Critical Race Theory (in brief)

I apparently made a splash by confronting Owen Strachan about his use of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a convenient bogey man for anything that made him uncomfortable. He uses the term, suggesting it will destroy the church, in a vague way (with how it destroys the church even more vaguely). So I asked him to define the term. I will admit I as a little snarky with the way I asked him, but this is not the first time he has used the term as a vague catch-all, and I had previously asked politely with no response. This time, I received a response rather quickly: I was blocked.

As I noted on Twitter, I am not bothered so much when anyone blocks me. I can be irritating. I know that about myself. I am bothered, though, that Strachan purports to be an academic and a public theologian. You can’t be those things without some thick skin. And if you are going to throw a term around, labeling it a massive threat, and condemning anyone who utilizes it, you better be able to say, with some precision, why. He can’t. In the interest of fairness, I decided to give a brief description of the term. Also in the interest of fairness, I wrote the following without any additional research. As someone who claims to use it, I thought it best to use simple recall to explain, because I thought that is a reasonable ask from someone in a public forum. Even if he were to respond by giving me a quick response that lacked some precision and then made the caveat that Twitter is insufficient to truly discuss it, that would have been an appropriate response. So in response I gave the following definition:

The rest of this is continuation of that thought

History and Nuance

Critical Race Theory (CRT) began in 1970s in Law Schools in the US as a way to explain why the gains made during the 1960s began to stop or stop having much of an impact. It is a Critical Theory in that it is grounded in sociology theory of Karl Marx. This does not mean it is necessarily communist, socialist or even (actually) Marxist. Marx argued that present conflicts were the result of material actions taken in history. That is, you cannot explain most disparities in societal treatment through appeals to God (only), genetics, or fate. Instead, people took real actions in history that resulted in the present disparities and conflicts that we observe today. This is not controversial. It is also a Critical Theory because it grounds its claims in quantifiable data. So CRT: a) acknowledges that there are real disparities and conflicts, b) uses data to show this, and c) argues that these disparities and conflicts are a result of historic actions. That’s what makes it a Critical Theory.

Some assumptions are built in here: 1) racism is real; 2) it’s a result of history and 3) we might be able to change it. In the course of its application, most Critical Race Theorists began to suggest that the reason relatively little progress has been made in Civil Rights since the 1960s is because racism had become enmeshed within the fabric of society, largely through certain key institutions. This is not to say that there are not racist individuals. Instead, it argues that the best way to address the disparate treatment of certain ethnic populations is to exam the institution/systemic racism, rather than only addressing the exist of White Supremacists. If, rather specific individuals being responsible, the continued unequal treatment of non-white ethnic groups was the result of systems/institutions, this also meant that non-racists or even non-white ethnic groups might be participating and incentivized to uphold systems and institutions that result in racist outcomes. Again, these are not imagined outcomes, but backed by data.

An Example

Let’s take, briefly, the example of policing that was highlighted this past summer. A Critical Race Theorist will examine instances of violent crime in predominantly white and Black neighborhoods (the existence of such “ghettoization” and its connection to redlining practices is another example of systemic racism), and notice immediately that police respond significantly faster and with more arrests when violent crime occurs in white neighborhoods than Black neighborhoods. However, they will also notice that non-violent crime arrests are substantively higher in Black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods.

Further they will find that police treatment of Black suspects vs white suspects reveals further disparities, with higher incidence of violence used on Black suspects than white suspects in apprehension regardless of the severity of the crime. Additionally, they can pull the sentencing disparity for convicted white offenders (lesser sentences) vs Black offenders (harsher sentences) for the same offences.

A CRT theorist will also look to the way that laws are passed which indicate disparate treatment. For instance, in the 1980s, crack cocaine, which was bought, sold and used more frequently in Black communities compared to white communities, had additional laws and significantly harsher sentencing guidelines than powder cocaine, despite the fact that they are essentially the same product, only ingested differently. Yet powder cocaine was much more common in white neighborhoods (one could demonstrate that powder cocaine was used at a higher rate in white communities than crack cocaine in Black communities). Both of them paled in comparison, at the time, to the heroin epidemic.

Historically, the practice of policing in the US is different from other parts of the world. In the US, policing has its roots in methods and practices not only in the principles of Robert Peele (from Britain), but also in officers tasked with finding and arresting runaway slaves. Further, police were used to enforce segregation, including in brutal attacks on non-violent protestors.

