I’ve been seeing and hearing about it a lot lately from those on the right, and reports from those I know who are also being assertive with unhealthy rhetoric from the right. “Beware of critical race theory,” those on the right are saying. “Don’t trust BLM—they’re Marxist.” And when conservative Christians (mostly white Evangelicals) share this stuff and try to say Christianity is deeply opposed to critical race theory as an ideology, it all takes on a “holy war of ideas” hue.
(Which, you know, couldn’t possibly hurt anyone, right? Because it’s about ideas, not people. Sigh. Sadly not at all true, as I’ll explain. If nothing else, Christian defense of and fundraising for Kyle Rittenhouse, the conservative man who drove across state lines to shoot protestors in Kenosha with an assault rifle, needs to make us pause really strongly as to where all of this is going.)
Where Are We Headed?
Today’s article will unpack where some of this rhetoric about “critical race theory” comes from, why it is effective, and how it fits into the other god term/devil term and moral disgusts stuff we’ve previously been talking about on the blog. In the process, I’ll discuss how this extremely unhealthy talking point is being used to stoke fear and division and to encourage conservative Christians to actually fight the voices of the vulnerable and those who advocate for them—and suppress many biblical principles in the process.
Finally, I’ll give some principles about how and why to keep speaking up against this kind of unhealthy rhetoric toward a healthier world for us all. (It’s going to take a little while to get through this–thanks for hanging in there with me!)
An Unhealthy Line of Rhetoric
“BLM is Marxist.”
“I don’t know what critical race theory is, but it seems bad.”
Memes, articles, social media commentary—a wave of right-wing rhetoric has emerged, specifically since the recent anti-police brutality protests began, whose effect is to (further) demonize those protests and to dehumanize and demonize the movements that are seeking to speak up against unjust treatment of Black lives by police.
One strand of this wave uses the term “critical race theory” in a wholly negative way, as a devil term (that’s something that, as I’ve defined in a previous series starting here, is disconnected from its dictionary definition, in large part, and to be fought at all costs).
Why I’m Talking about This Topic
As an academic working in communication, a field that ranges from more “scientific types” to more humanities types, including those that study from a critical race theory lens, the fact that “critical race theory” has become specifically demonized as a talking point as part of this wave was something I thought it was important I address here, especially when I started seeing unhealthy memes that made bizarre “distinctions” between “Christianity” and critical race theory.
Some Background on Where I’m Coming From
Before I dive into that, a quick background note and acknowledgment:
As a white pastor’s kid in a moderate denomination that later got a PhD in Communication, I grew up in an educational tradition that subtly and sometimes unsubtlely trained me to fear and feel moral disgust toward “critical theory,” including critical race theory. (I talked about the neurobiological basis for moral and political disgusts in a series starting here, and about the ways my political disgusts were trained here.)
I internalized this type of training so well that in grad school and beyond, I tussled A LOT with reading some forms of critical theory when I was assigned it in classes.
I still don’t agree with every point that’s made by every critical race theorist—but I can see now that a LOT of that previous wrestling I did was based in the kinds of unhealthy understandings of the “holy war of ideas” concepts I spoke of above, and wouldn’t have truly been necessary.
Stay tuned for why that is, and also how this type of ideological crusade on behalf of a shadow form of Christianity over and against things like “critical race theory” can be just as damaging as the all-out Crusades in the middle ages that have such a bad rap for good reason.
A New Rhetorical Push—But Also Rooted in Past Concerns
Okay, so let me start out by talking about what critical (race) theory IS, and why it’s become a special target in right-wing talking points.
Let’s be clear as well—even though this new push about it is clear, this rhetoric is not actually a new thing at all. A lot of right-wing dissing of the academic world for years has centered on fear around universities and colleges being a “hotbed of critical theory.”
Some History of Fear of Critical Theory in Universities by Conservatives
And regrettably, (white) Evangelical publishing was involved in some of the history of these views. After all, it was in 2004 that Thomas Nelson, a Christian publisher focusing on a white Evangelical audience, published the young Hollywood brat Ben Shapiro’s book Brainwashed, “expose” of “how leftist” universities “were getting.”
Shapiro, as an Orthodox Jew, combined a political and religious view in a book that seems like it did for religio-political conservatives what I Kissed Dating Goodbye by a very young Joshua Harris did for the world of white Evangelical dating culture, for those who know about that strange phenomenon. Both books, by white conservative men of college age, seem to have caused similar toxic effects—I’m honestly not sure which one has done more damage. (And I’m not linking to either here because I would not want to give either of these projects any funding. For the damage that purity culture has done, I encourage you to read the book Pure by Linda Kay Klein.)
