Anti-CRT rhetoric: common confusions

From what I’ve seen, much evangelical anti-CRT rhetoric suffers from three basic confusions. Clarity on these points is prerequisite to fruitful dialogue.

The first confusion stems from different senses of the term ‘racism’—specifically, a conflation of ‘racism’ qua racist attitudes and ‘racism’ qua racist systems or institutions. The objection goes like this: “What do you mean America is systemically racist? I’m an American and *I’m* not racist—I hardly even know anyone who’s racist! So that can’t be right.” But this misses the point. Systemic or institutional racism isn’t about racist attitudes. (Past or present racist attitudes may be implicated in any number of ways. But that’s beside the point in discussions of systemic or institutional racism *as such*.)

A second confusion revolves around the difference between culpability and owing restitution, giving rise to concerns like: “What do you mean I owe restitution for past injustice?! I haven’t done anything wrong—I wasn’t even born yet!” But culpability and owing restitution aren’t identical or even inextricable. (Culpability is generally a sufficient condition for owing restitution of some kind; but it’s not a necessary condition.) In any case, the US government *is* culpable, and should pay, for grave injustices committed by the US government.

A third confusion involves the difference between CRT on one the hand and, on the other hand, uncontested historical and economic facts that often feature in discussions around CRT

For example: it’s just a fact that the US government created what we know as the white middle class via publicly subsidized programs that were, by law, unavailable to people of color—which engendered persisting disparities in wealth, opportunity, income, access to education, etc.

Whatever one thinks of CRT, these are facts. Yes, there’s room to debate the lingering effects of such policies and how best to proceed as a political community—questions around policing, taxes, zoning, school funding and so on. But the facts themselves are not open to question.

I’m convinced that a lot of what gets labeled as ‘CRT’ nowadays is just history that white people don’t like to talk about and don’t want their kids reading about in school. But that’s no way for a just society to proceed. We and our children must understand our history in order to be competent citizens who participate in shaping laws and public policies that give everyone their due.

Once these points are clarified, there’s room for more fruitful dialogue about questions that are legitimately contested (provided that one’s interlocutor is operating in good faith, of course—which isn’t always the case).

Empty lecture hall

Racism & Patriarchy: Two Strands of the Same Authoritarian Theology

There’s a lot of overlap among evangelicals who dismiss social justice (or “wokeness”) as Marxist, those who embrace patriarchy, and those whose theology borrows heavily from the thinking of men who claim biblical support for chattel slavery and segregation. 

The overlap isn’t coincidental: all of these commitments flow from an authoritarian outlook that organizes people into a divinely ordained hierarchy, based largely on innate physical characteristics, and conceives of morality as a matter of obedience to one’s natural superiors. They all hold that God has designed some people to exercise authority, and God has designed others to practice submission to authority. Moral order is achieved when we inhabit our God-ordained place in the hierarchy; and apart from that hierarchy, there is no morality.

According to this paradigm, there’s no inconsistency in holding a church gathering that violates public health mandates, and then invoking Romans 13 to admonish those who protest U.S. immigration policy or the rate at which our government kills and imprisons African Americans. The men who embrace this conception of morality don’t even seem to understand the tension: by all appearances, they believe that Romans 13 is addressed to those for whom God has ordained submission—the disenfranchised and dispossessed—not those in authority, like themselves. In their view, laws and public policies that crystalize inequity are evidence of God’s design rather than a consequence of human depravity: systemic inequality is an expression of moral truth rather than a transgression against it.

Authoritarian theologian John W. Duggar reasons explicitly along these lines in his 1954 essay, God’s Answer to Segregation, in which he purports to offer a biblical rationale for racial segregation. The year he published God’s Answer to Segregation, Duggar co-founded the Baptist Missionary Alliance Theological Seminary (BMATS), where he served as professor, President (1973–83), and President Emeritus (1983–98). The library at BMATS, completed in 1981, bears his name.


According to Duggar, “All races in the nation should have opportunity for education, for better living conditions, and for citizenship; but in this life they can never be equal in every respect any more than a man and a woman can be equal. God made man for his place and woman for hers. He did not intend for them to change places. If you took all the men and made them housekeepers and took all the women and made them all bread-winners, there would be confusion in this world. God let each of us be born in the sphere of His choosing. …we do not see stars trying to be the sun, or the moon trying to be a star. Everything in God’s universe has its place. … All humans differ. None are equal. The races are not equal.”

