadly. The authors of Resolution #9 were clearly adopting a narrow definition of ‘CRT’ and ‘intersectionality’ since they describe them as ‘analytic tools.’ Yet, in a broad sense, CRT and ‘intersectionality’ are both undeniably part of a contemporary ideological movement that goes by many names: ‘cultural Marxism,’ ‘Neo-Marxism,’ ‘applied postmodernism,’ ‘identity politics,’ and -my favorite- ‘Grievance Studies.’ My co-author Pat Sawyer and I prefer the term ‘critical theory‘ (distinct from ‘Critical Race Theory’), but regardless of the label we use, this worldview includes several key features:
1. Reality is divided into dominant, oppressor groups and subordinate, oppressed groups along lines of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, age, etc…
2. Oppressor groups subjugate oppressed groups by imposing their norms, values, and expectations on culture.
3. Due to their ‘lived experience,’ members of oppressed groups have special access to truth that is unavailable to oppressors.
4. Our primary moral duty is to liberate the oppressed.
As a side note, I would disagree with the resolution’s particular wording that CRT/I has been “appropriated by individuals with worldviews that are contrary to the Christian faith.” Based on my reading of the seminal documents of CRT and Intersectionality, none of the original authors made any pretense of approaching these subjects from a Christian perspective. Indeed, they cited Marxist, anarchist, and postmodern thinkers as the inspiration for their ideas. Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that these ideas “were produced by individuals with worldviews that are contrary to the Christian faith.”
Regardless, I think it’s clear that the authors of Resolution #9 were speaking of CRT/I in the narrow, non-worldview sense, which is an acceptable way to use the terms.
“Is it possible to separate CRT and intersectionality as analytic tools from ‘critical theory’ as a worldview?”
Yes. Let me give two simple examples.
In Crenshaw’s Critical Race Theory, several authors show how ‘color-blind’ laws were used historically to disguise racial discrimination. For example, in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the Supreme Court recognized that it was illegal for Duke Power to use overtly ‘color-blind’ rules to intentionally discriminate against Blacks. CRTs rightly conclude that mere legal equality is insufficient to guarantee fair treatment. This insight is not only empirically true, but it resonates deeply with the Christian doctrine of sin. Even a perfect legal system cannot change what is ultimately an expression of the hatred in our hearts.
Another obvious example would be the experience of poor mothers. We intuitively recognize that the experience of a poor mother is not reducible to the experience of a mother plus the experience of a poor person (see Praeger’s “A World Worth Living In” in Andersen and Collins, Race, Class, and Gender, p. 486-494). To be a poor mother is to be uniquely vulnerable to violence, predation, and abuse in a way that poor fathers or wealthy mothers are not, which is why we have more “women’s shelters” than “men’s shelters.” Yet this simple observation is actually a textbook application of intersectionality as documented in Praeger’s essay: the idea that our identities are complex and can’t be reduced to the sum of their parts.
Obviously, the use of CRT or intersectionality in these examples does not require us to adopt any of the false and deeply unbiblical tenets of ‘critical theory’ that I outlined above. Rather, they merely highlight elements of truth that are accessible to Christians and non-Christians alike as an act of God’s common grace.
A less superficial example would be evangelical sociologist George Yancey’s excellent book Beyond Racial Gridlock. Prof. Yancey employs terms like ‘white privilege’ and discusses concepts like ‘structural racism,’ which are drawn from Critical Race Theory. Yet his book is deeply rooted in a Christian worldview, and he repurposes these concepts to make them compatible with his biblical commitments. Moreover, he explicitly rejects the ‘white responsibility model’ that is rooted in critical theory and replaces it with a model for racial reconciliation that is grounded in active listening, a mutual recognition of our sinfulness, and our unity in Christ. His work shows that it is possible to appropriate the truths of CRT without accepting the errors into which it often falls.
“Even if these fields contain some elements of truth, isn’t it safer to rely solely on Christian scholars who are addressing these issues?”
In theory: yes. In reality: no.
First, if you are genuinely interested in the interaction between race and law or in the relationship between poverty, gender, and age, I don’t think it’s possible to entirely avoid the fields of Critical Race Theory or Intersectionality. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t found even one book, let alone many, that treat all of these issues from an explicitly Christian perspective.
Second, the real danger of only hearing from ‘safe’ Christian perspectives is that it leaves us entirely lacking in discernment. As an apologist, I know first-hand how damaging it can be when a child is entirely sheltered from secular ideas and therefore is completely unequipped when they first encounter them in college. I see a very similar dynamic at work right now in the church with regard to race, class, gender, sexuality, etc… Many people have had very few serious discussions about these topics. Consequently, when they encounter Critical Race Theorists talking seriously about race, they assume that CRT is the only serious way to talk about race, and then go on to adopt it wholesale as a comprehensive ideology (H/T to Jon Whitehead).
And what happens when a ‘safe’ Christian author starts introducing false ideas? If you’ve divided the world into ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe,’ you’ll have limited ability to subject what you’re reading to biblical scrutiny (H/T to Alisa Childers for this insight).
It seems to me that there are two opposite errors into which we can fall. Either we can embrace critical theory unreflectively or we can “burn it all down” in the hopes that we can avoid being contaminated by it. The former approach is deadly. But, in the long run, I think that the latter approach is also unwise. We don’t want to immerse ourselves uncritically in CRT or in intersectionality or in any other secular discipline. But neither do we want to avoid them entirely. Instead, we should aim for critical engagement. We need to take these ideas seriously enough to understand them and appreciate their insights, and then subject them to a rigorous biblical critique.