All of this would lead a Critical Race Theorist to conclude that the problem is not racist police officers or judges (though that may still be a problem), but rather than something about the justice system in America is fundamentally flawed that produces this disproportionate outcomes—outcomes that have ripple effects on the communities of these individuals, which are rooted in the historical development of that system. The result is that some sort of drastic change must take place.

This has led to 4 different calls with regard to policing (not a comprehensive list). The first is police reform: something needs to change within policing as it exists. The next is “defund the police,” which advocates in redistributing funds for police from simply not allowing police to buy military grade weaponry to reworking funding toward mental health and community services to the more extreme version that comprises the 3rd call: “abolish the police.” This suggests that policing in America is so fundamentally flawed that it needs to be stripped down entirely and reimagined as something else. The most extreme version of this is the 4th call the: ACAB movement. The ACAB movement suggests that any institution whereby one person operates as an agent of the state to enforce laws upon another as their fulltime occupation with result in all of those agents necessarily acting unjustly either because unjust/racist individuals are the type of person most drawn to those positions, or the level of authority vested in those institutions necessarily corrupts those people. It is important to note that these are not all the same people. These are discrete individuals and groups that often have their own heated disagreements between themselves, but they do agree one issue: something is wrong with the Criminal Justice system in the US.

“White Guilt”

CRT is useful because it presents hard data with an accompanying historical narrative that can act not only to demonstrate the problem of racism, but provide an explanation for its cause. Once both of those are demonstrated, advocates have a stronger position from which to argue for system change, whether in education, housing, the loss of inherited/generational/family wealth, etc.

Because of the historical narrative, it is evident that white Americans have historically been the primary driver of racial/ethnic disparities. It also becomes apparent that ethnic whites have a certain level of privilege that comes from these disparities. This is not saying that other privileges do not exist, nor is it saying that all white people are culpable for the current state of the world, these are mere statements of fact, not value judgements. A prima facia, naïve, and bad faith reading of CRT would suggest that “white guilt” is the expected response, but it is not. While it may be true that white people are not necessarily morally culpable for this state, white people, as those who are in a state of privilege do bear some responsibility to address the issue. Failure to recognize or own up to this responsibility could make one morally culpable, but there is some leeway here.

The Church

In a Church setting, some objections are to the idea that CRT is Marxist and therefore anti-Christian. I hope it is clear by this point that such is a bad faith reading of CRT. Many other objections are rooted in the idea that either: a) white culture/domination of culture is synonymous with the church, b) racism is not actually an issue/we’ve moved beyond it or c) changes to the current culture are upsetting to those who have (often unknowingly) benefited from the culture and they do not believe they bear responsibility to change it.

Most other objections are more or less permutations of these or a form of White Nationalism. One potentially valid objection is that Critical Race Theorists do not necessarily accept limits/bounds of authority over actions and activities. While in practice such boundaries would be unlikely have very much impact, it remains true that those who work in and for the Church do recognize the authority of Scripture and, potentially, the Church as having an authority that may act as a boundary to certain types of actions. Again, it is unlikely that this would result in materially different action other than to limit some of the most extreme applications of CRT. The way that most seminary professors, clergy, and churchwomen and churchmen employ CRT recognizes these other sources of authority.

My own application of CRT finds its most ready use in my Christian Ethics classroom. In particular, with deep seated roots in Black Theology and Liberation Theology, I make particular effort to engage with the voices of Black, Hispanic, Womanist, Mujerista, and other theologies when examining ethical topics. It also has an impact upon topic selection. We will discuss racial disparities in housing and policing when we discuss justice. We will talk about the role of civil disobedience a bit longer when discussing the relation of the Christian to the State. This does not mean I have bowed down to CRT. Rather, it means that, as a scholar, I have kept myself aware of trends and methodologies, examined their usefulness as appropriate. As a Christian and a Theologian, I look to see if they accord with Scripture and the actions of God in history. Clearly systemic sin and racism are issues addressed in Scripture. Just read the entirety of Ephesians (to those who say institutions/systems can’t be sinful, I invite you to consider the preface to the armor of God where Paul declares that “Our Battle is not against Flesh and Blood.”)

