Note: This post originally appeared on Arc Digital on November 20, 2020.
On August 18, 1963, 10 days before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an article entitled “Our Laws Must Be Upheld” appeared in The Shreveport Times. The author derided the “Negro rights” revolution, writing that there has been “increasing public revulsion against the avalanche of propaganda that it is all right for Negroes and their white supporters to break laws in bloody street demonstrations because the so-called ‘rights’ they seek are something they are ‘supposed’ to have.” Part of this “avalanche of propaganda,” according to the author, was coming from church pulpits and the National Council of Churches. The author condemns their fight for social justice, at one point mocking it as “Divine law scourging the evil out of man’s law.”
Of course, the author of the article does not see any of this as “Divine law”; the author views it as heresy. The way the author sees it, the activists say, “It’s all right for me to break a law if I say that so-called Negro rights are the objective, but it’s not right for you to uphold laws which for decades have protected the established rights of all people of all colors if I object.” What the author is against, of course, is the core of Critical Race Theory (CRT), a methodological tool that highlights the ways in which the law and other institutions perpetuate racial inequality.
Today, CRT serves as the bugaboo for the cluster of anti-social justice reactionaries staking a place for themselves across all the venues of digital discourse. CRT also gets denounced from some of the highest pulpits in the land: from the White House press room to the white evangelical church stage. Speaking at the White House Conference on American History in September, Donald Trump claimed that teaching and using CRT as a tool to expose and rectify inequalities “is a form of child abuse.” Similarly, many white evangelical Christians, specifically the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN), a recent offshoot within the Southern Baptist Convention, have placed CRT and intersectionality squarely in their sights, using the tools as a way to stoke fears within their congregations.
At the 199th annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC), two resolutions passed, one “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality” and one “Against Racism.” According to the GBC, Critical Race Theory arose “in secluded corners of secular, postmodern university departments.” The language here mirrors the same scaremongering rhetoric Trump used to claim CRT is harmful to children. The claim that CRT stems from these “secluded corners” of universities attempts to paint CRT as something alien and hostile to the interests of ordinary, often disadvantaged people; yet CRT’s methodological promise is to shed light on existing inequalities, which clashes with this depiction of CRT as some sort of hidden project spun up by cloistered and self-serving academics. The language also echoes the anti-intellectualism of Trump’s 1776 Commission.
These attacks on CRT play upon the same argument from the author above in 1963 — same wolf, different clothes.
The Conservative Baptist Network understands its goal in biblical and missional terms: seeking “to keep both evangelism and the authority of the scriptures relevant within the SBC.” But its self-understanding belies the degree to which it is engaged in a fundamentally political project. Christianity Today, a major evangelical magazine, headlined its recent profile of the network this way: “Movement Wants to Make Southern Baptists Conservative Again.” That’s suggestive of a culture war mission — not necessarily a biblical or theological one.
Indeed, two of the CBN’s five main points call for “Christian individuals and churches to influence the culture by engaging in the public policy process and demonstrating their patriotism” and for rejecting “various unbiblical ideologies . . . such as Critical Race Theory, intersectionality, and social justice.” Ask yourself whether describing the idea of social justice as “unbiblical” makes any sense outside of a transparently political context — it certainly makes no sense theologically.
In response to the murder of George Floyd and the protests that arose in the weeks and months following, the CBN’s seven paragraph statement offers a cursory mention of Floyd’s murder before moving into vitriolic language, labeling protestors as “rioters . . . engaging in domestic terrorism,” even calling them “not normal criminals” who “are rioting to advance a political point.” Biblically, the only verse they reference is Genesis 1:27: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” This scripture, within the context of CBN’s overall statement, simply says, “all lives matter.”
The CBN’s statement following Floyd’s murder did nothing but stoke division and fear. The Georgia Baptist Convention’s statement against CRT and intersectionality does the same. At the core of these statements is the fear of losing power; the fear of confronting the ways white evangelicals benefit from their whiteness and the ways they have used their whiteness to oppress others. One section of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s resolution puts things in precisely this way when it states: “Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality wrongly define racism in such a narrow way that primarily only dominant identity groups who wield ‘power’ in society may be indicted with racism and/or racist behaviors.”
