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Crash Course on Critical Race Theory

First published: 09/09/2019

Updated: 5/26/2021

In recent years, there has been a growing embrace by conservative churches, seminaries and ministries to advocate for things like "social justice" and "racial reconciliation.” Since the death of George Floyd, this trend has become more public and also accelerated. Now the phrase "Critical Race Theory" (CRT) seems to be everywhere. Many are grappling with trying to understand what it is and if it's a problem or a helpful way of discussing the lingering effects of our country's racial history.

Some Christian leaders who use words like "woke," "White privilege" and "systemic racism" also say they haven't heard of Critical Race Theory until recently –– until people started accusing them of believing in it. Some of these voices also tell us there is no conflict between CRT and the Gospel. Here are just a few examples of that, just to support my assertion.

Dr. Eric Mason (author, Woke Church) did a recent sermon summarizing his view of racism. It's both clarifying and revealing. This is the sermon in its entirety:

Here is some extended analysis of this sermon by my ministry colleagues from the Center for Biblical Unity:

In this video, pastor and Biola trustee, Adam Edgerly, explains his belief that there is no conflict between CRT and historic Christianity. At one point, he also asserts that the Bible ought to be read through the lens of intersectionality.

Bryan Loritts, a trustee at Biola University, calls CRT an "unnecessary distraction" in the discussion about racism. At one point in this message, he advocates for reparations (a common call among CRT proponents), although admitting that its warrant in Scripture is thin.

Other voices see CRT as a competitor to the Gospel. So, which is it?

Well, it's complicated.

The Origins of CRT

The secular construct of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an extremely complex academic framework, with a very complex history. American lawyer and professor Derrick Bell is commonly known as the father of Critical Race Theory. CRT was then developed further by other scholars, such as Richard Delgado, Patricia Williams, Neil Gotanda, Mari Matsuda, and more. The term “Critical Race Theory” is formally credited to scholar and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989.

The core ideal of CRT and Critical Legal Studies (CLS) was to probe the creation and maintenance of an unjust, racialized legal system. Advocates believed that the law could be used to rectify these injustices. What CRT has become, however, is the guiding interpretive framework for such disciplines as sociology, justice theory, education, social science, psychology, and literature.

Further complicating things is that aspects of the framework have been joined to other streams of 20th century thought, such as post-modernism, feminist studies, and standpoint epistemology. Here is a summary of some that history that we did exploring that issue on our podcast last fall.

We followed that conversation up with this one, comparing and contrasting the philosophy behind MLK and BLM.

Defining CRT

Those Christian scholars who don't see a conflict between CRT and their faith often define CRT in a very narrow way, often focusing on the legal origins of the framework. For example, Dr. Nathan Cartagena, professor at Wheaton College, defines CRT as “a movement aimed at providing an antiracist understanding of the relationships between ‘race’ and law.” Cartagena asserts that CRT advocates are generally united by two shared interests: 1) understand how white supremacy has been created and maintained in the U.S and 2) explore how to change these injustices. (Read Dr. Cartagena's view here.)

I have found Dr. Pat Sawyer's 15-point summary of the major tenants of CRT to be more reflective of how its currently being used. But granted, some would disagree with that, as well.

Here is a visual depiction of CRT would identify the "oppressors" and the "oppressed."

And here is a visual depiction of how CRT often characterizes White supremacy.

What's most important to know here is that whenever you are in a conversation about CRT, it is vital to define what you are even talking about!

CRT on the Street

Another confusing aspect of the conversation about CRT is that there is the academic version of the framework (see above) and then there is the way it is now functioning in our culture. What started out as an academic idea has "escaped the lab" and is now walking around on the street. And it is shaping the worldview of nearly everyone in the country under the age of 30.

Aspects of this "street level" CRT are being adopted by a growing number of pastors and Christian leaders. Seminaries that have been historically conservative –– and still are conservative on paper –– now have faculty advocating concepts derived from Critical Race Theory as the basis for conversations about racial reconciliation and justice. CRT oriented speakers are regularly platformed in historically conservative spaces, including Biola University, MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) and The Gospel Coalition web site.

Even if you haven't actually heard the term Critical Race Theory, you have encountered its concepts simply by watching the news or browsing social media. Here are some common phrases and situations you might encounter in the real world that could possibly be signs that your church, university, seminary or favorite ministry is drifting into the CRT framework.

