We out!” Legend has it that this was the 20-something Harriet Tubman’s response to the impending family breakup planned by her Maryland slave master in 1849. Tubman bolted and headed north to become the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad.
On December 18, the black senior pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, Charlie Dates, invoked Tubman’s famous declaration to signal his and his congregations’ bolt from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), effective immediately. Amid a catalogue of complaints, Dates identifies the “final straw” of grievance: “all six of the SBC seminary presidents — without one black president or counter opinion among them — told the world that a high view of Scripture necessarily required a corresponding and total rejection of critical race theory (CRT) and intersectionality (CRT/I).”
Dates is not alone. Ralph West, pastor of the 9,000-plus member Church Without Walls in Houston, studied at and worked with Southwestern Seminary “in good faith,” and led his congregation to affiliate with the SBC. But that’s over now: “The statement on critical race theory and intersectionality has soiled that good faith. I cannot maintain my affiliation any longer … Nor will I associate with the SBC any longer.”
Megachurch pastor Fred Luter, the only African American to serve as president of the SBC, along with more than 200 others including many black pastors, signed “Justice, Repentance, and the SBC,” a milder but still threatening message to the SBC: “Future cooperation remains possible and preferred if we commit to biblical justice and repentance in the SBC. However, if these commitments are not upheld, then it will signal to many in the SBC that cooperation has already ceased to exist.”
The Limits of Tolerable Christian Un-Wokeness?
This interracial Baptist brouhaha marks at least a minor earthquake within the already fractious cultural landscape of America. Baptists and Baptistic non-denominational believers make up more than 20 percent of the population of the United States, by far the largest contingent of Protestants in the nation. The six Southern Baptist seminaries educate one-third of all theological students in North America.
Ostensibly, the precipitating cause of the upset lies not in a dispute over ancient core Christian teachings such as the doctrine of the trinity, the deity of Christ, or the authority of the Bible. Nor does the trouble stem from disagreement over the many moral questions generated by the rise of militant LGBTQ+ activism. All these disputants affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman, and all forbid sexual activity outside of that covenant bond. Baptists on both sides agree that the philosophical origins and development of Critical Theory (CT), including its CRT subset, is secular, not Christian, and advances certain ideas and modes of activism incompatible with Christianity.
The black pastors raise two objections to the November 30 statement by the six seminary presidents — white men talking about race does not sit well, and their critique of CRT and intersectionality is too sweeping and too negative. Marshal Ausberry, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Fairfax Station, Va., himself the siting first vice president of the SBC, notes that “the optics of six Anglo brothers meeting to discuss racism and other related issues without having ethnic representation in the room in 2020, at worst it looks like paternalism, at best insensitivity.” After enumerating fundamental Christian doctrines Baptists share, West asks, “How is this truth at all diminished by anything claimed in critical race theory or intersectionality?”
The Voice-Squelching Diversity Machine
Do West and the other black pastors fail to recognize that CT/CRT not only originated from and feeds on secular neo-Marxist and postmodern sources, but has developed into an unashamed and pronouncedly anti-Christian and anti-American ideology that nourishes the current cultural revolution afoot in America, including Black Lives Matter (BLM)? Though recently scrubbed from their website, for years BLM admitted their commitment “to disrupting the Western prescribed nuclear family structure requirement” and to “dismantle cis-gender privilege and uplift Black trans folk.” Founder of BLM Patrisse Cullors touts herself and fellow cofounders as “trained Marxists.”
James Lindsay details BLM’s hostility to the First, Fourth, Sixth, and 13th amendments to the Constitution. The late father of CRT Derrick Bell argued that the framers of the U.S. Constitution favored property rights over justice and that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) and generations of Americans of all colors treasured was driven by the interests of whites and harmed blacks. CRT cofounder Richard Delgado explains the disjunction between CRT and the legacy and vision of MLK: “Unlike traditional civil rights discourse … critical race theory questions the very foundation of the liberal order, including … legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”
What compatibility do West and Dates find between CRT and these words MLK penned in a Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell in 1963?
One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
MLK brandished the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights in the face of the nation he laid claim to as a native son within the shared and only home of whites and blacks situated between these two great oceans. BLM rejects the Judeo-Christian roots of Western civilization that nurtured MLK’s vision of what was great about and what was possible in America. The borderless, multicultural, male/female distinction-denying, Western civilization-hating, police-defunded, nuclear family-rejecting vision of the CRT-inspired revolution stands in profound contradistinction to the dream the Baptist preacher unveiled to a rapt nation on the National Mall a half century ago. Yet Dates and West jump to defend it.
Do the radical origins, development, and stated objectives of CRT guarantee that every syllable of its ideological output stands in utter contradiction to Christianity generally and the Southern Baptist Convention’s confessional standard in particular? Well, no. But given the deep and glaring contrast between the two, West’s and Dates’s hair-trigger protectiveness of CRT seem odd.
