September 2020 Newsletter

The Christian Alternative to Critical Race Theory

Editor’s Note: The conclusion of this article will be published in a second post on or about September 18, 2020.

Critical Theory—in particular, Critical Race Theory—has recently captured the Church’s attention, and in some corners of the Lord’s vineyard it seems, more significantly, Her imagination.  (For those unfamiliar with Critical Theory, this article will serve as a necessarily incomplete introduction.)  Springing from the same philosophers and theorists (Foucault, Derrida, etc.) who brought us postmodernism, Critical Theory seems to be suddenly taking the whole Western world by storm.

This is an illusion.  Though all but Liberal Arts majors would likely be unfamiliar with the Frankfurt School or even the phrase “Critical Theory,” everyone who has received an undergraduate education in the last thirty years has been familiarized with (and in many cases, indoctrinated into) its basic terminology and the categories of meaning by which it makes sense of the world.  For instance, for every one of my acquaintance at my own undergraduate alma mater of Penn State, the obligatory “professional writing” requirement for non-English majors was used by the professors as an opportunity to force-feed undergraduates Critical Theory.  As an example, a business writing class for music majors taught participants to write personal reflections on books like Stone Butch Blues, a lesbian coming of age story, instead of memos, letters to parents, and departmental requisitions.  Even if you think the exposure salutary, it demonstrates the tactics of Critical Theory, which, as its exponents readily affirm, “contains an activist dimension. It tries to not only understand our social situation but to change it, setting out not only to ascertain how society organizes itself along racial lines and hierarchies but to transform it for the better.”[1]

Solid introductions to Critical Theory by both its proponents and opponents are now widely available, and I encourage the reader to consult at least one of each to familiarize themselves with its outlines; otherwise, as commentator Phil Blair demonstrated in his response to a recent Christianity Today article, we may find ourselves employing it unbeknownst to ourselves.


Though articles abound that are critical of Critical Theory (hereafter referred to as CT) from a Christian perspective, as mine is, I hope to explore the topic from an at least slightly different perspective; I propose that while CT may properly diagnose some elements of our cultural ills, it necessarily misaddresses these maladies because it is in fact a secularized Christian heresy.

The Critic Is Often Right About What Is Wrong, But He Is Nearly Always Wrong About What Would Be Right.

I want to start by acknowledging what CT—and progressive ideologies more generally—often get right.  One of the functions of the people in a society that are typically deemed “liberal,” “left,” or “progressive” is to point out injustices when they accumulate.  Any meritocracy (where achievement or talent is rewarded with social and/or economic upward mobility) periodically and predictably accumulates inequity and unfairness at its margins.  At a biological level, talent and giftedness are inborn traits that often run in families.  Sociologically, families pass on habits and knowledge that maximize (or minimize) inherent capacities for greater achievement and reward.  The greatest patrimony that a family passes on in a meritocracy is not their wealth—though that certainly has undeniable advantages—but rather their knowledge and skills in accessing or leveraging the power structures of the meritocracy.

This does not mean that a meritocracy is inherently immoral. (What would we want, a system where lack of talent, industry, and skill is rewarded?) But it does mean that for all the good it may produce, it is a system that can put real people at a real disadvantage in accessing the social and economic rewards deemed legitimate by the value system at its foundation; it is a system that needs a watchdog that calls for course corrections when the process whereby “the rising tide that lifts all boats” creates eddies and riptides that prevent people from weighing anchor and setting sail.

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt contends that in the same way all the complex flavors of the world’s cuisines are composed of the tongue’s four basic tasting capacities—sweet, sour, salty, and bitter—the great diversity of moralities to which people ascribe are woven from the five basic “cognitive modules” with which we define and evaluate morality and justice.  Defined in terms of their antipodes, these modules are care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.  Haidt names this Moral Foundations Theory.

One need not agree with Haidt’s thesis about the origins of these cognitive modules to see their utility as an interpretive grid.  In analyzing the political application of the theory, Haidt, who identifies himself as a liberal, discovered that those who measured as the most “liberal” registered highly in the care/harm and fairness/cheating categories but little to not at all in the other three.  Though caring and fairness were also the dominant categories for those who registered as the most “conservative,” people with these political leanings showed a near convergence with the other three concerns of loyalty, authority, and sanctity:

What this means is that if it seems that the proponents of Critical Theory are “tone deaf” to some of the moral concerns expressed by other, more “conservative” people, it is because they are.  For the “liberal” adherent of CT, the mere presence of inequity is all the proof needed that injustice is occurring.  Questions of whether people have demonstrated the social virtues of developing skills (that is, demonstrating loyalty to the system’s values) are largely not considered, or if they are, the need to do so is defined as part of the oppression inherent in “the system.”  Likewise, the need to “pay one’s dues,” which recognizes the system’s authority, is construed as more evidence of injustice rather than a period of necessary apprenticeship during which there is predicted inequity between those who have acquired the sought-after skills and resources and those currently acquiring them.  Finally, the need to exhibit sustained effort with or without immediate reward—the most sanctified value in a meritocracy—is despised most of all as the mechanism of systemic injustice because, although such effort generally yields overall improvement in the socio-economic position of a given class of people, there is no guarantee in any particular instance that the effort so exerted will result necessarily in equity.  The moral concerns of three of the five moral cognitive modules are not only temporarily bracketed to focus analysis on the issue of fairness, for the “liberal,” they quite literally do not register as things worthy of assessment and for the critical theorist, they are merely attempts to obfuscate the real issue, which is measurable equity.