That’s a rundown, off the top of my head, of CRT: what it is, and why I use it. I hope this can be an example of sorts. I am by no means a CRT expert, nor anything approaching a sociologist. I do, however, bristle at anyone who declares a theory/method off limits, especially when the one making such a declaration cannot seem to articulate the specific reasons why such a declaration is made. The reason so many predominantly Black churches, Black pastors and teachers are leaving the SBC over its most recent declaration condemning CRT is not because they are all Marxist. It’s because, when present with a reasoned, evidenced based approach to use as one tool among others to address the actual problem of racism, the SBC seminary presidents (and many of their faculty) said that to even begin to address the issues of racism in the country, to even consider looking at things from a perspective that was not “white,” was tantamount to heresy. They didn’t even look at it, but listened to the ill-informed, bad faith readings of non-experts and took the word of these white men as gospel.


How We Got Here

Yesterday, January 6, 2021, domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. in a horrific attempt to install Donald Trump as a de facto fascist despot of America. Clearly it failed, but it did not do so comically. It went further than most thought possible, and the repercussions will be felt for years. It also isn’t over. It likely won’t be over for some time, if ever. These actions weren’t “unAmerican;” they are, tragically, exactly what America has always been. She hid away this side, but, emboldened by the rhetoric of Trump, this side of America, one that is much bigger than many of us would care to admit, felt empowered to come out. Yet, how we got here precedes Donald Trump. He is merely the latest step in what logically could have (and should have) been predicted by America’s unholy union of Church and State.


The seed for what happened in America dates back at least to the end of the nineteenth century. John Nelson Darby re-introduced the concept of “Premillennial” theology as part of his sweeping framework for biblical interpretation known as Dispensationalism. While Premillennial interpretations of the return of Christ date back to at least the second century Church (that Christ would come back visibly and then establish his 1000-year or millennial reign on earth), Darby’s interpretation was a little different. In addition to the “second coming,” Dispensationalist though also began to speak of a “secret coming” that was not as visible. The effects would be visible.

The “secret coming” that predates Christ’s second coming is loosely based on a passage in 1 Thessalonians describing how Jesus will come “like a thief in the night” and “we will be caught up in an instant.” This text, coupled with Darby’s particular reading of Revelation, led not only to the idea of a rapture and a great tribulation, but also to reading all of Revelation, after the letters to the churches, as a text exclusively describing future events.

The “beast” and the “anti-Christ” thus became synonymous with some individual who would trick non-believers (and possibly some believers) into following after him (usually a man) often with economic implications tied to the “mark” of the beast. This interpretation also started the obsession with supporting Zionism and many other tropes now prevalent in evangelical Christianity.

Suddenly, the world was a much more terrifying place. We are living at the cusp of the end times and must be ever vigilant for the “beast” and “anti-Christ” and careful we don’t accidentally accept his mark. Politics were no longer just politics, they were an extension of an unseen spiritual warfare that would culminate in the very real battle of Armageddon and very soon.

Americans did not rush immediately to Darby’s interpretation, but, at the beginning of the 20th century, Cyrus Scofield published a version of the King James Bible with his notes and headings added, making it one of the first study bibles. Since the format was relatively new, and Scofield had a matter of fact style of writing, many of those who purchased or received these early editions, read them unquestioningly. It was especially the premillennial dispensationalism, or apocalyptic prophecy, that held the attention of what comprised the fundamentalist movement in American churches in the early 20th century.


It is difficult to overstate how influential Fundamentalism was in the early days of the twentieth century. The doctrine that distinguished Fundamentalism in those early days was premillenial dispensationalism, but most Americans who were not part of the Church, especially those who were not part of the churches in the American South, first encountered Fundamentalism through the now famous “Scopes-Monkey Trial.”

While the teacher who taught evolution was found guilty, the radio broadcast of the trial made William Jennings Bryan, and with him the Fundamentalist movement, look like fools in the eyes of most Americans. However, because he claimed to stand for historic and unblemished biblical Christianity, many, especially in the South, lifted Jennings Bryan up as a hero. Clarence Darrow became the embodiment of the villain: well educated, well spoken, northern liberal.

William Jennings Bryan (Seated) and Clarence Darrow

The knock-on effect of this trial was a guarded mistrust of most scientific investigation and a sudden unease at any form of higher education because it had birthed the villain of Darrow. Scientists weren’t just presenting findings in a neat paradigm when they discussed evolutionary theory. To the contrary, in the minds of many, they are agents of Satan, part of the same spiritual warfare mentioned above, conspiring against Christianity and her city on a hill: America. Academics are perceived to be working a nefarious agenda to subvert Christian life through outright deceit. The Fundamentalist ideology of the mid-twentieth century has morphed into the core belief system for nearly all evangelicals. Today, this is the root of much of the anti-science and anti-vaccine rhetoric in many churches (couple the anti-science the fear of the mark of the beast and there is an even stronger anti-vaccine group).

