When all six presidents of Southern Baptist seminaries jointly issue a statement affirming the 20th anniversary of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, but then single out an approach to understanding racism in order to denounce it, it gets attention. And that is precisely what happened recently when the presidents of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Gateway Theological Seminary said:
“We stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form and we also declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.”
If right about now you are saying, “Huh?” then let me bring you up to speed. Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a framework used in many academic circles that attempts to “explain how racial inequality cannot be understood apart from social, economic and legal systems that benefit white interests.”
As noted by the Religion News Service: “For Southern Baptists, any statement on race is a delicate matter. That’s because the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was born in the crucible of slavery, founded in 1845 out of a conviction that missionaries could own slaves.” Beginning in 1995, the SBC has passed numerous resolutions apologizing for slavery, saying, “we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty.”
So why the concern regarding CRT?
CRT is built on “critical theory,” which asserts that social problems are created and shaped more by societal structures and cultural assumptions than by individual or psychological factors. Two themes dominate CRT: 1) White supremacy exists and exhibits power maintained over time (and that the law plays a role in this process); and 2) Transforming the relationship between law and racial power, as well as achieving racial emancipation and anti-subordination more broadly, are possible.
Or as the UCLA School of Public Affairs defines it:
“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.”
Critics take issue with the theory’s foundation in postmodernism and its reliance on moral relativism, social constructionism and other tenets contrary to individual freedom. There are some very clear ties to Marxist ideas. As a worldview, it is certainly out of sync with many biblical ideas, including the importance of personal responsibility, the root problem being sin instead of structure, and the existence of transcendent truth and the importance of biblical authority over social constructs and cultural currents. Critical Theory, if applied, would make standing up and out for the basic tenets of Christian morality another wrongful embrace of ideology or power, such as when it would denounce something like homoerotic behavior or even encourage its restraint.
So, while in agreement with many of the concerns surrounding CRT, I am also concerned with the demonization of many important dynamics integral to working against racism in the name of CRT. Akin to the McCarthy era recklessly naming anyone and anything “Communist,” Christians are doing the same with CRT.
For example, acknowledging systemic or institutionalized racism should not automatically put you into the CRT camp, any more than wanting to denounce aspects of CRT should mean you are denying systemic or institutional forms of racism.
The same goes with something like “Black Lives Matter.” You can fully embrace the statement and the movement without endorsing the Black Lives Matter organization (which has a social agenda far beyond black lives mattering), just as denouncing the Black Lives Matter organization should not mean you are denouncing the Black Lives Matter sentiment.
But that is precisely what seems to be happening. As Jemar Tisby sarcastically blogged:
“Do you want to talk about systemic racism? That’s Critical Race Theory.
“Do you support the Black Lives Matter movement? That’s Critical Race Theory.
“Do you think white men may have a blind spot about race because of their social isolation? That’s Critical Race Theory.
“Do you think that people who identify as both Black and female face racism and sexism’s compounding effects? That’s Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.”
All to say, it’s frustrating to not be able to say that black lives matter and racism rears its head both personally and institutionally, without also being labeled as someone in support of the Black Lives Matter organization and Critical Race Theory.
Even further, you can critique aspects of something like CRT while still seeing value in some of what it might have to offer. As Tony Evans recently stated in response to being misquoted in such a way as to imply he denounced anything and everything about CRT,
“… I again affirm that the Bible must be the basis for analyzing any and all social, racial or political theories in order to identify what is legitimate or what is not legitimate. But I did not say, nor imply, that CRT or other ideologies lack beneficial aspects—rather that the Bible sits as the basis for determining that. I have long taught that racism, and its ongoing repercussions, are real and should be addressed intentionally, appropriately and based on the authority of God’s inerrant word.”
John Fea, a distinguished professor of American History at Messiah College, has said that we can learn from aspects of CRT that,
“… racism is an ‘ordinary’ or ‘common’ part of everyday life and racism is more than just individual acts of prejudice against people of color but includes a system of discrimination built into American institutions, especially the law; since white people benefit from such systemic racism, they will not have the incentive to do anything about it; race is ‘socially constructed; no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity;’ and ‘Black people and other people of color “are able to communicate to their White counterparts matters that whites are unlikely to know.”’”
So yes, I can learn from CRT while critiquing it. I can learn from the writings of someone like Ibram Kendi, who embraces much of CRT, while disagreeing with some of his applications and conclusions. I simply read it, and think about it, through a biblical worldview.
Which is why I wish the presidents of the Southern Baptist seminaries had put their attention less on denouncing a particular approach to dealing with racism,
… and more on denouncing racism itself.
James Emery White
George Schroeder, “Seminary Presidents Reaffirm BFM, Declare CRT Incompatible,” Baptist Press, November 30, 2020, read online.
Yonat Shimron, “Southern Baptist Seminary Presidents Nix Critical Race Theory,” Religion News Service, December 1, 2020, read online.
“Critical Race Theory,” Wikipedia, read online.
Leonardo Blair, “SBC Statement on CRT Branded ‘Anti-Intellectual’; Tony Evans Denies Endorsement,” The Christian Post, December 3, 2020, read online.
Jemar Tisby, “Southern Baptist Seminary Presidents Reaffirm Their Commitment to Whiteness,” The Witness, December 1, 2020, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.