“Critical Race Theory”, a legal theory focused on the intersection of race and the law, is quite popular in the news. The bloggernacle, too. Sam Brunson has a good post at ByCommonConsent on critical race theory, tax law, and the Church. (It’s more interesting than it sounds, I promise.) I don’t have a lot to add—an expert in critical race theory I am not—but I wanted to draw attention to one aspect that is personally important to me as an LDS Christian: how discussions of “critical race theory” and “wokeness” can often drive Latter-day Saints away from caring about the marginalized and poor at all. Let me explain.
In his post, Sam makes a good point that we often talk past each other when discussing Critical Race Theory because we mean very different things by it. In a short Twitter thread, Conor Friedersdorf says there are at least three things we mean by “critical race theory” today.
- CRT1 – the decades long, scholarly debate with some consensus but also much internal disagreement and debate
- CRT2 – the version of this debate that’s simplified and often internally inconsistent, filtered down into Tumblr posts, Medium essays, and discussions about K-12 education
- CRT3 – the version as portrayed by opponents (i.e. Fox News), that gets at versions 1 and 2 in some ways, but also exaggerates and distorts to make it an easier and scarier target
In his post, Sam is talking about CRT1 when he says that it’s “worth noting that critical race theory doesn’t present a particular set of answers to the problems of systemic and legal racism. Rather, critical race theorists present many and varied potential solutions, and sometimes, I imagine, no solutions at all.” This is the scholarly work with some consensus and many disagreements. It’s this rigorous version that I have little actual knowledge of and won’t try to evaluate here. But I will say that when most people hear about and debate critical race theory, they have CRT2 or CRT3 in mind: the simplistic version with clear and confident answers to injustice, or clear and obvious evils (depending on your tribe).
It’s easy to pit these versions of CRT against them each other, and in the process talk past each other. But here’s my point: that can be deadly to the spiritual health of our community.
Let me elaborate. The conservative author David French wrote a moving piece about a transracial adoption called “Don’t Let Fear of ‘Wokeness’ Close Hearts and Minds”. He begins by talking about how the accusation of wokeness can shut off discourse: “Call something ‘woke,’ and too many Americans wall themselves off from engagement and reflexively oppose ideas that should be carefully considered.” He uses the example of a debate over transracial adoption to highlight his point. And he ends with this concern for his own faith community, evangelical Christianity:
In fact, in white Evangelicalism the true challenge of “wokeness” isn’t that congregations will embrace critical race theory, it’s that fear of critical race theory will drive congregations away from thoughtful, necessary engagements with the world as it is—a world that is still too far removed from the hope of King’s dream.David French
This is my concern too, but for my faith community: Latter-day Saints. I hear too many of my brothers and sisters write off laws or politicians or causes as beholden to wokeness, and certainly “wokeness” has its issues. But it’s also the case that many of the people who engage in Critical Race Theory or are “woke” are more attuned to certain injustices than we are, and are speaking from a place of genuine concern and hurt and feeling. They are perhaps more attuned to the call of the Hebrew prophets “to do justice and to love kindness”, and to care for the vulnerable and marginalized around us.
If nothing else came from this kind of insane year, it was a realization that racism is a real problem in America (as Phil Vischer eloquently summarizes in this video). The solutions are non-obvious, but we should care or at least give credence to those who are trying to address it, even if the solutions they propose are flawed. Whatever answers we give, they should probably go beyond a simplistic reply of “the government should have nothing to do with it” or “I have no responsibility for these injustices”—for even as someone with a very conservative temperament, I see problems with those views in that they evade real engagement, just as David French warned. They evade facing the world as it is for people who are not like ourselves, and of evading the collective responsibility to care for each other.
In all of this debate, I am trying to find what Alan Jacobs (a Christian author) eloquently called a gospel of life: “a way of approaching these immensely complex yet utterly essential issues that evades our usual and comfortable political categories.” He writes that too often, we see different policies—like helping the unborn, and helping the marginalized poor—in opposition, a view that is tragic. He writes that
… the cause of the tragedy is this: that the categories of American politics determine the way that many American Christians think about ministry, mission, and service. The talking points and platform statements of the two major political parties provide the guidelines that many Christians use to judge things of the Gospel. Simply put, many American Christians have been intellectually formed by our political debates — especially as they are digested and interpreted on television news programs — far more than by immersion in Scripture or the great movements and figures of Christian tradition.Alan Jacobs, “The Gospel of Life”
I see in this debate about Critical Race Theory a very real challenge for me, as a Latter-day Saint Christian, to draw less from the categories of American politics and more from scripture and my own tradition. In these debates, I am called to charitably discern the contours of real injustice, to feel deeply for the cause of those affected, to respond with conviction (and charity for my political opponents), and to witness genuine concern for the marginalized and vulnerable of all varieties; to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that [I] may be in” (Mosiah 18:9).
In the time of the Hebrew Prophets—and in the foundational scripture for Jews, Christians, and Latter-day Saints—there was always an overt concern to “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause”, to protect the poor (Isaiah 1:17, ESV); this was the triad of vulnerable populations in the ancient world, always on the mind of the prophets and those closest to God.
In our time, these same populations are present, but we have other vulnerable populations to protect, too. We are called today to protect the racially marginalized, the unborn, the domestically abused, the poor who cannot escape a life of constant and oppressive toil, the victims of anti-semitism, the lonely and alienated and lost. All of these populations are those who need our witness and care and concern. And even as the most vulnerable shift and change, the call is the same: to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17, ESV). If we believe that the terms of the debate are flawed, then fine: but we must not let “wokeness” or “critical race theory” turn us away from our duty to protect those who God has charged to protect, and to witness to His everlasting love for the weak and oppressed.
UPDATE: In the comments to Sam Brunson’s post, Michael Austin left a good overview of what Critical Race Theory is and the debate around it. I’ll be referring to this in the future.