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Racism, the SBC, and Critical Race Theory: A New War Brewing

Racism, the SBC, and Critical Race Theory: A New War Brewing December 19, 2020

Hi and welcome back! I’m just endlessly fascinated with the sheer dysfunction of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). No space aliens looking down at them from orbit would ever mistake them for a religious movement of any kind, that’s for sure. And that fact is even truer this season, as their biggest names grapple with the latest accusations of racism to hit their tribe. Today, let me show you their newest Battle Royale — over Critical Race Theory.

erasmus and maurice arguing
Saints Erasmus and Maurice, respectively, arguing. (Wikipedia.) (More about Maurice.)

Systemic Racism, Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.

First, let me set out some brief definitions.

Racism involves marginalizing and oppressing people of color (POC) while setting white people’s needs and desires above those of all other races (and considering white people the standards for evaluation). Of course, racism doesn’t necessarily mean shrieking insults at Black people. There’s even a variant called benevolent racism, described well here.

Systemic racism accomplishes racist goals through social institutions and the control/influence of group behavior. Someone can be incredibly racist but nice as blueberry pie to POC to their faces, while also expressing racism through the systems they support and perpetuate.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) challenges racism at the systemic level. It accepts that our country has a huge long love affair with racism that’s lasted for centuries, and seeks to understand and address that racism and more importantly to dismantle it. It also asserts that although racism is part of POC’s everyday lives, white people have little interest in learning about it, much less combating it due to the benefits it confers upon them. The ideas in CRT have been around for a while now, since at least the 1960s. In recent years, though, the field of study has exploded with new research.

Most importantly, CRT seems poised to become this generation’s bizarrely-overused and hopelessly-misunderstood “but but MUH POSTMODERNISM, Y’ALL” snarl word for white evangelicals.

The SBC’s Historic Racism.

Like most denominations, the SBC erupted to life amid schism.

Its founders wanted to practice chattel slavery. Since the rest of their group didn’t, the first Southern Baptists left their ranks to make their own pro-slavery Baptist denomination. The Atlantic describes their origin story:

Fifteen years earlier [in 1845], the Southern Baptist Convention had formed when a group of churches broke away from another loose association of Baptists, called the Triennial Convention. The foreign-outreach arm of the organization had forbidden a slaveholding church elder from becoming a missionary, saying it would violate the organization’s neutral position on slavery. After attempting to negotiate a compromise, 293 dissenting church leaders—representing as many as 365,000 Christians—met in Augusta, Georgia, and formed a new association that supported slavery.

And like every Christian and Christian group does, these slavery-loving Baptists reached for Bible verses to support their grotesque views. They found plenty of them, too, as Christians always do no matter what their quirky li’l take on any subject might be.

Weird, how easy that is for Christians to do…

Racism Finally Backfired.

In 2018, the SBC’s sordid history began to bite it in the bottom. Al Mohler, one of the denomination’s top leaders, wrote a very sad-sounding report on the topic. As he discussed the founders of the seminary he runs, he grappled with their full-throated defense of slavery (p. 2):

The founding faculty of this school—all four of them—were deeply involved in slavery and deeply
complicit in the defense of slavery. Many of their successors on this faculty, throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, advocated segregation, the inferiority of African-Americans, and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery.

And just as the first Southern Baptist founders had, every one of these SBC leaders used the Bible to support all of their views.

(Of course, as recently as 1998 Al Mohler did the same exact thing. These days, he tries to walk back his earlier support of racism. But evangelicals all know the saying: out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.)

The very next year, in 2019, SBC leaders released Resolution 9, which explicitly attacks CRT.

A War Over Critical Race Theory.

This CRT saga sure won’t win SBC leaders any friends in the anti-racism movement.

Mainly, the SBC’s leaders are absolutely offended that nobody talks about Jesus-ing harder as a fix for systemic racism. In fact, CRT doesn’t particularly invoke religious solutions, which probably outrages the SBC more. They’re okay with some of the ideas in CRT, but they want it properly harnessed and shackled to their authoritarian take on Christianity — and absolutely don’t ever want it to become any kind of danger to their entrenched Good Ole Boy network.

But calls for CRT keep coming. At the end of November, all six SBC seminary presidents issued a joint statement condemning CRT in every way imaginable. These Good Ole Boys decided that CRT is completely, utterly incompatible with their denomination’s statement of faith (called “the Baptist Faith & Message,” or BFM; have fun with that one). Oh sure, they totes condemn racism. Fer shur, man. It’s just that they refuse to engage with the field of academic study that seems to have the best handle on why it happens and how to reduce it.

