The acrimony in the debate about Critical Race Theory in the SBC is reaching new heights. I believe we must have this discussion, but it need not tear us apart like it is currently. It is a deeply emotional and complex issue with great importance regarding our identity and our commitments as Southern Baptists.
On the one side, we have those who are holding up CRT scholarship as a helpful, maybe even necessary tool, to propel the SBC over the racism hump. On the other side, we have those who are waving warning flags that CRT imports an ideology that is hostile to our commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. This divide is growing deeper and the rhetoric is becoming increasingly toxic. However, relevant questions remain that call for our continued engagement. Are CRT proponents being naive at best or deceptive at worst about the nature of CRT? Are CRT critics being overreactive at best or at worst masking their own racism?
The issue of CRT, particularly in regard to our seminaries, has emerged over the last year and a half, and we are in a genuine struggle to get at the truth. I personally know and am acquainted with voices on both sides of this divide. I desire to give all the benefit of the doubt in regard to motivations. However, it is my opinion (and maybe mine alone), that as we Tweet and fuss about CRT, we are missing the bigger picture of it all. It takes time for issues to come into better focus. I think this is happening with me. I’m not saying I have a perfect handle on all the nuances of such a complex discussion, but I think I can make some reasonable observations to help keep the conversation constructive and respectful.
First, the SBC does need to continue to move aggressively forward with greater focus in our seminaries, in our entities and in our churches on racial diversity and unity. Anyone paying attention, can see that over the last 25 years, the SBC has made tremendous strides, but we cannot become complacent. To do so probably evokes in our black brothers an understandable suspicion of tokenism. If our debate about CRT spins out of control, and we become reckless with our words, we will suffer devastating consequences that will set us back to pre-1995 days. We must speak into this issue with charity, clarity, integrity and self-control. If you can’t do this, then be quiet.
Second, the SBC must critically evaluate the possible dangers posed by CRT scholarship to our commitment to the Bible. It is not unreasonable to be posing these questions and attempting to discern the level of concern we should have. Appropriating CRT for the purpose of making progress regarding race in the church should not be a casual or careless decision. We must look deeper into it and further down the road and think critically about its potential impact. We must demonstrate a continued commitment to guard the gospel and the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, even from a discipline that may have a natural and apparent innocuous attraction.
I have been striving to understand the basic tenets of CRT for several months. Richard Delgado and Jean Sefancic give a concise description of the its basics in their work, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2017). They define the CRT movement broadly as, “a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism and power” (3). The authors identity for the uninitiated some of the fundamental features of CRT.
First, CRT posits that racism is ordinary and everywhere. This racism serves to maintain the status quo of white dominance over people of color in ways that are not being sufficiently addressed. Only the most obvious and egregious examples garner attention.
Second, since racism maintains and advances the interests of whites, whites have little interest in combating it and most often do not acknowledge it.
Third, CRT asserts that race and races are social constructs invented by the dominant group of whites to justify the racism of the their group. The characterizations of minority groups by whites have changed in ways to serve the needs of their group throughout history.
Fourth, the idea of intersectionality figures prominently into the discussion of oppression. Intersectionality is the concept that no person has a simple, single unitary identity. For example, one may be female, black and gay. Each category combines to produce overlapping identities, each having its own historical and current issues of oppression.
Lastly, CRT leverages the notion of the unique voice-of-color thesis. This idea presupposes that minority status brings a superior competence to speak about race and racism.
As America wrestles with how racism is entangled with social realities, the rise of CRT has emerged as the post Civil Rights activism that identifies the lingering areas of inequality in law, institutions and social norms that continue negatively to impact people of color. Critical Theory began with the study of law and has branched out into other specialized studies on various ethnicities, gender, and the LGBTQ community.
The draw of CRT on some, especially our black brothers, is completely understandable. I do listen to them, hear their stories and their reasoning, and I think that I get it. CRT is a means by which to open up important discussions that have not been sufficiently taking place. I also believe these brothers are committed to the authority and sufficiency of the Bible. But the question remains: is this a good idea? My answer is no.
Critical Theory has come to be the dominant philosophy in higher education over the last 35 years or so. Much of what we see in regard to feminism and LGBTQ inclusivity in other denominations has been an application of the CT ideology. The drift of these denominations and some evangelical individuals and churches is largely the influence CT on the culture at large intersecting the dominant pragmatism existing in many churches.
