Criticizing Critical Race Theory—and Its Critics


Last year I joined a group of Christian leaders, Black and white, on a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture located in Washington, DC.

Even though I’ve read quite a bit about slavery and Jim Crow, I was still physically and emotionally disturbed by the visual depictions of the systemic and violent ways in which people of color were treated for centuries of American history. There is no sugarcoating this history. It was (and is) an offense against God, with ripple effects that continue to shape our national life.

In the past decade, conversations on racism have become more heated, reaching a fever pitch in 2020 with the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

One outcome of the resulting ferment of protest and denunciation was renewed attention to critical race theory (popularly known as CRT), a controversial legal theory once confined to the academic world and now increasingly mainstreamed and popularized in public life, including many of our leading institutions.

Books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo or How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi rose to the top of bestseller lists in 2020 and after. Corporations, government entities, and even churches began implementing steps drawn from these and other popular works. Evangelical publishers churned out books in this spirit as well.

Some Christian leaders have defended the use of CRT as a helpful analytical tool. Others have criticized it as a totalizing worldview opposed to biblical Christianity. This debate has divided many Christians, exhausted many pastors, split many organizations, and convulsed our politics.

Seeking to bring sanity and clarity to this ongoing conversation is Ed Uszynski, a senior content strategist for FamilyLife and a veteran of other organizations under the Cru umbrella, like Athletes in Action.

Uszynski holds a PhD in American culture studies from Bowling Green State University. His new book, Untangling Critical Race Theory: What Christians Need to Know and Why It Matters, draws on both his scholarship and his experiences in evangelical spaces.

Untangling Critical Race Theory is at its best when Uszynski both systematically defines and outlines the philosophy of Marxism, from which CRT borrows heavily. According to Uszynski, Marxism advances seven interrelated theses:

  • God doesn’t exist.
  • Capitalism causes all the problems in the world.
  • Economic systems form the base on which the rest of society develops.

  • People benefit only through exploiting others.
  • Without intervention, capitalism will eventually implode.
  • A socialist utopia, facilitated and controlled by the state, will eventually replace it.
  • Formal religion is an “opiate,” a tool used by power holders to hypnotize people and keep them in check.

Uszynski goes on to make substantive critiques of Marxism as both godless and hopeless. These critiques—and his analysis of social conditions in parts of the West that often make Marxism attractive—are among the best parts of the book.

In one poignant section, Uszynski interacts with Carl F. H. Henry’s classic book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, in which Henry pleads with fellow evangelicals to engage in social action. As Uszynski’s perceptive reading of Henry suggests, when Christians retreat from the social arena, it creates a vacuum that faulty and destructive theories like Marxism will naturally fill.

“Christians,” he writes, “who have access to a revelation that simultaneously explains, condemns, and transcends human history, should appreciate why someone without hope in God might be attracted to the prospect of what Marx offers.”

Untangling Critical Race Theory is also helpful in working through the basic tenets of CRT and demonstrating their rootedness in Marxist principles. “If Marx built the house,” Uszynski writes, “and Critical Theory modernized and refurbished the rooms, then Critical Race Theory added a new wing with its own uniquely stylized decor.” He carefully points to the social conditions CRT seeks to address and offers a biblical critique showing where CRT falls short of better, biblical solutions.

Yet for all of the book’s strengths, it ultimately bogs down in a few important ways. First, Uszynski too often assumes a context of evangelical failure. His writing is replete with broad-brush critiques and dismissive descriptors, and he seems unwilling to find anything redemptive in evangelical attempts to bring about racial reconciliation.

There is, of course, much to lament in evangelical dialogue on race, and there is no denying that many evangelicals were deeply complicit in the evils of both slavery and segregation. But ignoring good-faith efforts to reckon with and repent of these sins is both uncharitable and ahistorical.