Shapiro himself, of course, was already building on a long history of right-wing suspicion of “liberal egghead elites” egged on by devil term rhetoric by folks such as Rush Limbaugh, who was recently given the medal of honor at the last State of the Union. I talked about that here.
More recently, the right-wing organization Turning Point USA started publishing a “Professor Watch List” of professors with critical theory backgrounds around the time of the last presidential election in 2016.
As you’ll see, that focus on why universities are feared and despised by conservatives, and have been for years, is quite telling.
But What Is Critical Theory?
See, Critical theory, and critical race theory as a subset, is a shorthand term for an incredibly diverse range of theories and ideas focusing on in on how power dynamics work in our world.
These academic theories are often not content just to theorize about how people work and how power affects our social and political world, though. They would like us to resist unhealthy types of power and correct injustices in the world.
Not at All Ivory Tower Stuff
This is definitely NOT ivory tower stuff, critical theory. In fact, even in the halls of academia, critical theory is the stuff that pokes at the status quo, and speaks truth to power. Does it always get it right, when it does this? I don’t think anything is perfect, or gets it right all the time, no. But I absolutely take what a lot of these scholars say very seriously. They make some really important points that deserve a full, nuanced hearing. And, beyond that, support.
Here’s the point: Critical theory, and its subset critical race theory, are academic areas that themselves are diverse and nuanced. These are serious scholars who jumped through a lot of hoops to get where they are. And yet, still, when push comes to shove in university funding, often it’s these departments and positions that face the chopping blocks.
That’s often, if not always, because these scholars are consistently speaking truth to power, and drawing attention to real societal issues of injustice and oppression.
Quite Biblical in Many Ways
If you were to throw a spiritual lens on these perspectives and had read your Bible carefully without the framing of conservative Christianity, you might find yourself wanting to say these are prophetic voices, crying out in the wilderness for society to repent. To repent of the ways women and people with darker skin and immigrants and the disabled and others in vulnerable populations are being treated poorly in our society.
If you’re familiar with the Bible and those actions and populations don’t remind you of Jesus praising those who took care of the “least of these” in Matthew 25, maybe you aren’t reading closely enough.
Would Jesus Hang with Critical Theorists?
Does that mean Jesus IS a critical theorist, in today’s terms? Nope, probably not. These things get complicated, and neither Jesus nor critical theory is a monolith—there’s plenty of disagreement among the critical theory camp—academia does that kind of thing well.
But it does mean Jesus has a lot more in common with today’s critical theorists than he did with, say, those kind of people he attacked who were exploiting vulnerable groups, often in the name of religion.
Would Conservative Christians Hang with Jesus?
And yet, today’s conservative and right-leaning Christians are working d*mned hard to separate themselves from these voices and instead are insisting these ideas are fully antithetical to Christianity.
Hey, I’ve Been There
As I said, I understand how this works because I’ve fought these battles inside myself. See, as I’ve discussed before, here and here, I was taught to fear the influence of ideas that were seen as antithetical to Christianity, including those on the progressive wings of both Christianity and the political spectrum.
Even though I hated having to listen to Rush Limbaugh’s rhetoric in high school, the same message, more subtly delivered from other sources, filtered in all the same—education was good, but there was always this fear of influence by “radicals” that might, well, be proved to have important points that might upset the status quo. My Christian nice upbringing, as I’ve discussed before, contained THAT message in spades.
While I considered myself to have “gone over to the progressive side” before the 2016 election, in some cases it took me right up to the apocalypse of the 2016 election to see how my training to fear and separate myself from progressive ideas MORE than even extreme right-wing ideas was harming me but especially others.
People Get Hurt When Conservative Christians Demonize Critical Theorists
And in taking that long to realize that critical theorists had some great points, let me pull no punches here: I contributed to the hurt of vulnerable groups. That’s what’s happening when Christians work hard to separate themselves from “critical race theory” and actually contribute to its demonization: actual people in vulnerable populations get hurt. And Christians unfortunately stand by, complicit, as real people get hurt and traumatized and lose their lives, as Saul held the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen in the book of Acts.
