Reflecting on a Broken Vow

Some years ago, I took a Nazirite vow never to write on race in America.  Yet, persuaded by the editorial team at First Things, I broke that vow.  Now it is time to offer a brief reflection on some of the responses.

There were the predictable Twitter storms with the traditional aspersions cast on my moral character, pedagogical abilities, and intellectual competence. D.C. Schindler for the win! But no real harm was done.  My wife is an absolute saint: she still loves me, however evil, stupid and, ahem, ‘demonic’ I may be.

In a now-removed tweet, one person in the PCA stated that he was rebuked by his church’s associate pastor for linking to the article. It later apparently emerged that the associate pastor had not even read it. 

An African American pastor, Thabiti Anyabwile, advised his Twitter followers to ignore my article as a colonialist power play and distraction.  He based his claim on the fact that I had started with a genealogy of critical theory which led back to Europe and the Frankfurt School.  My point in doing that was not to colonize anyone, nor to imply guilt by association or by some application of the genetic fallacy. It was to do what intellectual historians do: use the history of ideas to see what kind of issues certain concepts have generated in the past in order better to assess what questions to ask in the present, thereby promoting constructive discussion.  And given that one prominent Christian activist has referred publicly to Angela Davis—in my view Herbert Marcuse’s most brilliant and influential student—as an inspirational example of hope, I can surely be forgiven for thinking that the Frankfurt School may have some relevance to contemporary approaches to race in the American Christian world.

Both of these examples would suggest that at least some of those concerned with race and the American church consider their approach to be self-certifying, as I claim in my article.

A number of individuals contacted me to say that I had misrepresented Christianity Today and other organizations by incorrectly claiming that they had not published critical voices on the CRT issue.  There are indeed a number of historical pieces at blogs connected to CT and elsewhere on the topic of CRT.  But 2020 was a very long year in the matter of race and politics and my article was specifically talking about claims made in the wake of the BLM protests of last summer.  Given that, my point was correct (at least at the time my article went to press in December). I also meant (though perhaps could have expressed this more clearly) responses aimed specifically at those articles I cited which had appeared on those evangelical sites. Frankly, there needs to be direct criticism – polite and gracious, as becomes Christians, but still direct -- of particular people on those same sites. Generic commentary on the incompatibility of CRT with Christianity lacks real pungency.

As I criticized Christianity Today in the article, it is appropriate to mention that Dr. Valerie Hobbs offered a response at Jesus Creed, a CT-connected blog.  I would encourage readers to look at her article for themselves as I can here offer only a couple of thoughts.

First, Hobbs points out that the phrase ‘critical race theory’ is often used as a kind of ‘red scare’ tactic. I agree. In the article, I noted this use of such labels, describing it as ‘lazy,’ ‘reckless rhetoric,’ and the hurling of ‘brickbats’ designed to ‘foreclose the discussion before it has begun.’  Where Dr. Hobbs and I may differ, I suspect, is that I see ‘white privilege’ and other such terms as often fulfilling the same pre-emptive, therapeutic role for the left. 

Second, Hobbs rejects my claim that CRT is a religion. Readers can decide for themselves if the sources she cites demolish my specific arguments; but her case would certainly have been much stronger if she had also addressed those of John McWhorter, the brilliant liberal black intellectual and linguistics scholar. For years he has been the most prominent advocate of the idea that the current anti-racism movement is a religion, even a cult. To reject the idea tout court, one really must engage with McWhorter. His expert scholarship cannot be so easily dismissed with a handful of choice quotations from Twitter.

I will not, however, stand on the claim that CRT is a religion, if that distracts from my central points of concern.

As to those points of concern, as far as I can tell they remain unanswered by my many critics. Let me summarize them in the form of questions: What exactly does it mean to say that everything white Christians have learned about how to practice their faith has been designed to reinforce a racist structure? What, if any, is the distinction between 'white Christianity' and ‘white Christians’?   Why is it that we have Christian leaders who seem to regard as racist any distinction in the moral hierarchy between the killings of Emmett Till or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the wounding of Jacob Blake in the course of his arrest for alleged criminal behavior?  And what is there to prevent the arguments currently being used about ‘white Christianity’ being subsequently deployed by the LGBTQ+ movement to reject traditional Christian teaching on morality and identity? 

These questions are not rhetorical. I do not ask them in bad faith, nor to offend. I genuinely want to know the answers, to think more clearly, more Christianly, about race and the church.  If what is being asserted is ‘Some—maybe many—white Christians use the Christian faith to justify racism and this needs to be acknowledged and taken far, far more seriously by the church than it has been,’ then there really is no substantial disagreement between us. So let us not fight among ourselves but seek to address the problem together. My fear, however, is that more is actually being claimed; and I wish the responses to my article had reassured me on that point.

Does rebuking a congregant for linking to my article when you haven’t even read it yourself help to promote this discussion?   Is the conversation advanced by advising your followers to ignore challenges to your position on the grounds that they are distracting, colonizing power plays?  Do such actions not tend to confirm rather than refute my article’s central conclusion – that there is no real conversation on race in such quarters? In contrast to those pastors, I would encourage people to read my critics, be informed, come to their own conclusions, not allow the social media bullies on the left or the right to tell them what to think. I truly hope we are not reaching the point where it is deemed racist simply to ask certain questions. McWhorter, a more astute man than I by far, certainly thinks that is where we are in wider society. If Christians cannot do better, that is a tragedy.

But I have hope that we can.  Beyond the social media world, I was very encouraged by the many private responses from lay Christians, from elders, and from pastors, grateful that somebody had, to borrow a phrase several used, ‘put his head above the parapet.’ Thankfully, I learned what I have long suspected, that Twitter is not entirely representative of Christianity—left or right, white or black.  Perhaps the future lies with that gracious but understandably more timid group stepping forward and gently but firmly taking over the reins of the discussion from today’s loudest voices.  We should all pray to that end.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, and co-host of the Mortification of Spin podcast. 

Related Links

Podcast: "A Critical 'Critical Race Theory' Conversation"

"Notes from the Revolution" by Brad Green

"Sobriety and the Gospel" by Gabriel Williams

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman

That Hideous Strength: How the West Was Lost by Melvin Tinker