This is the first in a series of opinion columns to be published over the next three weeks exploring Critical Race Theory.
Earlier this month, all six presidents of the seminaries controlled by the Southern Baptist Convention announced a total ban on Critical Race Theory, intersectionality and critical thought in their institutions of theological education.
Declaring that all faculty “must agree to teach in accordance with and not contrary to the (2000) Baptist Faith & Message,” these presidents then portrayed the strict adherence policy as a heroic means of holding firm against outside, “secular culture” and the “rising tide of theological compromise.”
As the final strike, they pronounced Critical Race Theory, intersectionality and “any version of Critical Theory” to be “incompatible” and therefore no longer allowed.
Their joint action shook me to the core. I know how much harm will come from enacting this policy. I am grieved by this power play, angered by the offense to the Black church traditions, and concerned for the future of the church.
I grew up in Louisville, Ky., in a Southern Baptist church. I’ve witnessed similar calls for submission to denominational leadership before. In the 1990s, appeals to “biblical inerrancy” and anti-feminism within Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, headed then by Al Mohler, culminated in the turnover of seminary faculty and the closure of the entire School of Social Work that had begun as the female training school for missions.
The drastic realignment of the seminary and strategic pressure from the denominational leadership affected local Baptist churches in Louisville as well. Seminary leadership pressed churches to agree and conform to their standards of doctrine. Some churches applied similar methods to turn over ministers and church leadership internally. Cooperation between Baptist congregations and other denominations became strained. Area ministries and mission organizations feared that the supportive, long-cultivated relationships they had for service, mission and evangelism could be severed forever if they did not fall in line.
These strategies were based in fear and propagated by the leadership to centralize their control over the denomination. The current statement by the Southern Baptist seminary leadership is a similar strategy to shore up power and exert influence over the denomination.
“They define faith as strict obedience in the face of a large threat.”
They define faith as strict obedience in the face of a large threat. There is little room for analysis and imagination in order to remain “compatible.” Al Mohler is an expert at this, having steered Southern Seminary this way for the past 27 years. He is now looking to take over the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Much like his personal endorsement of Donald Trump in late October, I believe Mohler will use this statement to build support among the Conservative Baptist Network, a sub-group within the SBC that has been calling loudly for the eviction of “CRT” as deceptive and evil ideology and expressing its “commitment to seeing the SBC function biblically.”
As long as these are the strategies of leadership, the SBC power structure will not be a voluntary association of local churches. It is a hierarchy that wants centralized control over what can be interpreted as “biblical” and “faithful.”
Critical theory, including intersectionality and Critical Race Theory, expose this control structure within the institution. Most critical theorists denounce hierarchy, and this threatens the denominational leadership’s chief position to pronounce the faith so that others might obey.
I am grieved anew that once again the Southern Baptist churches and seminary in Louisville, and across America, will most likely endure another round of this strategy of raising fears and testing loyalties so that the hierarchy can secure itself for the next decade.
I am also angry. The SBC presidents’ ban of CRT, intersectionality and critical theory is also unequivocally racialized.
“There is no mistaking the rejection of Black experience, Black leadership and the Black community in their words.”
When these seminary presidents lambast CRT and intersectionality as “unbiblical ideology” and denounce anything outside their purview of “biblical justice” as antithetical to Scripture, there is no mistaking the rejection of Black experience, Black leadership and the Black community in their words. For hundreds of years, Black leaders and Black community members have testified and written about the racism embedded within American culture. They have researched the racial inequality embedded within political, economic, educational and religious institutions. Their resistance to racism profoundly shapes their worship, and their theology deeply informs their calls for justice. Their leaders — from Sojourner Truth to Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells to Martin Luther King Jr. to James Cone — have decried both the structural and personal forms of racism as sin through powerful interpretations of the prophets and the Gospels.
Not all CRT, intersectionality and critical theorists work within the bounds of the Christian faith, but many do. Today, Black and Womanist theologians and biblical scholars draw upon these historical leaders as forebearers of their work. They develop and engage in their own critical race theory and intersectional theory as they continue to press forward with interpretations of the Bible that continue their tradition of following God and striving toward freedom.
The SBC presidents, by refusing to outline and describe the theories they reject, have opened the door to exclude this entire arena of rich biblical interpretation, theology and Christian history. Many have decried James Cone lately for his “unbiblical” teachings; will they cast out the radical Dr. King as well?
The presidents’ ban of CRT has immediate ramifications for the cities in which these seminaries are located. Louisville, for example, has been wracked by the traumatic and unjust death of Breonna Taylor earlier this year. The presidents’ statement is oblivious to the citywide protest and activism occurring in Louisville.
Banning engagement with critical race theories, practically speaking, effectively denounces and restricts any involvement with justice work taking aim at eradicating racism embedded in the law, the courtroom, the government and the church. That Al Mohler would make such a public show of denouncing CRT is a signal to Black neighborhoods like West Louisville that their churches and their people are not valued. It is a clear sign of the seminary presidents’ allegiance to white supremacy within the SBC hierarchy.
Above all, I worry for the future. The main purpose of the seminary is to train future church ministers, missionaries and other church leaders, and the presidents’ ban of critical theories is an ominous harbinger of the hierarchical nature and white supremacy in the SBC and its churches for decades to come. When seminaries refuse critical analysis and methods like CRT and intersectionality, they engage in destructive negligence. Such refusal freezes the journey of faith, diverts the search for God and warps discernment of God’s reign.
“I cannot imagine teaching for the sake and flourishing of the church without critical thinking and critical theory.”
As a seminary professor, I am committed to the education and preparation of our students for a life of faith and ministry work, whether in the church or the world. I cannot imagine teaching for the sake and flourishing of the church without critical thinking and critical theory.
In my descriptions above, these methods help make sense of disorienting conflict in the SBC and expose white supremacy within its call to obey to a strict rule of faith. They challenge me, a white woman, to understand how and when I rely on racist structures and white supremacy, and also they undergird my search for equality and humanity as a woman.
These theories are not the whole of any seminary education, and they can be argued with or countered. I do not expect anyone to adhere to them wholeheartedly, but there must be freedom to engage with these critical theories because they help my students see their faith and their world in the largest, most complex way.
In missiology, this expansion of vision is the first step in discerning the signs and the times. We live in a new century and in a world of global Christianity. Now is our chance to dismantle racism and enlarge our capacity for cross-cultural fellowship. Now is the time to step out of or reform institutional structures that do not value all of the persons within the faith. Now is the time, and we must engage in critical thought within our seminaries and our congregations as we go.
Laura Levens serves as assistant professor of Christian mission at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. She earned a doctor of theology degree from Duke University Divinity School and is ordained within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She lives in Lexington, Ky., with her husband and two children.