Second, Uszynski seems unable to decide if critical race theory is a destructive, totalizing worldview or a series of ideas that can be selectively applied in positive ways. In one section, he writes:

Critical Theory [CT] puts humans at the center and demands we adjust to Progressive ideas. Christian theology puts God at the center and demands we adjust to his revealed truth. CT wants to erase dominant culture’s moral boundaries to set people free. Christianity wants to resist secular culture’s moral relativism or people can never be free. CT seeks to subdue others’ power for the sake of themselves. Christianity says submit and leverage your own power for the sake of others.

Shortly after this, he adds,

If the will to power becomes your endgame, all your answers to social problems eventually produce something dehumanizing, even if you’re trying to make things better. Godless worldviews always make things worse to the extent that their analysis and proposed solutions deviate from biblical truth. Embrace a “Critical” worldview comprehensively and you’re left with absurdity, anxiety, and meaninglessness.

These are just a few of many passages where Uszynski substantively and soberly critiques CRT and finds it incompatible with Christianity.

Yet at other times, he describes being “baffled” at patterns of Christian skepticism toward CRT, alleging the growth of a frivolous “cottage industry” that panders to audiences who already oppose it. In a final section on takeaways for racial reconciliation dialogue, he urges the “redemptive use” of CRT.

The third way the book falls short is in failing to practice more sober engagement with reasonable and responsible critics of CRT. I recognize, with the author, that terms like CRT and woke often function as smears, unfairly aimed at pastors who sincerely desire racial reconciliation and justice. Others reject all categories of systemic injustice as warmed-over Marxism, even though Scripture—the Minor Prophets especially—is not shy about dissecting power structures that are shot through with sinful patterns.

There is a subsection of our tribe that refuses to consider Jesus’ prayer in John 17 about Christian unity or to work diligently to preserve “the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). If the multiethnic scene in Revelation 7:9 is our future, we should do what we can, even sacrificially, to live up to what God says we already are.

And yet, I wish Untangling Critical Race Theory at least acknowledged that many CRT critics are acting in good faith, especially as they resist ideas Uszynski himself deems antithetical to Christianity.

When pro-Hamas demonstrators take to the streets in American cities after a massacre in Israel, shouting genocidal slogans because they lump Israel in with a global “white power structure,” then perhaps pushing back on a totalizing framework of oppressor versus oppressed can’t be dismissed as phony culture-warring. When a major Smithsonian museum issues a guide to “whiteness” that groups “hard work,” “self-reliance,” and nuclear-family norms under the umbrella of “white dominant culture,” then perhaps not all misgivings about CRT are unfounded.

One imagines that the book could have been strengthened by engaging with the brightest and best-informed CRT critics. Take, for instance, the trenchant but fair analysis from Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer in Critical Dilemma or Tony Evans’s pastoral voice in Kingdom Race Theology.

Uszynski also ignores important conversations taking place in scholarly and journalistic circles among ideological mavericks like Glenn Loury, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Bari Weiss, and Bill Maher, none of whom can plausibly count as evangelical or politically right-wing.

It’s worth noting too that many vocal CRT foes are working-class minorities who see it as contrary to the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass. They favor an approach that brings people together rather than dividing them into warring and aggrieved subgroups.

Despite its shortcomings, however, Untangling Critical Race Theory is another worthy entry into America’s ongoing race dialogue. However painful, this is a conversation we can hardly afford to overlook—not if we take seriously the gospel’s promise of Christ creating “one new humanity” in his body (Eph. 2:15); not if we are struck by the vision of every nation, tribe, and tongue gathered around the throne of God in the New Jerusalem; and not if we are sobered and convicted by America’s racial sins, both past and present.

Yet, as Uszynski affirms, “Christians don’t need CRT to live biblically regarding race because a kingdom-shaped worldview already supports most of what CRT seeks to rectify.” Let’s pray for a church that humbly pursues this kingdom-shaped worldview in the areas where we have influence.

Daniel Darling is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. His books include Agents of Grace.

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