Duggar (1954), God’s Answer to Segregation

Duggar continues, “By certain aptitudes instilled in the various colored races God has fitted each for the purpose he intended for them. … God permitted the spread of the white race over the earth, for the Gentiles were to predominate in the spread of the Gospel. They were to be more faithful as missionaries of the Gospel Truth than Semites or Hamites. … The white race has an aptitude for exploration, colonization, and scientific progress. Migration of this race to other lands has necessitated the improvement of means of transportation.” Further, Duggar claims, “Descendants of Ham are human beings… However, their place is clearly that of inferiority… God gave them talents to serve others, and there is no race that can compete with them in that field. With proper training they become of great benefit to humanity. They should be educated and should have rights of citizenship, but all the laws and decrees of man can never lift them out of their physical, social, and mental inferiority. They are doomed to that by the decree of Almighty God.” Duggar concludes that, “From the facts presented herein, surely no one could deny that God sanctions segregation of the races by physical separation. …the answer was practically given in the raising of the question, for God speaks plainly.”

I don’t mean to suggest that fondness for patriarchy is identical to racism, or that all patriarchists are racists—rather that the push for gendered hierarchy and the push for racial hierarchy are animated by the same authoritarian impulse. Moreover, once we’ve embraced the authoritarian’s premise that God has designed some people for dominion and others for submission, the line between gender-based subjugation and race-based subjugation is morally arbitrary. The patriarchist might tell himself that he has Scripture to support his position while the racist does not. But as we’ve just demonstrated, the racist can match the patriarchist for biblical proof-texts, in both quantity and purported clarity.

Racists and patriarchists within evangelicalism don’t merely share an ideology, they fish in the same streams. BMATS, the seminary Duggar co-founded the year he published “God’s Answer to Segregation,” is among the sponsors of an upcoming conference in Denton, TX: “Wokeness and the Gospel”. Speakers include a number of renowned patriarchists, including one newly minted Senior Fellow at the Family Research Council, known for his Duggar-like confidence in the clarity of biblical proof-texts that commend human subjugation. Another of the conference’s sponsors is The Master’s Seminary, whose figurehead once had the temerity to suggest that an eminent female Bible teacher should “Go home,” only to demur when local health officials suggested he do the same.

(For his part, the current President of BMATS, Charley Holmes, said that McArthur’s admonition to “Go home” didn’t go far enough (Baptist Trumpet, Nov. 13, 2019). I’m not aware of any statement from Holmes or BMATS regarding Duggar’s racism.)

Whether it’s organized by race or gender, authoritarian theologians baptize their preferred social hierarchy in biblical proof-texts that they alone have the authority to interpret and deem sufficiently clear to bind the conscience of all believers. The conservative evangelical conscience will remain fragmented as long as we attempt to derive morality from a curated collection of biblical proof-texts, tailored by men in power to justify the established order.

When False Teachers Talk About False Teachers

It’s been suggested that those who promote “wokeness” or “woke theology” should be regarded as false teachers. This claim reflects a kind of theological illiteracy that needs to be exposed. I’ll start with a brief note about terminology, since it’s a source of much mischief.

Critics of “wokeness” often identify concerns about systemic injustice with Critical Race Theory (CRT). But you needn’t endorse CRT—or care anything about CRT, really—in order to be concerned about systemic justice. CRT is just one among many academic disciplines that deal with questions about systemic justice; and it is hardly the first or the most important. Roughly 2500 years before the inception of CRT, Plato discusses systemic justice in his ‘Republic’ and ‘Laws’.

A millennium before Plato, God inspired Moses to establish a legal system animated by God’s hatred of institutional oppression. And God commanded his people to cherish and keep these laws in remembrance of their liberation from Egyptian oppression.

Systemic injustice is second only to idolatry among the occasions for God’s wrath in the Old Testament. And more often than not, when idolatry is at issue, the idols in question are implicated in efforts to secure wealth or power within an oppressive system.

So it’s important to understand that a commitment to systemic justice isn’t the same as fondness for CRT. And the former is a foundational moral imperative for all who fear God, whatever one thinks of the latter. Yet the wokeness truthers in conservative evangelicalism insist on conflating the two. I’m willing to assume, charitably, that this confusion derives from ignorance—of which they display much, and with remarkable boldness. But the notion that we should regard those who demand systemic justice as false teachers is more than mere error: it presents a false image of who God is and what God requires of us. And this is not to be suffered gladly.

According to Scripture, false teachers dwell in the political or religious establishment, and they misrepresent God to the people of God in order to fortify their own position of power or influence. False teachers lie about God for their own personal gain. So, in the logic of Christian theology, it doesn’t even make sense to say that those who demand systemic justice *on behalf of others* are false teachers. It’s a category mistake. Simply put, demanding justice for others isn’t what false teachers do. In fact, every single time Scripture presents God’s prophets in direct conflict with false prophets, God’s prophets are the ones demanding justice for the oppressed. Every. Single. Time.

