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Why Critical Theory is Not (Merely) a Political Issue

Source: CNN

In the aftermath of George Floyd's tragic death in May 2020, groups mobilized all over the country to protest his killing. The major organization behind many of these protests, many of which were violent, is called Black Lives Matter. BLM came to the fore as an organization moving the political and cultural conversation in the United States around the issue of race, and critical race theory (hereafter CRT) became a central focus in political and cultural discourse in this country. It was clear from the start that the organization was not merely focused on protesting injustice against a particular group of people.

Cues from their "What We Believe" page indicated that a larger ideology drove the organization's philosophy and activism. Though that web page has since been taken down, one can find it archived elsewhere on the internet. It was clear that BLM intended to undermine key tenets of the foundation of Western civilization, including what it called "the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure." Yet, because of its innocuous name, to support the movement was conflated with supporting justice in American society, and some churches, like the one in the image above, showed their support.

I've discussed all of this already in other posts (see the posts in "Critical Theory and the Gospel"). So, why bring this up again? The reason is that, two years after the issue was at its hottest, controversies still loom among Christian institutions and denominations concerning the issue. Critical theory and CRT are still on people's minds, and, as things typically do, now the hot-button issue is transgenderism. Just to be clear, transgenderism still falls under the broader critical theory umbrella, as CRT does, but its specific formulations are different from CRT. For many Christians, it's much easier to see why transgenderism is unacceptable biblically and theologically than it is to see why they ought to reject CRT.

This is understandable for a number of reasons, not least because much of the cultural discourse around CRT has been, at best, misleading, if not outright deceptive. As I've already discussed in my post on intersectionality, scholars in these fields have seen each of these seemingly disparate cultural and political movements as parts of a broader ideology for decades. My hope for some time has been that, as Christians are educated about the underlying ideology that justifies these divergent cultural and political movements on the surface of American society, they will see that CRT is just as unacceptable as transgenderism, though for reasons that are not as easy to discern.

But now I've gotten this far into the blog post without stating my thesis or defining my terms. In this post, I want to address a somewhat common claim that otherwise orthodox, evangelical Christians will make concerning critical theory and CRT: that they are political issues about which Christians should not be concerned. Specifically, many Christians have claimed that if Christians were to become embroiled in these heated political debates, this would distract them from focusing on what's truly important: advancing the Kingdom of God by sharing Christ with others. I will argue that this claim is wrongheaded for two reasons: (1) it misunderstands critical theory, which makes claims that encroach upon theology and philosophy, not just politics; and (2) it misunderstands the deep interconnection between theology, culture, and politics. The latter is particularly important, as it seems that many evangelicals have a view of Christian theology so divided from culture that it makes no demands on how people live in public. In fact, devotion to Christ Jesus as Lord makes claims on all aspects of our lives, including our politics.

For this post, I will try to define my terms very carefully. This is important, as confusion reigns across the country as to what these terms signify. (If you'd like to read about critical theory in more detail, check out my series called "Deconstructing Critical Theory.") Defining critical theory and terms related to it can be difficult, so I'll try to be as precise and descriptive as I can. Since I can't focus on every subset of critical theory, I'll instead focus on CRT and queer theory for the purpose of this post. Here are the definitions:

  • Critical Theory: an ideology that sees human societies as divided between dialectically-opposed social groups, where the social groups in question are defined by socially-constructed group identities (e.g., white people and people of color or POC)

  • Critical Race Theory: a subset of critical theory that examines the nature of the oppression of white people against people of color on the basis of race, which is defined as a social construct; sees racism and slavery as America's "original sin"

  • Queer Theory: a subset of critical theory that sees oppression in terms of a dominant Judeo-Christian sexual ethic (described as "heteronormative") that is defined socially in either moral terms (as "good" or "holy") or psychological terms (as "healthy") over and against non-normative or unhealthy, transgressive sexual identities and practices; non-normative sexual identities and practices are oppressed because of their not being in line with the dominant Judeo-Christian sexual ethic; note: "LGBTQ community" is the social group defined by these identities and practices

  • Transgenderism: a set of claims about gender and sexuality that sees a distinction between sex, which is biological and binary, and gender, which is socially-constructed and exists as a spectrum; transgender persons have a non-normative gender identity, based on their subjective "sense" of gender, and thus are classed as an oppressed group under queer theory (as the "T" in the LGBTQ community)

These definitions will help to get us started, but I may have to define terms as new terms are introduced in the post. In the first section of this post, I will show why the claim that critical theory is a political issue with which Christians shouldn't get involved is a misunderstanding of critical theory.

