Critical race theory, like other critical ¬theories—postcolonialism or queer ¬theory, for example—is self-certifying. Its basic claims, for example, that racism is systemic or that being non-racist is impossible, are not conclusions drawn from arguments. They are axioms, and they cannot be challenged by those who do not agree with them. Those who ¬dissent or offer criticism are, by definition, part of the problem.
For many years, apart from sporadic eruptions in American society, the issue of race has played Banquo’s ghost at the American evangelical banquet: an unsettling, unwelcome, somewhat passive guest. But recent trends in American public opinion, fueled by reports of police violence, have made race an inescapable topic, fierce and divisive. Critical race theory (CRT), promoted by progressive activists and adopted by many evangelical intellectuals, has become the shibboleth: Are you for it? Or are you against it? A movement already strained to the breaking point by the Trump presidency now faces the very real possibility of coming apart over race.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Southern Baptist Convention. At its annual meeting in 2019, the SBC passed a motion “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.” The goal was to hold the two sides together. The motion subordinated CRT to the Bible but allowed that it offers helpful tools.
This effort at moderation did not satisfy hard-liners on either side. In July, Pastor John Onwuchekwa took his Atlanta congregation out of the Convention because of what he regarded as the SBC’s failure to treat racial issues with sufficient urgency. Just months earlier, a new group of SBC pastors founded the Conservative Baptist Network, a coalition for those who see the SBC as dangerously soft on “wokeness” in the ranks. More recently, the presidents of the six seminaries of the SBC issued a public statement, declaring that CRT is incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message (the doctrinal standard of the SBC). The polarized response to this statement indicates just how deep the disagreement on CRT in Southern Baptist circles now runs.
Critical race theory, like other critical theories—postcolonialism or queer theory, for example—is self-certifying. Its basic claims, for example, that racism is systemic or that being non-racist is impossible, are not conclusions drawn from arguments. They are axioms, and they cannot be challenged by those who do not agree with them. Those who dissent or offer criticism are, by definition, part of the problem.
This pattern can be seen in the reactions of pundits to the fact that in the recent election, Donald Trump increased his support among Latinos and African Americans. Most of us would read these electoral results as indicating that perhaps supporting Trump was not as racist as many pundits have claimed. But better, more telepathic, minds disagreed. Charles Blow, columnist for the New York Times wrote: “This is so personally devastating to me: the black male vote for Trump INCREASED from 13% in 2016 to 18% this year. The black female vote for Trump doubled from 4% in 2016 to 8% this year.” Rather than revise his view of Trump, he said the results showed that “some people who have historically been oppressed will stand with the oppressors, and will aspire to power by proximity.” Trump’s gains among minorities were thus not evidence that he was less racist than claimed. They were merely evidence that the oppressed are so dim that they frequently vote for their oppressors.
Nothing brings out the elitist paternalism of intellectuals on the left more quickly than the fact that those it seeks to liberate from oppression so often fail to support progressive causes. Critical theory began in the 1930s with the work of men such as Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodore Adorno. These men evolved Marxist doctrines to explain why the proletariat in places like Germany flocked to the nationalist parties of the right, such as Hitler’s National Socialists, instead of allying with the left to precipitate communist revolution. The proletariat, they concluded, suffered from false consciousness.
Critical theory, whatever form it takes, relies on the concept of false consciousness—the notion that the oppressors control society so completely that the oppressed believe their own interests are served by the status quo. This is a wonderful idea. It allows every piece of evidence that might refute one’s theory to be transformed into further evidence of how deep and comprehensive the problem of oppression is. If factory workers buy houses in the suburbs and vote for Republicans, that’s not a fact that requires rethinking Marx’s theories; it’s a sign of how all-powerful bourgeois ideology has become.
Erich Fromm and company thought in terms of class and economics. Ibram X. Kendi and his allies think in terms of race and discourses of power. But the postmodern twist does not change the basic logic. As a former colleague used to quip: same horse, different jockey. Critical race theory is the Marxist horse, ridden by the jockey of identity politics rather than the jockey of class warfare.
Compare the logic of critical race theory with Chairman Mao’s infamous circular of May 16, 1966, a foundational document of the Chinese Cultural Revolution:
Just when we began the counter-offensive against the wild attacks of the bourgeoisie, the authors of the outline raised the slogan: “everyone is equal before the truth.” This is a bourgeois slogan. Completely negating the class nature of truth, they use this slogan to protect the bourgeoisie and oppose the proletariat, oppose Marxism-Leninism, and oppose Mao Tse-tung’s thought.
Substitute “white” for “bourgeois” and “race” for “class”: Precisely this logic allows CRT to assume the illegitimacy of anything that questions its account of reality.
Critical race theory is American in its origin and content, but Black Lives Matter has given it currency worldwide. People in countries where racism is not a function of skin color or of the history of slavery have adopted its slogans and actions. In this we see the latest act of American pop-cultural imperialism, emanating from elite university seminar rooms rather than Disney World.
The attraction is obvious: Critical race theory rests on simple, therapeutic premises. It leaves no room for argument or doubt. For all its sophisticated language, CRT portrays life as a zero-sum game. Some people do not have power. They struggle and do not flourish. This happens because somebody else has seized power from them and oppresses them in an ongoing and unrelenting way. The oppression has solidified into a self-justifying system. There is a comprehensive explanation for all the evils we suffer.
Those premises speak powerfully to the moral imagination of our age. We harbor a belief that, with enough goodwill, intelligence, and resources, our social problems can be solved, and evils eradicated. This was the conceit behind the War on Poverty in the 1960s, as well as other ambitious endeavors to transform society. If we believe solutions are available, then it follows that someone is to blame for persistent problems such as poverty or racial imbalances in achievement. Those in power must lack the will to find solutions, or they are too selfish to allocate resources. Utilitarianism as a moral philosophy adds to this presumption that someone is to blame for social evils. Jeremy Bentham held that most social evils could be alleviated if rational people applied the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. That they do not do so can be explained only by their perfidious character and bondage to old-fashioned ways of thinking.
Given these very modern approaches to the problem of evil, critical race theory is extremely seductive. Who wants to be guilty of standing on the side of the oppressors rather than in solidarity with the victims of injustice? The theory is likewise hard to oppose, since it denies the legitimacy of arguments that call it into question. The he-who-is-not-with-us-is-against-us rhetoric ensures that even tentative reservations will sound, well, racist. How many of us want to identify ourselves as not “antiracist”? Who wants to appear to deny that black lives matter?
All-embracing and transformative views often have a religious quality. Critical race theory is no exception. It has a creedal language and liturgy, with orthodox words (“white privilege,” “systemic racism”) and prescribed actions (raising the fist, taking the knee). To deviate from the forms is to deviate from the faith. Certain words are heretical (“non-racist,” “all lives matter”). The slogan “silence is violence” is a potent rhetorical weapon. To fail to participate in the liturgy is to reject the antiracism the liturgy purports to represent—something only a racist would do.
How has it come to pass that radical thinking of this sort now shakes American evangelical institutions such as the Southern Baptist Convention to their foundations? Part of the answer can be found in Jemar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise. Tisby’s account of American evangelicalism contains much that is true. There is undeniably a shameful story to be told about the white Protestant churches of America and their connection to slavery, segregation, and racism.