And how do the false prophets react? First, they accuse God’s prophet of being a false teacher. Then they try to protect their own power and influence by lying about God. “Everything’s good here. God says that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.” For example, the biblical picture of false prophets bears a striking resemblance to the handful of theologians in the SBC whose dalliances with heresy have redounded to their own professional benefit.

Some proponents of ESS misrepresented the very nature of the Trinity in an effort to legitimate a niche research agenda that they were well-positioned to lead (largely because the most fertile theological minds of our era simply have no interest in advancing male headship). These men spend their days stirring up controversy, insisting that God’s people break fellowship over the secondary effects of tertiary issues that are a matter of grave importance only to men whose professional advancement depends on it. It’s clever in a strictly Machiavellian sense: find a subject that none of the really talented people in your field care about, create a journal for it, publish in your own journal, and then leverage politics and personal connections to demand that it be taken seriously. Now these men are attempting to persuade God’s people that demands for systemic justice are false teaching. “Everything’s good,” they say. “God has instructed me to assure you that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.”

I don’t know whether judgment is upon us. But if it is, it’s not for the reasons that the culture warriors warned us about: it’s because of the political conditions that the culture warriors helped create.

Don’t let false teachers tell you who the false teachers are. Look for the folks demanding justice, and join them. That’s the side you want to be on, even if you don’t agree with everything they have to say.

This is theologically illiterate: it’s not merely wrong—it’s wrong in ways that I’d expect only someone who doesn’t understand the basic logic of Christianity to be wrong.

Regarding Matthew J. Franck’s Recent Op-Ed In Newsweek

On September 14, 2020, Newsweek published an op-ed by conservative pundit Matthew J. Franck, entitled Racism Is Real. But Is ‘Systemic Racism?’ Within hours, the piece had been removed from Newsweek’s website (the foregoing link provides an archive).

My initial reaction is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to assume that folks like Franck are arguing in good faith. There’s some funny business going on with the way that he uses definitions—which is, frankly, beneath the dignity of someone in his station. For example, he appeals at one point to dictionary definitions in explaining technical terminology—which is something I wouldn’t accept from a student in First Year Seminar.

Elsewhere, the distinction that he makes between ‘systemic’ and ‘systematic’ is, I suspect, helpful to no one. (Perhaps some people use the word ‘systematic’ when they mean ‘systemic’; but I doubt that anyone has the former in mind when speaking of the latter. There’s no substantive confusion there.)

In any case, my main concern about his argument is this. The term ‘systemic racism’—purportedly the subject of his article—is used across a number of disciplines to describe a variety of phenomena. Two general fields of application stand out. One has to do with features of individual or group psychology. The other has to do with institutions. The author defines ‘systemic racism’ entirely in terms of the former category. He then acknowledges, almost with a shrug, that phenomena in the latter category are a feature of our society—but not technically a form of systemic racism, per his definition.

Thus, by artificially restricting the scope of ‘systemic racism’ to the psychological phenomena discussed in some of the literature, Franck simply defines the other kind of systemic racism (to do with institutions) out of existence. The kind of systemic racism to do with institutions is, incidentally, the kind of systemic racism that most people who think seriously about this subject actually care about—at least in my field.

Overall, my sense is that arguments of this kind are simply a distraction. Instead of talking about how to rectify the kinds of injustice that well-informed people generally understand to exist, we are engaging in sophomoric, sterile conversations about terminology that do absolutely nothing to heal our political community: precisely the opposite, in fact.

Honestly, I don’t know quite what to make of someone in a position of influence who acknowledges the existence of institutional injustice in our society and chooses to spend his leisure patting white folks on the back, offering assurances that none of the “bad stuff” we see around us *technically* counts as systemic racism (provided we define ‘systemic racism’ just so). And insofar as Christ followers participate in this charade, it is to our eternal shame.

justice has nothing to do with charity

Within the evangelical community, discussions of “social justice” often emphasize charity and devote little attention to the moral significance of institutions. This paradigm allows evangelicals to advocate for political institutions that deprive the poor of their due, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

We need a new paradigm. Christ followers are required to advocate for public institutions that reflect the truth about what people deserve—not for the sake of charity, but because we are called to seek justice on behalf of those whose basic human needs are likely to be ignored by free enterprise in search of profit.

The distinction between charity and justice revolves around who owes what to whom—in a word, entitlement. For example, my giving you $20 constitutes an act of charity only if you’re not entitled to receive $20 from me (because I don’t owe you $20). By contrast, if you are entitled to receive $20 from me (because I owe you $20), my giving you $20 is precisely what justice demands. So justice depends on entitlement, while charity depends on the absence of entitlement.