Critical Theory, Christian Theology, and Philosophy

That critical theory is taken to be a mainly political issue is understandable, given then widespread political and cultural debate on the issue. In American politics, the debate has essentially broken down along partisan lines, with Republicans continuing to reference CRT, especially, while Democrats in general tend either to ignore it or downplay its influence in culture. For Christians, this can seem like yet another saga in the increasing political polarization in the United States, and many Christians understandably want to avoid being dragged into these cultural battles. For others, the terms "conservative" and "liberal" don't exactly map onto values that they think Christians should hold. To some, even to adopt these labels would compromise on their Christian identity in some way.

I am sympathetic to these concerns, especially the last one. I went through a lengthy period of prayer and thought through college about whether I would be compromising the gospel and my Christian witness in some way by adopting political or ideological labels to describe myself. I was especially wary of the way my "conservative" values would immediately make me Trump supporter in the eyes of some. That was a political label that, at the time, I had no interest being associated with. The point I'm making is that the political situation in the United States has thrown evangelical Christians into a situation in which their Christian convictions and public witness have to be negotiated in a very heated political landscape. Many Christians, I think, have opted to ignore critical theory because they want to ignore the whole political situation, and I get that.

That being said, I think that this perspective is wrong-headed, and showing that it is wrong-headed is the purpose of this post. For this section, I will start by examining critical theory itself. For many, it seems as if discussion on critical theory and CRT emerged out of a vacuum. It only became part of the public conversation recently with the death of George Floyd, and to many, it seemed like little more than a political cudgel. While I could understand this perspective, it was providential, I think, that I would be taking classes on aspects of critical theory and discussing it academically from 2016 to 2019. Critical theory might not have been part of the public conversation until recently, but it has been in public colleges and universities for decades.

The history of the development of critical theory is complex and involves the intersection of contingent historical circumstances and the history of philosophical thought. I've covered it on this blog in more detail elsewhere. Suffice it to say that critical theory developed as part of what was called "the Frankfurt School," a school of philosophical thought that was formed in 1929. Its main proponents were Marxists who were pondering why the economic situation of capitalism (the ruling class or bourgeoisie against the working class or proletariat) had failed to produce a single revolution in the Western world since Marx had first penned his ideas in the mid-1800's. In other words, the primary question that those in the Frankfurt School sought to answer was this: why had Marxism failed? But they did not answer this question by abandoning Marxism; rather, they sought to modify it.

Critical theory would come to modify what I call "classical Marxism" by arguing that the dialectic proposed by Marx along economic grounds was inadequate to explain the whole of the social situation in the West. Rather, there are multiple dialectics operating at once along cultural grounds to oppress certain groups of people. This development, which I call "cultural Marxism," began to divide society up along multiple types of oppressor/oppressed dynamics, including race, religion, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. If you've noticed in the past ten years or so several terms come about that seemed strange to you - terms like "ableism," "heteronormativity," "anti-racist," etc. - then you've noticed the proliferation of critical theory as it's trickled down from the academy.

As we relate critical theory to Christian theology and philosophy, it's important to note how critical theorists conceive of the individual and his or her place in society. Clearly, critical theory has political consequences. For instance, if critical theory ought to be adopted as the way to properly think about American society, then it has radical logical consequences for the distribution of wealth and other resources in the United States. But these political consequences emerge from deeper presuppositions concerning the nature of human persons. I'll highlight three of those presuppositions. First, the society constitutes the individual. Second, the individual's moral status is determined by his or her social position. Third, human nature doesn't exist as a stable concept. None of these three presuppositions are political in nature, though they have obvious political consequences.