Moreover, the proponent of Critical Theory does not need to provide measurable criteria whereby to evaluate the claims of their analysis.  The existence of the inequity natural to and predicted by a system that rewards merit is the prima facie evidence that revolution is needed.  Whether the proposed system could actually create the desired equity and whether that equity would be balanced with other moral concerns  (everyone living in social and/or economic squalor is, after all, a type of equality) need not be seriously contemplated, because the only value in view is equity, which is defined as fairness that provides the necessary care for everybody.

This is how these critics can be right about what is wrong (that is, in Critical Race Theory, the form of CT most affecting the life of the Church at present, racial inequities), but so wrong about what would put these wrongs right; their theories are not based upon a morality with a complex enough palate, capable of fine enough distinctions.

Eschatology and Anthropology

This is also in part why Critical Theory is a comprehensive worldview; in merely noting inequity, it believes that it has accounted for all the most significant moral variables—the only ones that count.  It must then flatten all human experience into the narrow interpretive grid it deems the only valid one.

Four Fundamental Questions

The late Ravi Zacharias helpfully delineated at least four fundamental questions of human life to which any worldview must propose an answer: human origin, meaning, morality, and destiny.  Because of the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial,” the issue of origins has dominated the intellectual landscape of the Western Church for the last 100 or so years.  First, it dominated the popular imagination as “yet another case” of backward religionists resisting reason’s inevitable march of progress in accord with the Enlightenment’s self-narration.  (Yes, this was first. Scopes deliberately implicated himself so that a trial would need to be held and Darrow deliberately had the trial played out by a sympathetic urbane media in the court of public opinion as part of his legal strategy.)  The attempts to condemn Intelligent Design as veiled religious dogma are the intellectual descendants of that controversy.  Secondly, it precipitated a growing crisis within the Church between Fundamentalists and Modernists, who believed a dating of the age of the earth to greater than 7,000 years was congruent with orthodox Biblical interpretation.  The inheritors of that dispute are the Young Earth versus Old Earth Creationist debates of today.[2] 

“Your theology can never be better than your anthropology,” was one of the favorite axioms my Prophets professor in seminary passed on to us from his mentor.  Of course, being self-consciously orthodox, I thought that axiom got it exactly backward; our theology—specifically our Christology and soteriology—necessarily defines our understanding of human nature, so our anthropology can never be better than our theology.

Unfortunately, the Western Church’s obsession with origins has led to a relative neglect of the way our understanding of who Jesus is and what salvation fully entails informs our understanding of what human beings are (our meaning), how we should live (our morality), and our purpose or telos (our destiny).  The preaching of Jesus predominantly as life coach, social activist, friend of sinners, prophetic preacher, social reformer or even atoning sacrifice for sinners, has led to the neglect of the consistent preaching of Jesus as the God-Man or Theanthropos, a new species in God’s economy of salvation.[3]  “God became man that man might become [like] God,” exulted Irenaeus of Lyons in his second century classic Against Heresies, going on to declare as the soteriological significance of that teaching that “the glory of God is a [hu]man fully alive.”

Great Tradition Christianity proclaims that the ultimate destiny of redeemed humanity is not merely to avoid hell (Jesus as the cosmic get-out-of-jail-free card) or to emulate Jesus as the finest example of a fully self-realized or perfectly moral human person, but rather to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).  Through our Sacramental union with Jesus, who was fully God and fully human, by faith in His promises, we are drawn into the perichoretic inner life of the Godhead, the most Holy Trinity.  As the Theanthropos, Jesus is the “firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29), not the only-born to be admired and worshipped, but whose life remains fundamentally distant from our own.

This teaching about the implications of salvation through Christ for our destiny as human beings thoroughly conditions and shapes all other elements of our theology.  In other words, remembering the fullness of our destiny as human beings in Christ has far more impact on our understanding of what is the meaning of human life and the morality by which it is to be lived than our understanding of our origins.

[1] Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. (New York: New York University Press, 2017), page 8.

[2] If you speak the first article of the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed without crossing your fingers, you are a creationist of one stripe or the other; it is important that non-fundamentalist Christians be absolutely clear on this point and think through the consequences of that position as distinct from a functional Deism.

[3] Justification by grace through faith—forensic justification—may indeed be the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls as Martin Luther declared, but it was never meant to be preached denuded of the very Christology that makes it so powerful and poignant.

What Is Contemporary Critical Theory?