  • Your pastor says that repentance from racism is part of the Gospel and is a necessary foundation in order to be reconciled to God.

  • You see a news article on social media using the term “woke.”

  • A pastor describes “white spaces” as being “violent.”

  • A white pastor, who seems like a generally nice and generous person, calls himself a "racist" from the pulpit.

  • A conference speaker leads the congregation through corporate repentance for “whiteness.”

  • The pastor describes the Bible as being written from the perspective of the marginalized.

Again, your pastor or professor may or may not know that they have been influenced by aspects of the academic version of CRT. He or she may just be repeating what they've heard others say and using the common vernacular of the day. But if you start noticing phrases like these from your pulpit or being published on your church’s web site, then it’s very possible that the leadership team (whether intentionally or unintentionally) is taking your church down a path of CRT. So it will be important to ask some strategic questions.

Do Your Homework

Advocates of CRT raise some legitimate concerns about race conversations. However, there are also significant points of departure between CRT and the historic Christian worldview. So, if you have a concern about CRT coming into your church, school or favorite ministry, here is what NOT to do: panic. Instead, start by educating yourself more about the CRT framework itself so you can better assess the situation that seems to be emerging in your context.

If CRT is completely new to you, here are 3 places to start learning more.

1. Listen to this podcast with Alisa Childers and Neil Shenvi

2. Read this article by Dr. Neil Shenvi and Dr. Pat Sawyer: "The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity." This is a very basic survey of the issue.

Note: There are several resources on the Gospel Coalition web site that promote ideas based on Critical Theory, to varying degrees. So just be aware of that. I am linking to this particular article because it’s written by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer and provides a balanced presentation of the issue.

3. Watch this video by Dr. Neil Shenvi

If you want to continue to learn more, check out the podcast (All The Things where I, along with my podcast partner, Monique Duson (founder, Center for Biblical Unity), frequently discuss these issues in detail. Monique is a former CRT advocate who has recently come out of that framework.

In this talk, Monique and I discuss how CRT functions as a worldview, and Gospel competitor, for most people under the age of 30.

Further your learning by:

Interact with Primary Sources

If you are concerned about your church or school’s drift into CRT, and want to speak to leadership about it, or if you're in a position of leadership in a church (e.g., elder, lead pastor, youth pastor) or ministry (e.g., board member, director), you will also need to interact with primary sources. This will allow you to address concerns and make nuanced distinctions. I strongly suggest that you make the time to explore Critical Race Theory more deeply so that you can help your people (or yourself!) not get swept away by false doctrine. Many Christians are woefully ill-equipped to accurately represent or critique these ideas because they rely too heavily on secondary sources. Only by thoughtfully engaging in resources from its leaders can you begin to understand the scope and complexity of the arguments that CRT advocates are making.

Here are two examples of popular books in the current canon:

There are also a number of fairly prominent voices within Christian evangelicalism who assert and/or been influenced by various aspects of Critical Race Theory. For them, they do not see it as conflicting with the Christian faith. In fact, they will often assert that Critical Theory is a helpful analytical framework that is part of God's general revelation.

Here are some prominent examples of voices and entities whose guiding framework has been significantly shaped by aspects of CRT.

  • Influential Voices: Lisa Sharon Harper, Eric Mason, Jemar Tisby, Ekemini Uwan, Latasha Morrison

  • Influential Entities: Truth’s Table podcast, Pass the Mic podcast, The Witness Podcast Network, Faithfully magazine, Sojourners magazine, Facebook groups organized by “Be The Bridge” and “The Witness”

  • Influential Books: The Color of Compromise, Be The Bridge (Read the statement from Be The Bridge explaining their position on CRT.)

If you notice that your pastor starts quoting or recommending the above people or resources, he or she might be adopting, or at least be sympathetic to, some aspects of Critical Theory, as well.

One final word: Remember when I said that CRT is an "extremely complex" framework? That's the real. I have two seminary degrees, and have been studying it for almost a year and I'm still struggling to understand several key aspects of it. The purpose of this post is to provide some basic orientation for lay people to begin to understand and recognize the CRT framework. I want to help those who are new to the conversation have some direction to investigate these issues for themselves. The purpose of this post is not to explain in detail what CRT is. I am simply trying to provide some resources so people can begin to understand what CRT is and how it is shaping public conversations in culture and in the church.

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