First, the society constitutes the individual. What does this mean? Consider how old, white men are maligned in social media. If you look on Twitter or Facebook, you'll notice more liberal people making posts about how terrible old, white men are. The reason for this is that they assume that old, white men have a dominant position in society (think of Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump). This dominant position, in critical theory, is seen as evidence of the racist, sexist system that allowed old, white men to take those positions at the top of the social hierarchy. Therefore, men like Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are bad not because of anything they necessarily do as individuals but, rather, because of their social position and the characteristics that gave them the advantages that allowed them to rise to those positions.

For critical theorists, this is a typical way of thinking about the individual. The individual is thought of in terms of the characteristics (i.e., the group identities) that define his or her social position. Unique aspects of his or her beliefs or character are relatively irrelevant to where he or she is positioned within the hierarchy, and because of this, critical theorists tend to think of people in collectivist terms. I've had interactions before wherein my character was called into question entirely because of the light tone of my skin color, my gender, or my religious beliefs. That is because, on critical theory, these individual characteristics are merely markers for my social standing as an oppressor, no matter what my individual character is like.

Why is this point not merely political? Because, for Christians, the Bible gives us a radically different way of seeing the individual. Though this distinction is overly simplistic, it is helpful for seeing this difference:

  • Critical Theory: the society constitutes the individual

  • Christianity: the individual constitutes the society

Obviously, the society has some role in forming the individual. Just think of the vast cultural diversity in the world. But the Bible is clear that man and woman were first created and that it was their covenant relationship that became the foundation for societies (Genesis 1-2). When sin entered the world through Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, the social bonds formed by human beings in their familial and covenantal relationships quickly collapsed (see Cain and Abel, Genesis 4). So we see that the individual fundamentally precedes the formation of societies. This becomes easy to see when we consider how human psychology has affected the formation of societies in different ways, a point often made by the psychologist, Jordan Peterson.

The critical theorist way of seeing the individual also impacts how we get along in churches, a point underscored by how many churches have divided over the issue of critical theory. If our unity is not seen in light of the devotion to Christ each of us individually has, then we will quickly separate. Critical theory forms strife between individuals who have made a commitment to follow Jesus by encouraging them to see each other not as individuals, but as products of a social hierarchy. For this and other reasons, this presupposition of critical theory is grossly unbiblical and even dangerous to adopt in Christian theology.

Second, the individual's moral status is determined by his or her social position. This is closely related to the first presupposition critical theorists make about human individuals. Since one's position in the social hierarchy is determined by one's characteristics or group identity, and since that social position is defined normatively as oppressor or oppressed, then one's moral status is determined by that social position. Let's take two examples: Bob and Jacqueline. I'm going to list only certain characteristics of theirs that, according to critical theory, determines whether they are oppressor or oppressed:

  • Bob: white, male, cisgender (identifies with his own biological sex), Christian, able-bodied, wealthy, heterosexual

  • Jacqueline: black, female, transgender (nonbinary), atheist, disabled, poor, pansexual

You probably know where I'm going with this illustration. Clearly, in our society, Bob is seen as the prototypical oppressor, and Jacqueline most clearly the prototypical oppressed person. Yet you know virtually nothing about either person! That is, nothing unique about them. All you know is what they have in common with other people who are considered oppressor or oppressed under critical theory. Yet what critical theory asks you to do - demands that you do - is come to conclusions about their moral status on the basis of these lists alone.

Another distinction between critical theory can be drawn from this presupposition. It is similar to the one before:

  • Critical Theory: unjust society constitutes immoral individual

  • Christianity: immoral people constitute unjust societies

Again, this distinction, as it stands is obviously overly simplistic. Of course, it is consistent with Scripture to say that a society that openly supports injustice will form immoral individuals. But again, the individual is primary in Scripture, and it is clear that individual sin causes the collapse of good social structures (again, think of Cain and Abel and the structure of the family). This can be seen with surprising clarity in books such as Jeremiah, in which Jeremiah the prophet harshly criticizes the southern kingdom, Judah, for her sin and injustice. In one of the passages where Jeremiah criticizes Judah like this, he writes in Jeremiah 17:9 (NASB):

"The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?"

