On the Use and Abuse of Critical Race Theory in American Christianity

It can help identify the reality and effects of oppression but it can veer into a version of religious fundamentalism.

Three months ago I published a Sunday newsletter in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing called “American Racism: We’ve Got So Very Far to Go.” As best I can tell, it went more viral than anything else I’ve ever written, and it spawned a flood of follow-up questions. Among the most common? “David, as a Christian, what do you think of critical race theory and intersectionality?” 

My answer is complicated, but the bottom line is relatively clear—it’s more useful and interesting than many of its critics contend, but it ultimately fails as both a totalizing theory of American life and as a philosophy truly compatible with the Christian gospel.

I was first exposed to critical race theory (CRT) almost 30 years ago, during my first year at Harvard Law School. During my entire 1-L year, only one of my professors wasn’t a so-called “crit,” an advocate for CRT. In fact, more than half of all my law school classes were taught from a critical legal theory perspective, and I’ve encountered (and debated) crit-informed legal arguments virtually my entire career. 

What is critical race theory? As with any complex theory, it’s not terribly easy to define, and there are many branching streams. Rather than summarize it from my conservative perspective, let me quote one definition from advocates at the UCLA School of Public Affairs:

CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, CRT challenges this legal “truth” by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle for self-interest, power, and privilege.  CRT also recognizes that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy; everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege while ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides.

“Intersectionality” is a key concept that emerged from critical race theory, and it is roughly defined as the idea that oppression operates in complicated, interlocking ways. So the experience of, say, a white trans woman is different in important ways from the experience of a black lesbian. A white trans woman will experience the privilege of her skin but also oppression due to her gender identity. A black lesbian may experience the privilege of “cis” gender identity but also oppression due to race and sexuality. 

A critical legal theorist will often deconstruct any given story or narrative to look for hidden ways that power, privilege, and assumptions about language color our decisions and our discourse. I’ll get to the problems of this framing later, but let me first show how it can help illuminate important truths. 

I used to advise a number of Christian schools, and several years ago the county offered one of those schools a county sheriff to serve as a school resource officer, free of charge. The purpose was to deter/respond to potential school shootings, and a number of board members were initially enthusiastic about the idea. What’s not to love about free security? 

But the headmaster spoke up and quickly changed their minds. The chances of a school shooting were vanishingly low, he said, but the presence of law enforcement in the halls would be reasonably certain to criminalize school discipline. When a police officer is present a fight often isn’t just a fight—dealt with jointly by parents and the principal as a matter of school discipline. Instead, it might be deemed an assault. A student found with weed isn’t just a kid who might need parental and spiritual intervention, he might be judged a drug offender. 

The headmaster argued that the school needed to retain maximum liberty to raise and discipline its kids. And he prevailed. The board rejected the county’s offer and devised its own school security plan. 

What the heck does any of that have to do with critical race theory? After all, race never came up during the discussion, and none of the participants had a known racist bone in their bodies. Race couldn’t have been relevant, right? But viewed through the CRT lens, the entire incident was absolutely laden with power and privilege, and that exercise of power and privilege reinforced existing racial disparities.

How? Let’s contrast the disproportionately white private school with the disproportionately black public school that was located a mere five miles away. First, look at the difference in power—the private school parents had the wealth to create and maintain a separate institution that was governed separately from the local board of education. Unlike public school parents, they had the absolute autonomy to say yes or no to a law enforcement presence in their halls. 

This power thus created an important privilege. Their students had the privilege of committing low-level crimes without fear of criminal enforcement. They could grow and learn from their mistakes without being fed into the maw of the criminal justice system. 

Power and privilege thus distorted our language and understanding. How could one even begin to understand, for example, the true difference in crime rate between the public and private school? If a fight is an assault in one place and just a “scrap” in another, how do we know which school is more dangerous? If a marijuana purchase is a drug deal in one place and a “mistake” in another, how do we know which environment is more perilous for vulnerable youth? 

When you overlay these considerations with local histories, including residential segregation, a history of redlining, “white flight,” and other factors that might concentrate black families in worse schools, then you start to have a eureka moment. “Ahh, so that’s what we mean when we say that racism has ‘systemic’ legacies and creates systemic problems.”

As a Christian, this kind of CRT-infused analysis helps me not only understand the reason for persistent disparities, it should also build empathy and motivate action. What can we do to ameliorate the effects of this disparate power and privilege? 

So does this mean that critical race theory is entirely good, useful, and worthy of Christian embrace? Not so fast. Go back to the definition above—as practiced, it quite often creates a virtual irrebuttable starting presumption that “existing power structures” can be accurately analyzed primarily (or sometimes exclusively) through the prism of race. 

The end result, ironically enough, is both reductive and complex. Quite simply, race (or gender or gender identity) are not always material factors in any given historical development or cultural phenomenon, and the desire to attempt to racialize any given power structure can lead to radically-strained analyses. CRT is biased in favor of viewing much of life through a racial lens, and that lens does not always see reality clearly.

Moreover, the explicit rejection of liberalism in some (but not all) quarters of critical race theory, combined with the premium placed on experiential authority—for example, who is a white man to question a black trans woman about the validity of her experience?—results in the kind of subjective authoritarianism we see in the academy and “woke” corporate America.

What do I mean by “subjective authoritarianism”? The perfect example is the college speech code. As originally conceived, the speech code was a vehicle for attempting to redress power imbalances on campus by essentially permitting historically marginalized groups the authority to set the limits of campus debate. 

Speech codes therefore explicitly rejected any form of objective test for harassing speech. Instead, they instituted subjective rules that prohibited “offensive” expression, with the offense determined by the listener. Since most of these codes prohibited offensive speech on the basis of race, sexual orientation, or gender, the goal was rather obvious—to replace the allegedly white privileged regime of free speech with a speech culture that flipped the power balance upside down. This time, black and brown people would set the terms of the debate.