Are we to understand that the stunningly deep and wide theological and moral consensus shared by Baptists on both sides of the current rupture is insufficient to sustain Christian fellowship, ministry partnership, and gospel witness after all? It seems that the ever-ballyhooed “conversation on race” among them would suffice to shepherd these grown-up Baptists through disputes about a secular ideology and accommodate a bit of diversity of viewpoint about it. But perhaps not.
Dates, in the same statement, with apparent utter lack of self-awareness, first complains that he finds “no contrary opinion” among the six white seminary presidents and then smears blacks with contrary opinions about race as “tokens or assimilators.” The variously woke Baptist leaders of all colors talk incessantly about diversity and inclusion, but they don’t practice it.
For years, SBC-sponsored “conversations on race” have scrupulously shut out the un-woke voices Dates brands as sell-outs to stave off the charge of racism and make it possible for prospective students to think of the seminaries as, in the words of one seminary president, “more like Southwest Airlines. A happy place. A national brand.” If, like their counterparts in politics, academia, and Big Tech, CEO-like spiritual leaders major not in openness and genuine dialogue but in branding, rebranding, attempted narrative control, and contrived conversations, the perception that the Bible and theology might not serve as the touchstone of Baptist leadership gains traction.
It Takes Two to Converse
The underlying substantive division at work among evangelicals and Baptists that cries out for genuine dialogue is not between blacks and whites but between those who are woke on race and those who are not. A conversation that centers around the gospel and CRT is needed. But it almost never happens. I say “almost” because in 2019, at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, some of the repeatedly canceled, deplatformed, marginalized, castigated and ignored un-woke black and white voices gained a hearing in a conference on race.
The book that resulted, Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation, boasts authors white and black apart from whose voices no genuine conversation on race is possible. Included were black Southern Baptist, acclaimed author, and expert on white supremacy Carol M. Swain; the highly respected long-time community activist Robert L. Woodson Sr.; Alveda King; Derryck Green; Professor W. B. Allen; economist Glenn C. Loury; Jewish scholar Joshua Berman; professor and preacher-extraordinaire Robert Smith Jr.; and the founding Dean of Beeson, Baptist theologian Timothy George.
These co-authors represent a wide range of diverse viewpoints about race. All acknowledge that race relations in this nation are not even close to what they ought to be and that the church bears responsibility to speak into that issue. But many of them distinguish between race-related challenges and racism and deny that racism is a major problem in America. Some argue that the CRT-driven expansion of the definition of racism, fixation upon race, and the catastrophizing of race unnecessarily create and exacerbate racial tensions. A formidable but largely untapped un-woke Christian brain trust contends that the catastrophizing of race in CRT terms obscures and diverts attention away from a much more serious and threatening enemy of the gospel, the church, and the nation we share — namely the pronouncedly anti-Christian, anti-American, CT/CRT-inspired cultural revolution that foments division, riots, cancel culture, tribalism, and the destruction of the family. Why does BLM target the nuclear family Holy Scriptures tell us the creator established? Wilhelm Reich, whose name the 1968 revolutionaries of Paris and Berlin scrawled on walls in tribute, explains:
Morality’s aim is to produce acquiescent subjects who, despite distress and humiliation, are adjusted to the authoritarian order. Thus, the family is the authoritarian state in miniature, to which the child must learn to adapt himself as a preparation for the general social adjustment required of him later.
Any promising conversation on race must include participants whose priority is something other than the quest to somehow sanctify the infantilizing and divisive language of the CRT-generated lexicon, including micro-aggressions, trigger warnings, safe spaces, whiteness, social justice, systemic racism, white privilege, allyship, white fragility, diversity training, implicit bias, and intersectionality. In contemporary parlance, the meaning of every one of these terms is rooted not in the Bible, but in Christian-hating, America-hating, and Western civilization-hating CT and CRT.
Talk or Tantrums?
Atheist and expert opponent of CT/CRT James Lindsay recalls that during his former “old style” religion-hating phase, he and his atheist comrades recognized that nothing better insured the destruction of the church from within more certainly than its penetration by Critical Theories. Juxtapose that ominous insight with the ever more salient subtitle of Shelby Steele’s White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.
According to the great un-woke commentators on race, including Steele, Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, and the recently deceased Walter Williams, infantilization marks perhaps the most personal and insidious psychic consequence of the victim and grievance culture CT/CRT engenders and promotes. Thus, the micro-aggression perpetrated by a white student’s averted eyes from those of a CRT-infantilized black student on campus counts as proof of systemic racism, justifies outrage, and requires confessions of endemic white supremacy within exorbitantly expensive, institution-wide diversity training sessions. Now the “too-negative” white presidents’ assessment of anti-Christian CRT justifies reflexive appropriation of Tubman’s “We out” determination to flee slavery.
Where the moral ambiguity of such false equivalence obtains, it’s easy to see that a much-needed conversation is not happening, at least not yet. Any genuine conversation about race among Baptists and Americans generally will require far more truth, transparency, and inclusion of diverse viewpoints than has yet been seen. Will the seriousness of the current upheaval between Baptist leaders together with the stakes involved inspire in them the requisite sense of duty and courage to forge a path out of the mess they themselves have made? Those of us who look to them for the leadership they signed up for pray that it does.