See, if all the Christians, especially the conservative white Evangelicals who have had the loudest voices, had conversions like Saul and stopped supporting the Kyle Rittenhouses of the world and started speaking up for justice for the oppressed like the prophets in the Bible, there could be some amazing change in the world. The bullies would have less space to gain power, and the church at large would, in its own chosen terms, have a much better witness with marginalized groups. It would also have much more integrity in general.
Negative Effects of the “Holy War of Ideas”
Let’s be real: The goal of choosing to transubstantiate real flesh and blood protestors against police brutality into a “holy war against ideas we’re made uncomfortable by ” is a powerful rhetorical move, though not at all a healthy one.
See, Christians disconnecting from the real people protesting to pull back into a “holy war of ideas” has the following effects:
- Pulling back leads to depersonalization: This makes it wayyyy easier to depersonalize the “opposition”—Black people and those advocating for them. Depersonalization is a huge step in any genocide that’s occurred, and lots of scholars of rhetoric and history who wouldn’t necessarily identify as critical theorists would confirm that fact.
- Complicity with Abuse of Power: Christians who see “critical race theory” as a threat often end up allying with and defending people in power doing brutal things against vulnerable groups. (As I’ve said above, the Bible calls its readers to see that as a sin.)
- Striking Back at Vulnerable Groups: Since many scholars who identify themselves as critical scholars also are members of vulnerable groups (and in turn this demonization assumes that all protestors are working from the most extreme tenets of all of the concepts of critical race theory, which isn’t even remotely true), strike back against the members of vulnerable groups gaining voice and power to make change in society.
- Striking Back at Those Testing and Approving What Is True and Good: White Evangelical Christians that set themselves against universities without truly knowing why they do end up speaking back against a scholarly enterprise committed to testing and approving what is true and good in careful ways, even if it doesn’t always do that perfectly.
- Laziness about Careful Listening to Those who are Different: Pretends (if fails) to shield conservative Christians from listening to alternative views and seeing themselves as victims in a “culture war.” This blocks much recognition and repentance from their gaslighting of the vulnerable and the ways major themes in the Bible call them to take care of the “least of these.” And, as it happens, since communication research shows us that deep listening is an act of care and respect, it’s not surprising that this blockage would block the communication of care and concern to those outside white Evangelical churches.
- Failure to Recognize Complicity with Unhealthy Ideologies: Fails to recognize and address the ways in which conservative Christianity has eloped with white nationalism (I addressed this more here) and the ways in which toxic Christian Nice has elevated conservative and authoritarian ideologies over and above biblical principles.
That’s the Truth, Sadly
Well, there’s more, and I realize that’s not exactly throwing down some sunshine on the issue, but it’s the grim reality of how it is. I could go on for awhile, but hopefully this helps you understand why the right’s demonization of “critical race theory” as a straw man idea is a really unhealthy phenomenon.
But, in short, this way of speaking about the anti-police brutality protestors as “believers in critical race theory” and therefore to be dismissed is deeply unhealthy, and in fact, supports real ongoing harm to vulnerable populations.
An extreme example of this is when white supremacist teenager Kyle Rittenhouse drove twenty miles to shoot BLM protestors with an assault rifle, a Christian-identified fundraising site raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for him.
That’s where we are, friends. Conservative Christians supporting murderers to kill real life progressives protesting police brutality, all in the name of this holy war of “ideas.” This is not a remotely okay place to be—and it’s the dehumanization of an entire set of ideas that supports fighting real injustices that has gotten us here.
So What Can We Do Healthily to Work Against This Toxicity?
So how should we speak back to this inaccurate, unhealthy, and weaponized use of the term “critical race theory” and other related terms?
- Most importantly, rehumanize the situation for people on the right. Tell the stories of human beings—protestors, academics. Let’s put flesh back on the progressive left.
- Remind the right of facts, as you have energy, but try not to “dunk on” people as you do. The more you can draw attention to how everyone is learning in the areas of learning about and fighting injustice, including you, the better off you’ll be.
- Support scholars and protestors who are speaking truth to power both with our voices and tangibly as much as we’re able. Remember we don’t have to fully support everything they say to support them either. <begin sarcasm> But, you know, maybe avoid supporting that Rittenhouse fund <end sarcasm>.
- Continue to advocate and vote at all levels of government and society for the righting of injustices and the reapplication of reason and empathy.
If you’re looking for more detailed ways to understand and deal with conflict both online and off, I recommend signing up for our free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls.” To get it, sign up in the top bar of this site for our weekly email newsletter and confirm your email address. The link to the guide will come in the final welcome email. It will help you with conflict both online and off.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.