Is Resolution #9 perfect? No. Could it have spelled out the dangers of CRT/I more explicitly? Yes. But does it follow that Resolution #9 should have been rejected? No.
“So what’s the benefit of Resolution #9? Why did you recommend it?”
To begin with, I again urge critics to re-read the text of the resolution. It’s worth asking what precisely you disagreed with. Given the legitimate distinctions made in the resolution between CRT/I as a tool versus CRT/I as a worldview, and given the elements of truth and utility that can be found in CRT/I (as a tool), which statements are actually false or misleading?
Almost none of the push-back I’ve received on social media identified particular statements with which people took issue. Rather, the concern was with the resolution’s implications, or tone, or context. People seemed to fear that the document itself was primarily an endorsement of CRT/I. Yet a careful examination of the document shows that this is not the case. The document makes nearly all the same arguments for the incompatibility of Christianity and CT that Pat and I do in our writing. Indeed, the similarities are so striking that I wonder why people who seem to appreciate our work on this subject disliked the resolution!
First, in our writing, we mention that CT is a comprehensive worldview and will therefore necessarily erode our Christian worldview. Resolution #9 talks about individuals who adopt CRT/I and who have “worldviews that are contrary to the Christian faith” and “contradict Scripture.” It then “repudiates” the “unbiblical ideology” that emerges from “CRT/I” when it is “absolutized as a worldview.”
Second, we mention in our writing that CT’s approach to identity is unbiblical because it insists that our identity is not primarily found in being God’s image-bearers or in being believers in Christ, but in our race, class, gender, etc… Likewise, Resolution #9 insists that “Humanity is primarily identified in Scripture as image bearers of God” and that “our common salvation in Christ [is] the source of our truest and ultimate identity.”
Third, we warn in our writing that the oppressed/oppressor categories introduced by CT will apply not just to race or gender, but also to sexuality and gender identity. Resolution #9 says: “we deny any philosophy or theology that fundamentally defines individuals using categories identified as sinful in Scripture.”
Fourth, we affirm that CT does affirm certain truths, which Christians should acknowledge. If anything, Resolution #9 is even more conservative in its assessment than we are. While it recognizes that CRT/I can aid the Church in addressing social ills, it never claims that knowledge of CRT/I is necessary for the Church to address social ills. Indeed, this possibility is ruled out by the explicit statement of Resolution #9 that “Scripture [is] the first, last, and sufficient authority with regard to how the Church seeks to address social ills.” The key word here is sufficient. If Scripture is sufficient to address social ills, then -by definition- CRT/I cannot be necessary to address social ills.
This last point provides a clear answer to those who are concerned that the document is primarily an endorsement of CRT/I. Nearly everyone who is worried about critical theory (myself included) is worried that its proponents are using it as a shield to avoid biblical scrutiny. Yet this resolution unequivocally takes that possibility off the table. If a fellow believer makes a statement that appears to be rooted in CRT/I, Resolution #9 makes the following response not only acceptable but requisite: “Where is this idea in Scripture? What verse/verses support it? You may not merely appeal to CRT/I scholarship to support this claim; you must appeal to the Bible.”
Finally, our main concern in all our writing on CT is that of epistemology: how do we know the truth? The worldview of CT is premised on the idea that oppressed groups have special access to truth and therefore do not have to subject their claims to the scrutiny of Scripture. In contrast, Resolution #9 repeatedly says: “No. The SBC demands and will always demand that the Bible be our ultimate authority, specifically with regard to the claims of Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. All of our beliefs must be submitted to the bar of Scripture.”
“I’m still not sure. I still think it’s better to just avoid or repudiate CRT/I entirely.”
First, I think that -evangelistically- this strategy is insufficient. As critical theory grows in influence, Christians need to understand it in order to effectively share the gospel with non-Christians. In the same way that missionaries to the Muslim world need to prepare to answer questions and effectively remove obstacles, Christians in our culture have to be prepared to answer the concerns and challenges of critical theory.
But second, let me offer some encouragement for talking with fellow Christians: I’ve found that believers who have been influenced by critical theory are very open to gentle but clear and incisive critique. I’ve received numerous emails and messages from people who had no idea what critical theory was or how much it had influenced their thinking until they ran across my writing. I don’t say this as a boast (it hasn’t been that many people!), but as a recommendation.
I do think that the enthusiasm some believers have for CRT/I, even as a tool, is unwarranted and even dangerous. When we affirm that CRT/I contains ‘elements of truth,’ we should do so with the same extreme caution we’d employ in saying that Gender Studies or Postmodernism contains ‘elements of truth.’ While these statements are technically correct, they are open to misinterpretation.
Yet denouncing critical theory as “Marxist garbage” will often merely convince people that you’re taking a dogmatic partisan stance without having bothered to truly understand what you’re criticizing, even if that characterization is incorrect or unfair. In contrast, if you can show that you’ve done your homework and that you sympathize with many of their concerns, but that you still believe CT to be deeply incompatible with Christianity, they’ll often be willing to listen to your concerns.
CT is a serious danger and evangelicalism needs a course correction. But instead of trying to turn the entire ship 180-degrees all at once, why not nudge the rudder a little at a time? Never fail to tell the whole truth without apology. But do so in love, believing all things, hoping all things, and trusting that God will work all things out for his glory.
- Intro to Critical Theory
- Critical Theory Within Evangelicalism
- Christianity and Critical Theory – Part 1