While a threshold understanding of false ideologies presently challenging the church is necessary for pastors, their priority should be that of rooting themselves and the people under their care in true, historical, confessional, orthodox theology. They should focus on shoring up their doctrinal distinctives such that they can weather any storm.
Three Cheers, Two Fears
A few weeks ago, at the direction of President Trump, Russ Vought, the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), published a memo instructing executive branch agencies to cease so-called racial sensitivity training that is based on Critical Race Theory (CRT). The memo also banned training that employs the concepts of “White Privilege,” or “any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either… that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or… that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” Vought added that these training seek to “undercut our core values as Americans and drive division within our workforce.” Quite right. Since the release of Vought’s memo lawmakers, most notably Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) have taken notice and encouraged a full audit of relevant federal agency training programs. In an interview, Hawley wondered aloud if federal law had been violated and pledged to personally inquire into the matter. Later in September, Trump issued an expansion order that applied the same restrictions to federal contractors.
By all accounts, federal CRT-based trainings came to the attention of the Trump administration after Christopher Rufo of the Discovery Institute began reporting his findings, most notably on Tucker Carlson Tonight and in articles at the City Journal. Perhaps the most shocking amongst Rufo’s reports is the case of Sandia National Laboratories, a nuclear weapons research facility, which in recent days held a mandatory “retreat” called “White Men’s Caucus on Eliminating Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia in Organizations.” Per Rufo, only the white males at Sandia were required to attend and engage in woke rituals (e.g. admitting complicity in systemic racism, etc.). But this instance is just the tip of the iceberg. Rufo claims that a litany of federal agencies, including the Treasury Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are performing similar trainings.
Three cheers for the President, Vought, and Rufo! This was the right thing to do. That being said, whilst the OMB memo is welcome news and a worthy recognition of Rufo’s invaluable, fearless journalism— perhaps, the only example of such in America right now— my resultant worry is twofold.
First, given the capacity for adaptability of critical social theories, the order may have been necessary but will ultimately prove insufficient. The explicit use of the buzz words (or “divisive concepts”) can be gotten around. I will return to this momentarily.
My second fear is that the denunciation of CRT by the Trump administration will backfire. Indeed, there are already signs that it has. The McCarthyism narrative, as I call it, is already taking shape both within and without the church. The emergence of this narrative is not surprising. The proponents of CRT have only become more entrenched since the OMB announcement. In some ways, this is not a bad thing. The gloves need to come off to some extent. I have already identified elsewhere what I believe is an irreconcilable divide in America’s major Evangelical denominations over this. I predict denominational split. Hopefully I am wrong.
In any case, the Red Scare is already being invoked in order to discredit well-placed concern over the influence of CRT in the federal government. Jemar Tisby, who’s new book How to Fight Racism will hit shelves in January, tweeted in response to the Trump order,
“We watched almost in slow motion over the last few years as some fundamentalist Christians turned Critical Race Theory into the latest label to libel racial justice advocates. Now we’re seeing it become a kind of “Red Scare” in the federal government.”
Ekemini Uwan, of the Truth’s Table podcast, claimed the White House memo was simply further, unequivocal evidence that we are living under a “fascist regime.” Matthew Arbo, a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and a regular soldier of the civility brigade, opted for a combination of condescension, gaslighting, and mockery of his fellow Christians who are concerned about CRT.
Uwan’s (admittedly predictable) comment is fascinating for a few reasons. First, it shows the power over the popular imagination of convenient historical analogies that are constantly perpetuated by think pieces in leading publications. The only historical vantage point anyone seems to have is that of 1920s and 1930s Germany (i.e. the last days of the Weimar Republic or the early days of the Third Reich). Niall Ferguson has relentlessly and rightly criticized cultural commentators (especially Andrew Sullivan) for monotonous mentions of 20th century European conflict ever since the populist backlash. In similar fashion, Tom Holland has pleaded with American’s to stop casting itself as Rome and, more importantly, to stop inserting itself into the final act of Edward Gibbon’s history of its decline.
Second, Uwan’s hot take reminds us that most of the same people who invoke the all-too-convenient analogy of 20th century Europe operate under an erroneous working definition of “fascism”— a unique historical phenomenon, under particular, preexisting political conditions and unlikely to be repeated. In reality, “fascism” is nothing more than a “political F-bomb,” as Christian Caryl aptly described it in a 2014 Foreign Policy article. Its an insult, and insults (especially political ones) do not require much historical nuance to nevertheless be effective. Eliah Bures, writing for the same publication just last November, concurred. The term is now almost completely devoid of meaning, other than the expression of distaste for whoever is on the receiving end of the accusation. Best case scenario, it functions as a loose synonym for totalitarianism. Even the more hysterical takes on the populist movements that swept across the west in 2016 were forced to admit that these did not, in fact, constitute a fascist resurgence.
And finally, Uwan’s hot take evidences the hypocrisy of the McCarthyism/Red Scare invocation. One side can appeal to horrifying historical instances of systematic mass murder, but the other cannot. This also exposes an imbalance of cultural memory in the west— a favorite subject of critical theorists. Nazism is (rightly) remembered for its atrocities, but Marxism— or more precisely, the Stalinism of Soviet Russia— is not. Marxism is simply dismissed as a scare word employed by conspiracy theorists and/or those who want to avoid awkward conversations, those who do not want to get real about their white privilege.
Feeding the gaslighting/McCarthyism deflection, mainstream media sources characterized the trainings as “sensitivity training” or “diversity education,” or “racial awareness training.” There has been a concerted effort by all but a few to avoid mention of the term “Critical Race Theory,” or even “White Fragility” and “White Privilege.” This move is by no means unique to CNN and MSNBC. A recent article at Mere Orthodoxy managed to review Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist without ever mentioning “Critical Race Theory.”
The question of the presence of CRT in major institutions, from Washington D.C. to Silicon Valley, is incontrovertible. Now, especially given that its an election year, its validity and influence will become a partisan issue. Trump’s order has been cast by the media as nothing more than a pandering to his allegedly bigoted base, a dog-like obedience to Fox News talking heads, and a knee-jerk reaction to the “browning” of America. Likewise, Christian proponents of CRT’s use embrace the “pandering” narrative of Trump’s order and trot out the notorious and specious statistic that claims 81% of Evangelicals voted for the president in an attempt to substantiate the claim. For good measure, some of these “thought leaders” claim that the “obsession” with CRT by conservative Evangelicals is just the latest iteration of white obfuscation in race discussions. All that to say, the situation has only gotten more complicated in the past few weeks.
As I alluded to above, critical social theories as a class can be slippery, and this is particularly true of Critical Race Theory (CRT), by both design and function. This bodes ill for proposed White House efforts to audit federal training programs. The bestsellers like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist, or Renni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race barely, if it all (as in the case of DiAngelo) explicitly mention “Critical Race Theory.” Their indexes and bibliographies are scant, citing to only a few primary sources that would, after some digging, give you a clue as to their ideological presuppositions. But the ideas, unmistakably drawn from CRT (and Queer Theory, etc.) are there. A perusal of these books in conjunction with popular-level Christian works on the subject like David Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Churchor Daniel Hill’s White Awake evidence perfectly the truth of Peter Boghossian’s “idea laundering” thesis.