Jesus Freak

In the 1990s, evangelicalism had created a full blown sub-culture complete with their own bookstores, TV shows/stations, movies, music and concerts, complete with kitschy clothing lines. This was created with the intent of sheltering children from the ugliness of the “secular” forces that sought to upend Christianity. At the heart of much of this, were the Christian “super-groups”: Audio Adrenaline, Jars of Clay, Newsboys, and, in particular DC Talk.

One of the best selling Christian Albums of this era was “Jesus Freak.” It. Was. Everywhere. The album was so popular, not only did it make DC Talk known outside of the evangelical Christian subculture, it spawned books, other music groups, and a nationwide tour before sold-out crowds. The tour took over both churches and major concert venues alike. It was huge.

One of the more popular off-shoots was a republication of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, rebranded as “Jesus Freaks.” Christian radio stations frequently played clips of a DC Talk band member reading an historic martyr’s account, rebranding him a “real life Jesus Freak.” The message to the “youth” (church word for teenagers) of evangelical churches was clear: they, too, should seek after martrydom. The only problem was, it’s really hard to be a Christian martyr in an overwhelmingly Christian culture.

So the message was massaged just a little: to be a Christian, a real Christian, meant you must be persecuted. It was too hard or scary (or maybe their parents stopped them) for a teenager to leave and venture into an actually dangerous territory. Plus, even if you did, you were unlikely to be literally executed for your faith. So the response was that Christians need to find another way to signal to others that they were being persecuted.

Couple this with the now pervasive belief that the “secular” culture was trying to attack Christianity and the next logical leap is that Christians were being persecuted. Right here in America.

Persecution Complex

The result of romanticizing persecution was that evangelical Christians began to look for persecutions everywhere. The universities and their professors were out to get Christians and make them renounce faith. Politicians sought to marginalize the Christian voice. In response evangelicals sought out politicians on their side, accounting for the two terms of George W Bush. They saw persecution everywhere:

There was a “War on Christmas.” The sight of “X-mas” was meant to remove Christ from Christmas (ignoring the historic roots of the Chi Ro). Secular forces wanted to remove prayer in schools. Country Music began to play up the “traditional” values of God and Country in response. After 9/11 it was easy to see the religious warfare. The attackers hate me because I’m Christian and American. If you don’t fall over yourself for the flag, you hate America and thus hate Christ. America, as a whole, became the city on a hill. At the same time, secular centers within it, LA and New York, became the Babylon to fight against.

American evangelical Christians had found their persecution. The longer they bore that styrofoam cross, the more they craved its false splinters. The prophetic readings of Revelation weren’t enough. They went to other apocalyptic books: the book of Daniel and the exact future telling in Isaiah, where Isaiah declares Cyrus the Lord’s annointed. This was God’s political people, Israel, against the wicked nations. Into this milieu entered Donald Trump. Trump definitely played to this side that felt persecuted and marginalized. Evangelicals found in him the new Cyrus. He clearly wasn’t morally upright enough to be the righteous prophet. They looked to the theme of the old testament where God used ungodly kings to bring about his will.

They looked for those evil forces who would stand against him. Trump was America. If you disliked Trump you were unamerican. If you disliked Trump, you were working against God.

For many, if not most, of those who stormed the Capitol Building on January 6, this was the beginning of Armageddon. They were engaged in a spiritual war, but one they could see. Trump had supported Israel, working to restore it to their Zionist vision. Trump had given voice to their deepest uncertainties. He was endorsed by their religious leaders. Voting for Trump was a religious act. Coming to the Capitol was a pilgrimage some took at great cost. Most of those who marched were not the wealthy (the wealthy need stability to keep their wealth and power), they were the everyday Joes. They had been given a taste of power by Trump; he had been their voice and he was in the Presidency and that was being taken away. This was a fight for the soul of the nation.

What happened on January 6 is the result of a long history. It should not be surprising. Horrifying, yes. Disheartening, absolutely. Terrifying, sure. Even shocking (because we are often shocked by things we nevertheless expect). But it was not surprising. It has been building to this point for well over a hundred years. What’s worse, this is the work of religious zealots. It’s not over, not by a long shot. The center of this group is emboldened, more than anything. They will try again. They are not afraid of death. This is a battle for their eternal soul, and the souls of the nation.