Background Notes: One of the dangers and difficulties of discussing almost any issue these days is how easily any discussion can become highly divisively politicized.  It is not the intent of Lutheran CORE to speak either for or against any political party or candidate.  The political views of the friends of Lutheran CORE cover a very wide spectrum.  In this discussion of Contemporary Critical Theory we are neither endorsing nor speaking against any political candidate or party.  We are discussing an issue which we feel is critically important for Christians to be aware of and be prepared to deal with.

The First Reading for September 6 was from Ezekiel 33, where God compares the role of the prophet to the role of a military sentinel.  Verse 6 says, “If the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any of them,” God will require the blood of the people at the hand of the sentinel.  In the same way, verse 8 says that if the prophet does not warn the people, God will require the blood of the people at the hand of the prophet.

Lutheran CORE defines its mission as being a Voice for Biblical Truth and a Network for Confessing Lutherans.  As a Voice for Biblical Truth we feel called by God to serve as a sentinel to warn people of forces and movements in our world today – even in the church that are incompatible with if not actually hostile to the historic, orthodox Christian faith.  This is in addition to our role of alerting people to ways in which orthodoxy is being challenged and compromised within the church today.

One of the mindsets and movements that are growing and prevailing today – within our culture and, unfortunately, even within some segments of the Church – is Contemporary Critical Theory.  There are two articles within this issue of CORE Voice which deal with this very powerful and I believe very dangerous force within our world today.  This first article is intended to give you an overview and introduction to Contemporary Critical Theory.  If you are not already familiar with this way of thinking, I am certain you will recognize it as the mindset behind much of what is happening in our nation and our world today.  The second article is a longer and more detailed evaluation and critique of Contemporary Critical Theory.  The intent of this second article is to show how this mindset is incompatible with and even a threat to the historic, orthodox Christian faith.  Many thanks to Brett Jenkins, NALC pastor and former member of our board, for writing the second article.

There is a major difference between the claim that “there is no truth” and the claim that “there is truth, but we have a hard time seeing it on our own.”  While those who are more orthodox-minded may be inclined to assert the latter, those who are not so orthodox-minded may be inclined to assert the former. The former has its roots in the claims of Contemporary Critical Theory.

Contemporary Critical Theory asserts that all knowledge is “socially constructed.”  Therefore, there is no single, objective body of knowledge which all must accept.  All of knowledge is rooted in experience, and we all have different experiences.  My experience will be different from yours; therefore, the knowledge that is “socially constructed” by me may be different from the knowledge that is “socially constructed” by you.  There is no body of knowledge which is wholly objective, as every area of knowledge is tainted with subjectivity.  “Even the field of science is subjective.” (Robin DiAngelo & Öslem Sensoy). 

Because we all have different experiences, we all have different levels of access to truth. The degree to which we have access to truth depends upon positionality: that is, I may have greater access to truth than you do, or vice versa, based on our respective positions in life.  Greater value is given to the perspectives of those with positions in life that give us lived experiences that may provide us with greater insight on the topic(s) discussed.

The idea that there is such a thing as objective reality is looked upon with great suspicion, or even rejected entirely.  Some say that, historically, those in positions of power and privilege have falsely claimed that things which are subjective are actually objective and have used these false claims in order to marginalize and oppress those without power and privilege. Some also say that the privileged misuse these false claims in order to normalize forms of injustice that we should not be accepting as normal. When this is done, “Those in power sleep well at night; their conduct does not seem to them like oppression.” (Richard Delgado).

Contemporary Critical Theory pays great attention to the particular demographic status of the person, and, based on that status, to whether the person might, in context, be considered privileged or marginalized (i.e., rich or poor, white or black, male or female, straight or gay, cisgender or transgender, etc.). The marginalized have the benefit of lived experiences which the privileged simply cannot experience first-hand.  Because the marginalized have greater access to truth than the privileged, the voices of the marginalized are considered to be of greater value than the voices of the privileged. That is especially, but not exclusively, true of matters in which the lived experience of the marginalized provides particular insight into the matter being discussed.  For example, a powerless person who has experienced discrimination at the hands of a person in power will be better equipped to explain such discrimination than a person in power who has never experienced such discrimination first-hand.

Contemporary Critical Theory warns that those with power and privilege do not easily give up their power and privilege.  Rather, they establish institutions, rules, norms, and claims of objective truth in order to establish and protect their dominance in society.  Those in power use all those institutions, rules, norms, and claims in order to subject the powerless to marginalization and oppression.  When the dominance, power, and privilege of the privileged are challenged, they cast doubt on the validity of the claims of those who challenge them.  Consequently, the act of questioning those who are marginalized, especially when done by those who are privileged, is frowned upon, looked upon with suspicion, or even forbidden entirely.

These are not just the opinions of a small number of peculiar individuals.  Rather they are ideas that have spread far and wide in our society, even within the church.  These ideas are driving forces, though not the only driving forces, behind several contemporary movements in the political and social arenas.  These ideas are widely, but not universally, accepted.  They have their critics, on the left as well as on the right.  And there are those with more nuanced positions who will partially but not wholly accept these ideas.  Nevertheless, the influence of these ideas is strong, with variants on the left and on the right.  It is critically important for us to be aware of them, in order that we might be able to respond effectively.