The leaders, whose seminaries educate the next generation of clergy within the country’s largest Protestant denomination, agreed in a statement Monday that “Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory” is incompatible with their denomination’s core beliefs.
Critical race theory (CRT) is a lens through which some academics seek to understand how racism operates and continues to affect people of color. The theory grapples with the pervasiveness of white supremacy and white privilege in society.
The seminary leaders didn’t offer a definition of critical race theory in their statement, published by the official news service for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). They didn’t acknowledge that the analytical tools CRT has developed can be helpful in some instances, as fellow Southern Baptists affirmed in a denomination-wide resolution in 2019.
Instead, they decided to sweep the entire framework aside.
“No unbiblical ideology can solve the social issues that confront us,” said Daniel L. Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and current chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council of Seminary Presidents.
Professors at Southern Baptist seminaries are expected to abide by the Baptist Faith & Message (BFM), a statement of faith that summarizes the denomination’s core religious beliefs. It’s unclear how the presidents’ insistence that critical race theory is incompatible with the BFM would affect professors’ ability to teach their students about systemic racism.
It’s also unclear if Black Southern Baptists were involved in composing or reviewing the statement. All the signatories were white men.
A representative of Akin told HuffPost that he was unavailable to answer questions.
The seminary presidents’ stance has drawn criticism, including from William Dwight McKissic, a Black pastor who leads an SBC-affiliated church in Texas. McKissic suggested on Twitter that the presidents are denying the reality of “systemic injustice.”
He also pointed out the denomination’s leaders didn’t respond with a clear condemnation of President Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric.
Critical race theory is complex, and its boundaries and lineage are heavily debated even in scholarly circles that subscribe to this framework for approaching racism, according to Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” The way the presidents are wielding the term shows a lack of understanding of how scholarship works, Jones said. He suspects the presidents don’t have one cohesive definition for the theory.
“You might expect a facile use of the term from someone like Trump who is not an academic, but such intellectual clumsiness is shocking coming from presidents of academic institutions,” Jones told HuffPost.
Jones, who grew up Southern Baptist, believes the seminary presidents’ statement on the theory was motivated by a desire to align themselves and their institutions with Trump, who publicly denounced the theory during the 2020 presidential campaign.
“It is the clearest and most appalling case I’ve seen for how fealty to Trump is molding not just white evangelical politics but even theology and the training of a new generation of clergy in his image,” Jones said.
Critical race theory began coalescing in the 1970s as legal scholars contended with the fact that the civil rights victories of the previous decade had not eradicated racism. Racial epithets were no longer socially acceptable, and public facilities and schools weren’t legally allowed to be segregated ― and yet racism pervaded many facets of American life. In order to adequately understand and uproot racism, the scholars argued, they needed a new approach.
Although critical race theory has expanded as it has moved from the legal field into other disciplines, three central themes have emerged from this framework, according to Duane T. Loynes Sr., a scholar of race and religion at Rhodes College: that white supremacy has been built into American policies and institutions, that current inequities can’t be divorced from past discrimination, and that the voices and stories of people of color should be lifted up.
“Therefore, what is needed for true racial equity is not a putatively ‘impartial’ enforcement of already-poisoned laws but the transformation of U.S. society itself. In this regard, CRT functions not just as a framework but as a methodological commitment to eradicating white supremacy,” Loynes told HuffPost.
Another target of the seminary presidents’ ire, intersectionality, emerged from debates about critical race theory. It is an analytical tool that recognizes that people can be affected by multiple, overlapping systems of oppression, such as when a Black woman suffers discrimination based on her gender and on her race.
Most people who do racial justice work today would probably affirm the core principles of critical race theory, even if they do so implicitly, Loynes said.
The Southern Baptist Convention has a long, troubled history with racism. The denomination was formed in 1845 by a breakaway group of Baptists in the South who believed it was moral for Christian missionaries to own slaves. It took 150 years for SBC leadership to formally apologize for the denomination’s support of slavery. Although there has been some recent growth in the number of predominantly Black congregations in the SBC, the vast majority of Southern Baptists are white and Republican.
Southern Baptists often view racism as a personal sin, something that occurs when an individual acts in racist ways toward others. Like other white evangelicals, they have a much harder time seeing how racism influences structures and institutions ― and how it could require collective accountability.
“For someone to say sinful humans can construct unsinful or nonsinful structures and systems of government, politics, education, so on, that’s nonsense,” Akin told Religion News Service earlier this year.
This has real implications for how Southern Baptists approach efforts toward racial justice. In 2018, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, released a report detailing how its founders had “defended the righteousness of slaveholding.” But critics claimed the report didn’t promise substantive, structural changes. The school’s president, R. Albert Mohler Jr., denied a request from local interracial ministers for financial reparations.
After the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Southern Baptist leaders issued a statement grieving his death and lamenting how “some” officers “misuse” their authority ― failing to acknowledge that Floyd’s death could be part of a broader pattern of law enforcement officers disproportionately targeting Black Americans.
J.D. Greear, the Southern Baptist Convention’s current president, affirmed the seminary presidents’ statement when it came out on Monday. Later in the week, Greear acknowledged on Twitter that “some in our ranks inappropriately use the label of ‘CRT!’ to avoid legitimate questions or as a cudgel to dismiss any discussion of discrimination.” Nevertheless, he echoed the seminary presidents’ core argument that the gospel “gives a better analysis of the problem and a better answer” for racism than a secular theory like CRT.
But what is biblical or not biblical often depends on who is drawing the line. Loynes isn’t buying Southern Baptist leaders’ argument that critical race theory should be rejected because it is a “secular” ideology — since Southern Baptists like Akin have also rejected liberation theology, a movement that draws from the Bible to call for justice for the oppressed.
The seminary presidents’ condemnation of critical race theory and intersectionality reminded Loynes of a letter written by eight white Alabama clergymen in 1963 who didn’t like that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow activists were engaging in civil disobedience. The critique prompted King’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” in which the civil rights leader expressed disappointment with white church leaders who were committed to the status quo and “standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.”
“I would contend that ‘secular’ organizations and movements like Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, etc., have arisen in the vacuum largely created by the Church abdicating its role to pursue justice,” Loynes wrote. “Instead, the SBC — as King states — is standing as a taillight commenting on other (secular) groups that are doing the hard work of fighting for racial equity.”