Evangelicals do battle with "critical race theory" in new online video course

Focus on the Family series defines racism as individual sin, says CRT is "contrary to the truth of God's word"

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published January 15, 2022 8:00AM (EST)

The Placentia Yorba Linda School Board discusses a proposed resolution to ban teaching critical race theory in schools.  (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
The Placentia Yorba Linda School Board discusses a proposed resolution to ban teaching critical race theory in schools. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

​​In the right's all-hands-on-deck crusade against "critical race theory," there's a job for everyone: movement intellectuals and keyboard warriors, school board brawlers and politicians — from Congress to the governors' mansions down to the new class of local right-wing bureaucrats eager to link student test scores to faculty demographics. So it's no surprise that there's a role for church folks as well. 

This week, Focus on the Family — the behemoth Christian-right ministry founded by James Dobson, with some 650 employees, its own zip code and an estimated worldwide audience of 200 million — did its part, asking followers to sign up for its free online course teaching parents how to "empower" their families to "face CRT." 

The course consists of five videos, hosted by FOF vice president of parenting and youth Danny Huerta, speaking with a handful of evangelical leaders: the Hoover Institution's Shelby Steele; John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview; and Carol Swain, co-author of the 2021 book "Black Eye for America: How Critical Race Theory Is Burning Down the House." 

RELATED: "Critical race theory" is a fairytale — but America's monsters are real

After each video, viewers are directed, school workbook-style, to a series of additional tasks. First, to meditate on selected Bible verses ("There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free…") Second, to consider a series of deceptively neutral discussion prompts: "How do you think Critical Race Theory creates confusion, especially among children?" "What is dangerous about people viewing themselves as victims or using shame and moral manipulation to get what they want?" Or, most blatantly, "After viewing this video course, do you have a better understanding of Critical Race Theory and how it is contrary to the truth of God's Word?" 

On the whole, it's a gentler approach than most of the discourse around CRT this past year  —  framed more like a public service announcement than the threats to unseat the local school board, perhaps with violence, that proliferated last summer and fall. But the message is largely the same, as Huerta and his guests cover a number of religiously-inflected but familiar critiques: CRT "places what it means to be human only in the context of race"; "God only created one race: the human race"; any white child who balks at being called an oppressor is "plac[ing] a target on themselves" (a charge illustrated in the videos by a picture of a white boy getting roughed up by two Black boys); and the promise that "America's victorious struggle with its imperfections" regarding racial equality mirrors the gospel's message of redemption. 

But some bigger themes from the videos shed light on how conservative evangelical institutions are grappling with debates about race today. First, there is the foundational presumption that racism is real, but a matter of individual sin. Second, the idea that critical race theory isn't just incorrect, but constitutes an alternative, "destructive" and "twisted" worldview, contrary to the one Christians should follow.  

"The idea of racism as individual sin is a hallmark of evangelicalism," said Anthea Butler, chair of the University of Pennsylvania's religion department and author of the 2021 book "White Evangelical Racism." In the book, she elaborates: "Sin for evangelicals is always personal, not corporate, and God is always available to forgive deserving individuals, particularly if they're white men. The sin of racism, too, can be swept away with an event or a confession. Rarely do evangelicals admit to a need for restitution." 

In November, Swain made just that case, when she spoke at the highbrow National Conservatism conference in Florida that drew together several hundred right-wing intellectuals. As one of a small handful of nonwhite speakers, Swain called CRT not just "anti-American" but "anti-Christian" as well, lamenting that a number of "churches that consider themselves woke" had embraced it. Among them, she said, was her own denomination, the 16 million member Southern Baptist Convention, which last June was wracked by a bitter, potentially schismatic debate over whether to pass a resolution condemning CRT. 

"We have so many woke members of [the SBC]. And when I think of Southern Baptists, the main thing I remember is apology after apology after apology — for slavery, for even existing," said Swain, referencing steps that the denomination, originally founded to defend the right to own slaves, has taken in recent decades to acknowledge its checkered history. "And what that tells me is that Southern Baptist Convention leadership doesn't understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus died on the cross once for our past, present and future sins. Racism is a sin. And you don't have to continually apologize."

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As pastor and professor Andre E. Johnson wrote last spring, evangelical attacks on CRT predate the current fight, which is widely credited to Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo alone. Evangelical heavyweights like John MacArthur condemned the idea that "the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching." 

"[B]y the time Rufo began learning how to manipulate CRT for political gain, white evangelicals in churches across the country were already setting the stage," Johnson wrote. "[I]n the hands of white evangelicals CRT isn't just an academic theory, it's a worldly ideology of evil that people of faith should oppose. Thus, for better or for worse, those of us who teach CRT and Intersectionality will now have to contend with those who would bring their faith presuppositions to class."

One of the chief complaints among the Southern Baptists' anti-CRT faction, said Daniel Eppley, a religious studies professor at Thiel College who has followed this debate, is that CRT "redefines" racism as something other than "personal animosity towards another based on race." 

"In their view, racism is only thinking badly of another person because of their race," Eppley said. "If you can look in your heart and honestly affirm, 'I don't think badly of people because of their race,' then you're not part of the problem of racism. Which is to say that structural racism either doesn't exist, doesn't matter or isn't something you can do anything about. That's very similar to the way that an earlier fundamentalist evangelical leader, Bob Jones Sr., presented his opposition to desegregation in the 1960s. He denied seeing one race as inferior to another, but he believed the races had to be kept separate. So his solution to racism was basically, 'Love your Black neighbor,' even as he's convinced, based on his reading of this particular passage from the Bible, that segregation is God's will."

Ultimately, the Southern Baptists voted for a resolution that didn't specifically call out CRT but disavowed "any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic." 

The term "worldview" was also invoked repeatedly in FOF's anti-CRT lessons, as in one post-video discussion prompt: "Why is Critical Race Theory really a worldview issue?" 

That language is ubiquitous in modern conservative American Christianity, as journalist and historian of American religion Molly Worthen has observed. Within the evangelical realm, Christian media outlets promise to instill or reinforce a "biblical worldview." Christian universities emblazon the term on the side of campus buildings. Young people within the evangelical movement attend sleep-away "Worldview Weekend" conferences. 

In its most basic and good-faith definition, according to Jacob Alan Cook, a professor at Wake Forest University's divinity school and author of the 2021 book "Worldview Theory, Whiteness and the Future of Evangelical Faith," the concept of a biblical worldview goes like this: "If the Bible is what we say it is, then we should be able to logically extend its truths to encompass most important things, and most moral matters should have a logical connection with the core of this thing we believe in."  In reality, he continued, "worldview theory" carries with it a lot of "extra-biblical" baggage that's been fused onto conservative evangelical doctrine, making things like capitalism, Christian nationalism or, in decades past, segregation, seem like matters of faith.

What this amounts to, Cook said, is an evangelical way of saying, "Everyone else has ideology, but we have the truth." In that context, it becomes "really hard to challenge this stuff from within" the faith, he observes, where a biblical worldview can function like "alternative facts" or a closed epistemological door.

That's exactly the message Focus on the Family's Huerta expresses, telling viewers, "Let's not enter this discussion on CRT out of fear, but with boldness: that we've got God's word and that's the answer to this." 

Read more on the political battle over "critical race theory":

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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Christianity Critical Race Theory Evangelicals Focus On The Family Racism Religion Reporting