From the pulpit, pastors preach to their parishioners that CRT is completely unbiblical and incompatible with Christianity. However, they rarely describe CRT or intersectionality to their flocks, and when they do, they use rhetorical cudgels like “cultural Marxism,” relying on words and phrases that connotatively trigger fear and disgust within their audience. They mask the true aspects of CRT and its compatibility with the Bible underneath a guise of individualism, all of which works to maintain white supremacy.
If CRT and intersectionality are incompatible with the Bible, how do we explain Isaiah 10:1–2? It reads: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” What do we do with Jesus’s first sermon, where he reads from Isaiah 61 and relates the stories of Elijah and Elisha healing Gentiles? In the sermon, Jesus points out that he has come to save all kinds of people, not just a select few. What do we do with Peter who in Acts 10 receives a vision from God telling him to go to a Roman centurion’s home and preach to him? What do we do when, in Galatians 2, Paul recounts Peter falling back into his prejudices, requiring Paul to reprimand him for behaving differently when he gets around Jewish leaders?
In a document entitled “The Southern Baptist Convention Should be Led by Pastors,” Tom Ascol writes this about politicians:
As the United States has witnessed in national politics, those whose careers are dependent on life in Washington, DC tend to oppose anything that might shake up that life. They are far more tolerant and even encouraging of policies and practices that preserve their positions than they are in taking personally costly stands for the sake of doing what is right.
Ascol argues against the SBC’s “bureaucratic tendencies,” which he suggests makes them open to seeing frameworks such as CRT and intersectionality as helpful toward confronting racial inequalities. Ascol instead sees them as “godless ideologies” filled with “wickedness.”
Ascol prescribes distance from DC, suggesting that pastors ought to depoliticize their roles, but his Twitter feed and theological positions seem inextricably bound to his politics, which are not undisclosed or hidden from sight. The CBN’s spokesman, Brad Jurkovich, proudly shows off his church hosting Republican politicians, offering sermons such as “Will We Allow Socialism to Overtake Us?”, and promotes Trump as a defender of Christian values.
White evangelical critics of CRT and intersectionality see themselves as resisting ideas they find harmful to Christianity, but many of them don’t consider whether what is driving their fierce resistance is something less biblical or ecclesiological and more . . . political. When you identify your Christian movement with Trump’s administration, your capacity to differentiate between the two is lost.
These leaders have enlisted the church in a political program of white identitarianism— and that comes with some spiritually deleterious consequences. The anti-CRT and anti-intersectionality stances become a kind of symbol that suggests the enemy of Christianity is a robust reckoning with racial injustice. But this gets things backwards. Why wouldn’t Christianity actually be genuinely concerned with the very people who have it the worst?
Lillian E. Smith diagnosed this very problem in Killers of the Dream(1949):
Their religion was too narcissistic to be concerned with anything but a man’s body and a man’s soul. Like the child in love with his own image and the invalid in love with his own disease, these men of God were in love with Sin which had come from such depths within that they believed they had created it themselves. This belief in the immaculate conception of Sin they defended with a furious energy and stubbornly refused to assent to the possibility that culture had had any role in its creation.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr. also gets it right in his Democracy in Black. Here he istalking about America:
Our segregated lives and our deep fears keep problems of black folk from coming into full view. And even while hidden, the devastation spreads like cancer. This is the way we deal with race matters in this country: willful blindness. Any other approach threatens our national sense of morality.
By stoking fear around CRT and intersectionality rather than engaging with it in good faith, the Conservative Baptist Network, the Georgia Baptist Convention, and other white evangelical critics of those frameworks end up basically just converting Trumpian culture war grievance politics into the church’s mission. They transform the church into an ideological machine. This doesn’t purify the gospel from unbiblical accretions, or preserve orthodoxy, or do any of the standard things faithful churches historically have concerned themselves with.
What it does do is furnish these leaders with political power. As far as the congregations go, it deflects from needed self-reflection. It resists a reckoning with racial injustice, and the systems which perpetuate them. It ultimately tickles the ears of the safe and comfortable, as those who most need help are told their interests and lives don’t matter enough to warrant a little discomfort.
These white evangelicals are, in essence, the Mr. Poor White whom Lillian Smith spoke about in 1964. Mr. Poor White “chooses to injure all who are against his beliefs for they are a ‘threat’ to his and what he calls ‘the American way of life,’ meaning his personal way of life.”