It is my opinion that CRT may offer the promise of some short-term help in regard to the SBC continuing to progress in matters of race; however, the long-term consequences of folding it into our seminary education will likely have very predictable consequences. Whereas it may serve as a helpful tool on race, it will undermine our commitment to biblical manhood and womanhood, church leadership, and matters related to gender and sexuality (LGBTQ). You may think that statement to be absurd, overreactive, or fear mongering. I would suggest it arrogant to think it could not happen to the SBC. The reason for such caution is supported by reason and the reality of others within Christianity who have already walked down that road.
The important question is whether or not SBC educators, which in short time will influence SBC pastors and churches, can take CRT scholarship and walk hand-in-hand in the same direction. It seems that as long as we just focus on the descriptive pertaining to race it may be possible, but at some point in the journey that information takes us to the prescriptive, which will be about more than race. At that point, who will be holding on to whom and what path will we be walking down together?
The threat of CRT is not in the fact that its scholars and activists may expose the impact of racism in our history and trace it’s lingering effects. It’s long past time that Southern Baptist historians give more serious emphasis to the same. CRT’s threat to biblical Christianity is in its inherent unbelief that rejects the Bible and the gospel message, and furthermore sees that message as a major source of the oppression that it is fighting against. The clash of worldviews is inevitable.
An important question in all of this debate pertains to the ultimate compatibility of Critical Theory with biblical commitments as expounded in The Baptist Faith and Message, 2000. The recent statement by our seminary presidents was an attempt to say something to this. It didn’t help. It made things worse as it was interpreted through so many different lenses in regard to its intent.
However, I do believe if we embrace CRT as a legitimate tool without a good grasp of the larger ideological landscape of CT, we will find ourselves in short time in conflict with specific portions of the BFM 2000. Here are the parts I believe we are currently putting ourselves on a trajectory to challenge.
VI. The Church: “Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Frankly, this is already happing in the blurring of the line between the position and function of pastor.
XV. The Christian and the Social Order: “In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography. We should work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick. We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.”
CT ultimately deconstructs the social constructs of gender and sexuality. This is already happening as well. So far, the SBC has drawn a clear line on this. So far.
XVIII. The Family: “Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel of sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.
The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.“
CT will inevitably challenge biblical instructions on marriage, homosexuality, the husband-wife relationship, and anywhere where it perceives a particular group based on race, gender or sexual orientation/identity has been oppressed. It’s proponents do not regard the Bible as possessing any kind of divine authority.
CT is descriptive of historical interaction and prescriptive in how to address issues of inequality and oppression that lie below the surface embedded in the law, institutions, economics, and social norms, including religion.
CRT uses the same epistemology of CT, just with a focus on race and racism. It works to find where racially-rooted inequity exists, doing history, analyzing data, and offering interpretation. It goes on to prescribe how to deconstruct what has been constructed to benefit whiteness in the United States and move the needle toward those of color. And although this sounds reasonable and good, we must be aware it does this from a materialistic framework, which is ideologically hostile to the Christian tradition.
I get the attraction of CRT. Too many white, “good Christians” have held racist views through our American history. Many had this moral blind spot in spite of their commitment to Christian faith and the Bible. We have to own the soiled history, lament it, and keep pressing forward more faithfully. But do we need CRT to do this? Does it offer the right kind of solutions reasoned from the right premises? I don’t think so.
So the relevant questions seem clear. Can we reasonably assume that we can drink just a little from CRT scholarship? Can we somehow consume the practical parts devoid of the ideology that establishes the whole? Is it possible that the fact that some think this is possible is evidence of a greater commitment to pragmatism than the sufficiency of Scripture?
I believe the vast majority of Southern Baptists want to see us continue to progress in racial diversity and unity. This should be a consequence of our commitment to the gospel and the Bible. I believe it is imperative that we should be willing to recognize that CRT may be pressing issues we have failed to address. Shame on us. I think we can thank CRT for knocking on our door and showing us some blind spots, but it doesn’t mean we have to let it in. If we welcome it in, and it grows and bears its prescriptive fruit, it will ask us for more than we will want to give. By the time we realize that, some will already be yielding, and it will be the battle for the Bible all over again
Daryl Cornett has been a frequent commenter on the CRT topic. In our desire to be a place where both sides of an issue can be heard, we offer this opposing viewpoint.