(Amusingly, Jamie Dew, who leads New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in that joint statement that “the teachings of Christianity itself” should be all Christians need to know about not being so racist. Nobody will ever accuse these guys of excessive self-awareness.)

And interestingly, at no point does this joint statement ever actually address exactly how CRT conflicts with BFM. In fact, I don’t even know if the SBC’s leaders themselves know that. J.D. Greear, who certainly agrees with this joint statement, declared, “The Gospel gives a better answer.” Um, better than what? He didn’t say, but probably meant Jesus-ing as the cure for racism.

Overall, it looks obvious to me that SBC leaders think that “racism” only means screeching insults at Black people. 

MUH KULCHURL MARXISM.

Daniel Akin, one of the other joint statement people, said elsewhere that CRT is totes “rooted in Marxism, and therefore the presidents wanted to make it clear that they could not endorse it ‘in any form or fashion.'” Cuz see, see, he says, “Marxist theories are atheistic.”

So are cell phones and deodorant. But it’s a rule:

“Marxist” is one of those codewords evangelicals use that inform you immediately that discourse with them will be impossible.

It’s just one of their snarl words. Think of it like a perma-blinking left turn signal on a slow-moving car in the fast lane. The moment evangelicals trot out that word, you can rest assured that they will not be saying anything else that’s useful or even factual. They might as well be wearing a QAnon T-shirt while they blather. They have no idea what Marxism is, and even less of an idea of why they should hate it.

Of course, Akin certainly made not a peep about Marxism in his joint statement. I don’t think he’d know real Marxism if it tapped his shoulder as he knelt in front of it.

The Real Problem.

It’s not like one can’t ever incorporate Marxist thinking in CRT. I’ve seen some scholars go there. It’s not an outlandish connection. It’s just that these SBC leaders can’t explain any element of their hatred of Marxism, much less how it connects to CRT.

They just know it’s not 100% Jesus-centric.

I think what really offends these SBC bigwigs is that CRT doesn’t involve a lot of Jesus-ing. It doesn’t bend knee to evangelicals at all. Worse, the ideas in CRT could seriously impact evangelical leaders’ level of undeserved power.

To combat it, then, they invoke their biggest current tribal boogeyman. They must scare young seminary students and idealistic seminary professors away from CRT!

Right now, atheism is still a big boogeyman. Thus, tying Marxism to atheism seriously heightens its snarl power.

The New Reality of Demographics for the SBC.

Of course, lots of SBC people went nuts after the joint statement came out. I loved this criticism from Miguel A. De La Torre.

Recently, an SBC pastor named Dwight McKissic (we’ve seen him before; also here), whose picture reveals that he is a Black man, criticized the joint statement. His scathing, blistering indictment begins with him wondering why he even stays in the SBC at all.

I’m sure he’s not the only Black person wondering that. As we saw recently, an SBC leader, Ronnie Floyd, has just commissioned a report about the ethnicity of the SBC. It indicates that white congregations have been stagnant since the 2000s. Meanwhile, almost a quarter of SBC members are POC.

And the SBC has routinely treated them dismissively and contemptuously. Here are only two of the numerous racist incidents McKissic tells us about:

As a man, I have sat at SBC tables and watched White churches pay 0% interest on small church loans, while Hispanic and Black churches had to pay 6%.

As a man, while touring the SBC Nashville headquarters and requesting information concerning the highest-ranking person in the seven-story facility, I was introduced to the head custodian.

After Resolution 9, other POC began asking McKissic if they should go to SBC seminaries at all. So I wonder how much money these six racist seminary presidents stand to lose, if POC decide to get their degrees elsewhere?

The Baptist Faith & Message, Received Loud & Clear.

It can’t be fun for POC in the SBC to come face-to-face with just how incredibly racist their Dear Leaders truly are.

As Dave Miller, a white SBC pastor, wrote:

The attacks on CRT are being seen as a message that minorities are not welcome in the SBC. Whatever the seminary presidents, Ronnie Floyd, and those who have made a crusade out of attacks CRT intend, this is what I am seeing over and over again from my Black friends – the sense that the SBC is rolling up the welcome mat and saying that unless they adopt our culture, our politics, and our ways, they just are not going to fit into our convention. I hope that is not what is intended, but I know is what is being inferred.