Unfortunately, however, the new power brokers often ended up marginalizing and suppressing dissent even from members of their own historically oppressed groups. While intersectionality does state a common-sense truth—that different groups experience oppression differently—it often obscures another, equally valid truth, that different individuals within those groups can still be remarkably diverse. 

Which person can truly stand in for, say, the “gay black experience” and define the bounds of speech not just for everyone outside that group, but also for everyone inside that group as well? The practical result was often rule-by-activist, with campus radicals purporting to define the black or brown perspective for everyone else on campus. 

A speech regime that replaces neutral rules with punitive personal perceptions cannot be anything but authoritarian. But from a Christian perspective, extreme versions of critical race theory suffer from an even worse defect—they wrongly place race at the center of human identity. 

Galatians 3:27-28 declares that “those of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus.” At one stroke, Paul sweeps away race, class, and sex as controlling identities. It’s not that you’re a “Greek Christian.” It’s that you’re all Christian. 

Indeed, this is the logical consequence of the death/rebirth pattern of Christian conversion. Our old self is “crucified.” The new self is fundamentally, eternally defined by Jesus Christ. Our identity rests in him and him alone. 

To state this fundamental spiritual truth is not to deny that a broken, sinful world (including an often broken, sinful church) persists in wrongly elevating race, gender, or class and often making those identities primary and central to their perceptions of others. But the role of the church is to oppose that false construct. All human beings are defined most principally by the shared reality that they are made in the image of God. All Christians are defined by Christ. 

In that construct, critical race theory can be an analytical tool (one of many) that can help us understand persistent inequality and injustice in the United States. To the extent, however, that it presents itself as a totalizing ideology—one that explains American history in full and prescribes an illiberal antidote to American injustice—it falters and ultimately fails. Moreover, as a totalizing ideology, it contradicts core scriptural truths.

This is difficult ground to stake out in polarized times. On the one end, many conservatives reject any respect for any aspect of critical race theory. There’s a virtually irrebuttable presumption that no real truth can come from the far-left. On the left end of the spectrum, critiques of critical race theory are often characterized and perceived as fundamentally racist. CRT is the way to view the world. As I outlined in a previous newsletter, critical race theory and its associated anti-racist ideologies can veer into a version of religious fundamentalism, one that is singularly intolerant of dissent. 

Christians who seek to stake out this difficult ground are not alone. On June 1, 2019, the Southern Baptist Church—the nation’s largest Protestant denomination—adopted a resolution on critical race theory and intersectionality. It’s an excellent document. I’d urge you to read the whole thing, but I’ll highlight three key principles.

First, truthful insights can come from secular sources:

WHEREAS, General revelation accounts for truthful insights found in human ideas that do not explicitly emerge from Scripture and reflects what some may term “common grace”; and

WHEREAS, Critical race theory and intersectionality alone are insufficient to diagnose and redress the root causes of the social ills that they identify, which result from sin, yet these analytical tools can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences…

But still, our identity is derived from and through God, not from and through our race:

WHEREAS, Humanity is primarily identified in Scripture as image bearers of God, even as biblical authors address various audiences according to characteristics such as male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free; and

WHEREAS, The New Covenant further unites image bearers by creating a new humanity that will one day inhabit the new creation, and that the people of this new humanity, though descended from every nation, tribe, tongue, and people, are all one through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And finally, that means critical race theory can be useful, but our ultimate hope is in Christ alone:

RESOLVED, That critical race theory and intersectionality should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture—not as transcendent ideological frameworks; and be it further

RESOLVED, That the gospel of Jesus Christ alone grants the power to change people and society because “he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”

By God’s grace, critical race theory has on occasion helped me to identify the reality and effects of oppression and motivated me to follow the dictates of Micah 6:8 and “seek justice.” But we cannot lose sight of the fact that it’s ultimately Christ who ushers in the new creation—by elevating us beyond a broken world’s framing of black and white and into the kingdom reality that there is but one identity that truly matters, child of the living God. 

One more thing…

It’s almost that time! My book releases into the world on September 22. If you read me, you know that I’m deeply worried that hatred and rage could ultimately fracture our nation. My book describes why I’m concerned, how we could split, and how we can heal. I wrote about it in Time this week:

Commentators have called our dysfunctional politics a form of “cold civil war,” and the assumption is that one side or the other will win, dominate the opposition and rule a united country.

That’s certainly a possibility, but it’s not a certainty. When immense geographic regions share a common culture, believe their most fundamental values are under attack and lose confidence that the Democratic process will protect their interests, unity is not always the result. Just ask the colonists who sought to secure liberty in 1776. Just ask the Confederates who sought to secure slavery in the 1860s.

Over the past decade, I’ve heard committed partisans say out loud that they would be “happy” to be rid of states like California. I’ve heard (and read) men fantasizing and theorizing about a second Civil War. Right-wing insurrectionist groups have even formed for the purpose of fomenting civil strife. Look at the smoke drifting from U.S. cities from coast to coast. Watch far-right and far-left protesters square off in street battles. There is a crackling tension in the air.

My proposition is simple: In an atmosphere of increasing negative polarization and geographic separation, we can no longer take our nation for granted. We must intentionally care for the state of our union.

Please pre-order a copy (or 10!) We’ll have a special members-only live book discussion just after release, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. (If you’re not yet a member, you can take advantage of our free 30-day free trial, here.) At the heart of the book are two scenarios for division. Did you find them chilling? Or far-fetched? Let’s discuss! 

One last thing…

Y’all know I love We the Kingdom. This is one of their new songs, and, well, I just think it’s awesome. I like their theme of liberation. Enjoy:

Photograph by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.