In its narrowest sense, justice is a feature of individual conduct: I behave justly when I pay all of the taxes that I owe, or when I return my shopping cart to a designated shopping-cart-return area in the grocery store parking lot. And I behave unjustly when I deceive my golfing companions about the number of putts that I took on the 8th green, or when I decide not to inform my waiter that he omitted the extra side of French fries from my dinner bill. So, at the level of my own conduct, justice is achieved when I give all that I owe and take nothing beyond what I am owed.

In its broadest sense, justice is a feature of institutions. Specific examples of institutions include: the United States; families; contracts; the State of Missouri; Major League Baseball; the game of baseball; the U.S. Senate; the Constitution, and so forth. More generally, an institution is a system of rules or traditions that determine who deserves what: who deserves what honor; who deserves what paycheck; who deserves this authority; who is entitled to that opportunity; who is allowed to do this or to say that, and so on. In this way, institutions guide our understanding of what constitutes justice within a given sphere.

Conflicts arise when an institution’s rules are violated—when a spouse engages in an extramarital affair; when a Major League Baseball player uses a banned substance; or when a building contractor fails to complete a project by a given date. In extreme cases of institutional violations, an aggrieved party might appeal to a higher institution that has sovereign rules for deciding what justice requires. We call this higher institution a court. The rules that guide the decisions of our courts are laws; and our laws are sovereign insofar as there are no rules or institutions above our laws within our political community. Our courts also decide what justice demands in response to criminal conduct, such as fraud, burglary or murder—conduct so unjust that it is prohibited in all contexts, without regard to an individual’s status or institutional affiliation.

So our laws, as administered by our courts, are sovereign over all disputes about what is just, who is guilty of injustice, and what justice demands by way of compensation or punishment.[1] Our laws are authored by elected officials in Congress; and enforcement of the law is supervised by elected officials in the executive branch of government. So justice in our society is defined and administered by public institutions that are subject, ultimately, to the will of the electorate.

Here we confront an ancient question at the heart of Christian citizenship: what does it mean for our political institutions to administer justice?[2] Put another way: what does it mean to say that a law passed by Congress is a just law? Here’s one answer. “Since laws establish the rules about what is just, and Congress determines the law, it follows that Congress determines what is just. So a law passed by Congress is just by virtue of the fact that what is just is determined by the laws that Congress passes.” On this view, justice is whatever our political institutions say it is. Apart from the law, in other words, there is no objective truth about what justice is.

I disagree with that answer. In my view, there is objective truth about what people deserve and what we owe to each other. I have two sets of reasons for holding this view. One set of reasons derives from my faith: Scripture expresses pointed views about what justice is, and offers us a paradigm for political institutions that conform to the truth about justice. Since I affirm the truth of Scripture, I believe that there are objective truths about what is just; and I believe that those truths should be reflected in our own political institutions.

I also have philosophical reasons for believing that there is objective truth about justice. Here’s a concrete example. In 1919, our political institutions didn’t allow women to vote in federal elections. That was the law. So if justice were defined by our laws, then it wouldn’t have made any sense to claim, in 1919, that it is unjust to deny voting rights to women. But it did make sense. People said, “Look, contrary to what the law says, women deserve to have an official voice in how our political community is governed—justice demands that women be allowed to vote. Our laws are denying women that right. So the law should be changed, in order to give women this thing that they are due.”

Moreover, I don’t think that the truth about justice changed between 1919 and 1920, when our political institutions finally recognized women’s right to vote. Rather, I think that justice was the same in 1920 as it was in 1919; and by recognizing women’s right to vote in 1920, our political institutions became more just than they were in 1919. Similarly, I don’t believe that the truth about justice changed in 1954 when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in our public schools. Rather, it is objectively true that segregation is unjust; and in 1954, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education altered our political institutions to reflect that truth.

Because our political institutions answer to an electorate, advances like desegregation and women’s suffrage are the result of political negotiations about what is just. We all enter the public arena with concerns about what we are owed, and we defend our interests according to our vision of what justice demands. These negotiations are the point of contact between political institutions and every Christ follower’s sacred calling to seek justice.

When we, as Christians, enter into the political arena where rights are negotiated, we are called to use our influence to advocate for the rights of those who have no other advocate. We are not called to seek wealthy and powerful political allies who will help us defend our rights. God is our defender. And God calls us to defend the rights of orphans, widows, immigrants and all who are poor and oppressed.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being wealthy or having powerful friends. But we dishonor our calling and misrepresent Christ to the world when we advocate for political institutions that serve the interests of wealth and power at the expense of the poor, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .

[1]Even when an arbitration agreement is in place, courts have the authority to rule on whether that agreement is legally binding.

[2]For an ancient, non-Christian treatment of this question, see Plato’s Republic, especially Books I-II.