This verse, and the passage surrounding it, does not place the ultimate blame for injustice on social structures. It places the ultimate blame on the desperate wickedness of the human heart. The person who lives in total isolation from others, who can form no society or be part of one, is still so sinful that he or she would sin against others if he or she could.

Another example of the primacy of human sinfulness can be found in Romans 5. The whole passage is just a piece of Paul's larger argument concerning justification by faith, how it is that we are reckoned righteous by God by faith, apart from any works that we do. He draws a close parallel between the result of Adam's sin (i.e., the Fall) and Jesus' work to bring reconciliation with God through justification. In a passage that is somewhat fragmentary, as if Paul gets onto a rabbit trail as he is writing, we see how sin is universal in vv. 12-14 (NASB):

"Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not counted against anyone when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the violation committed by Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come."

Here, we see that after Adam sinned, sin spread like a cancer to all mankind, condemning all to death. Sin infects the human person, corrupting him or her by turning him or her away from his or her true purpose in an eternal relationship with God. Instead of reflecting God into the world because of the image of God, human beings perpetrate evil in all its manifestations, including in positions of power and influence over societies. Are we surprised, then, to see injustice socially? The individual does not need a particular social position in order to be condemned. He or she is condemned already.

The critical theorist's claim that moral status is determined by social position is antithetical to Christian theology in at least two ways. First, it wrongly diagnoses the sin of the "oppressor." Bob is a sinner because the cancer of sin lives in his heart, no matter whether or not he is part of the so-called "majority culture." Second, it ignores the sin of the "oppressed." The cancer of sin lives in Jacqueline, just like it does Bob, and she needs Christ for forgiveness and reconciliation just as much as Bob does. Because of this, critical theory, if adopted among Christians, affects the unity of the church as well as how we evangelize. It is not merely political.

Finally, human nature doesn't exist as a stable concept. Let's consider Bob and Jacqueline again. Look again at the list of their characteristics and ask yourself, "What do they have in common?" If the list is all you have to go on, then the answer is nothing. Yet you may think that, even if they have all of those differences, they are nonetheless both human beings. Wouldn't their humanity count as a thing that they have in common?

For critical theorists, not even humanity is something that they have in common, since this would imply a stable "thing," humanity, that they both have. This is where I have to get a bit technical, so bear with me. Critical theorists tend to blend a cultural Marxist ideology with a postmodern worldview. Postmodernism, as the name implies, is a reaction against everything associated with modernism. One major element of this reaction can be seen in linguistics, or the study of language. Think of a particular noun, say, "apple." On a traditional understanding of language, nouns like the word "apple" are signifiers for particular objects that exist. So if, say, there were an apple on my desk, then the word "apple," if invoked by me, would be a signifier for that apple in front of me. In this case, the actual apple on my desk would be the signified. Simplified, here is the distinction between signifier and signified:

  • Signifier: the word used to describe an object

  • Signified: the object described

Modern philosophy assumed an intrinsic relationship between signifier and signified. In other words, it assumed that words had objective meaning. Postmodernism denies this relationship, instead positing a free-floating world of signifiers, which themselves signify nothing intrinsically or objectively. Scholars who believed this would, for this reason, often refer to the process of producing meaning as "play." With nothing to attach language to something outside itself, language becomes self-contained and malleable. For critical theorists, the free-floating nature of language implies that it can be, and is, used to oppress marginalized people.

Once you realize that the notion of language as "play" has spread across popular culture, you can't "un-notice" it. It is virtually everywhere you look, especially in the LGBTQ community. Neopronouns, alternatives to traditional pronouns such as, for example, xe/xem/xyr, are examples of this kind of play with language. Some have even taken their statement of identity to express a wild sense of self-importance, as when I once heard someone on TikTok say that she identified as a goddess and request that she be worshiped for this reason.