He’s right about the message being sent, but then he wrecks himself by begging POC not to leave. Instead, he urges them to stay — while holding out the possibility that they could totally fix the SBC from within.

But nobody can fix a broken system except its masters. The SBC’s masters, in particular, have spent many years figuring out how to peel any semblance of power from their followers. So Miller makes a cruel request followed by an even crueler vision of hope that he has no power whatsoever to extend.

And it’s still the best any of them can do.

Racism, Just Without the Words.

Most of these big names have loudly denounced racism as a whole, even if they refuse to engage with why oh why racism is so endemic in SBC leadership circles.

Some of them have also expressed belief in the reality of systemic racism. In his denunciation of SBC leaders’ recent antics, Dwight McKissic (relink) mentions a 1995 SBC resolution confirming the existence of systemic racism. He also quotes Danny Akin, one of the seminary presidents in that statement, who wrote to him that he does indeed accept that systemic racism is a thing. (Akin blames “sinful humans” for it, of course, which I guess implies that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can’t possibly engage in it.)

So what gives? Systemic racism — examining it, dismantling it, building better systems out of its ashes — forms the very heart of CRT.

Well, in a nutshell: Authoritarianism gives, that’s what.

Authoritarians Gonna Authoritarian.

First Problem: Evangelicals like to imagine themselves as living far, far above earthly concerns and troubles. I’ve lost count of how many white evangelicals I’ve personally encountered proudly announcing that They don’t SEE color, unlike you, you BIGOT.

(Usually these declarations get followed by outraged demands that I tolerate their intolerance. It’s beyond strange, or at least, it would be if I didn’t know evangelicals as well as I do.)

And evangelicals certainly don’t like to think of themselves as stone-cold racists, because obviously racists are bad people and they know they’re not bad people at all.

Second Problem: In rejecting CRT, white evangelicals have evolved a complex system of anti-racism performances that don’t actually come anywhere close to changing their own racist worldviews — while also preserving intact all the racist systems that privilege them above POC.

The truth remains: racism benefits these denominational leaders in a lot of ways, and they would really like to keep enjoying those benefits. Worse, many of their white followers would be absolutely outraged if anything seriously changed on that score.

CRT destroys these white evangelicals’ posturing and performing. Worse, it gives a descriptive language to the people they’ve disenfranchised and oppressed. And worse still, CRT creates avenues for positive change that white evangelical leaders (and most of their followers) categorically DO NOT WANT.

A Bible Read With White Eyes.

I’ll let Miguel A. De La Torres lead to our ending, because I liked his take (relink):

Speaking about the joint statement, the president of my alma mater, Al Mohler, said, “such advocacy [Critical Race Theory] has no rightful place within an SBC seminary.” And, as I noted earlier, he is correct. If the seminary wishes to maintain its white supremacy, then such advocacy—led by scholars of color like myself—has no place in a white SBC seminary. [. . .]

There is no creed but the Bible—as long as it’s a Bible read with white eyes. Regardless of the best intentions of these six white men, the white Christianity they proselytize is life-denying for people of color. The Christianity taught at these seminaries, which they have now declared cannot be critically explored to uncover unexamined biases, has historically been an apologist for the raging white Christian nationalism we’re witnessing today.

Yep. The very last thing SBC leaders want is for their mewling affirmations to be taken seriously. That’s just performative piety again, and they’re masters of the art.

And strangely, Jesus isn’t telling any of these SBC leaders how to behave like decent human beings.

A Major Fight Brewing in the Wings.

Don’t make any mistake: I doubt that any current white leaders in the SBC really want to do anything substantive to end the SBC’s endemic racism problem. They’re all fixated on appeasing POC and allies jusssst enough to maintain their status quo till they can retire with full benefits.

That said, two of their leaders have recently set themselves to opposite sides of the ring for the SBC’s next Presidential Election. One seems to have staked out his corner in overtly performative mewling while clinging hard to the SBC’s traditional stances; the other pretends to be more progressive. I’m really curious about which way the SBC will go here. I really can’t say for sure exactly what’ll happen.

But the view from the Good Ship Space Princess will likely look the same either way:

The SBC is a purely earthly denomination with nothing supernatural, much less divine, at its center. This squabble looks exactly like I’d expect it to look if no divine entities were influencing any of the players. They all act exactly as I’d expect authoritarians to act when their power might be at stake.

The more people realize that there’s nothing supernatural at all about how any religious groups operate, the better.

NEXT UP: The two contestants in this Battle Royale. See you soon!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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