Recently, the Daily Wire released a movie called What is a Woman? that brilliantly captured this postmodern understanding of language. Hosted by conservative commentator, Matt Walsh, it points to the inherent contradiction between supporting women's rights and not being able to define what a woman is. In the documentary, he asks several women at a women's march in Washington DC what a woman is, and all he gets are stunned looks. Several of interviewees in the documentary respond that a woman is whoever identifies as a woman, a clearly circular and inadequate answer. It leaves completely unsolved the problem of what to do if two people who identify as women give contradictory definitions. The fatal flaw here is that critical theorists want to have their cake and eat it too. One cannot defend something that isn't definable.

What does this have to do with human nature? If all concepts are socially-constructed and have no intrinsic relationship to a world outside themselves, then there can be no stable concept of anything, let alone human nature. While most people take for granted what a human being is ("It's that living being standing before me that looks like me"), it cannot be stably defined. This can be seen, for instance, in the abortion debate, as I've pointed out in another post. With abortion, the issue comes down to what counts as a human being, and then what counts as a human person. The important thing is to note that the philosophy of critical theory prohibits having a stable concept of human nature, meaning that Bob and Jacqueline truly have almost nothing in common.

Contrast this with the Christian perspective, which holds that all human beings, no matter their social position, are created in the image of God. This is the foundation for the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. When this is no respected, there is an objective basis for moral reproof. This has obvious political consequences, but the claim itself is anthropological (i.e., it concerns human nature), not political.

So, we can see that critical theory has at least three presuppositions that are not political in nature. All three presuppositions have serious consequences for we think of human nature, language, and ethical issues. Therefore, they encroach directly on Christian theological commitments. The kind of separation that some Christians want to accept between theology and politics is unwarranted. But I'm also concerned that this claim that Christians should not be concerned with critical theory because it is a political issue also betrays a misunderstanding of the deep connections between Christian convictions and all of life, including politics.

Politics and the Christian Worldview

Because of space, I can only make brief comments about this. My primary concern in this area is that many Christians are guilty of what I will call "compartmentalized thought." I mean by this the sort of thought that separates beliefs in one's structure of beliefs into different categories without recognizing the logical connections between beliefs in those categories. Evangelicals today will often say such things as "a pastor shouldn't preach on politics." I would agree that, as a general rule, a pastor shouldn't be partisan or support a particular candidate for public office from the pulpit, but certain Christian claims have logical consequences in politics.

The political consequences of Christian claims can be seen at the very heart of the Christian worldview. As I argued in another post, the gospel itself has political consequences in that when Jesus is proclaimed as Lord, this means that all human claims to authority must bow down to the authority of Jesus. This is made clear in Philippians 2:5-11 (NASB, emphasis mine):

"Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, as He already existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross. For this reason also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Yes, every knee. Including those of emperors and all other rulers. But other Christian claims are relevant for how Christians ought to think about politics. As the abortion debate suggests, how we (or rather, God) think about the human being, as created in God's image, ought to impact how we think of the unborn and whether they ought to be protected. Though it's not clear in every case what a Christian should think about a political issue, that there are some instances where Christian claims have consequences politically is enough to show that even if critical theory were merely political, that wouldn't entail that it was irrelevant for Christians to focus on and discuss.

I hope that Christians begin seeing this more clearly as critical theory becomes the cultural mainstream. More than once, I've met unbelievers who identified as LGBTQ or believed in the tenants of CRT and seen how it caused tension with my attempts to share the gospel with them. We need to be trained in addressing these issues if we're going to be faithful witnesses for Christ. If we find proponents of critical theory within our ranks, we need to, with clarity and Christian virtue, denounce the kind of syncretism that leads to Christianized critical theory. The consequences of Christianized critical theory are not merely political either. They separate the brethren and split churches. They lead to the acceptance of behavior that disobeys God and defiles the person. I still hold that critical theory is the apologetics issue of our day for this reason.

If you'd like to learn more about critical theory, please consider checking out more of my posts on the topic on this blog. You'll find plenty to read and think about!

That's it for this post! I hope that the content was edifying to you. If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!

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