Imagine that one group of people wanted to look at the layered and overlapping nature of racism in our country with issues of policing and economic realities, and another group of people used their platforms to warn their followers against this examination because of an obscure ancestor who’s nearly 200 year old political and economic theories were horribly misapplied a century ago to devastating consequences that enveloped the globe.
That is an actual scenario that is happening right now. There is a reckoning going on N. America about the legacy of racism and the ways that institutions and structures of power have been employed like overlapping gears in a machine to systemically (re)create and (re)enforce the layered injustice and inequality that has resulted from the legacy of settler colonialism and slavery. One node of this societal web is called Critical Race Theory (CRT) which examines interrelated issues, exposes hidden mechanisms of power, and advocates for change.
Many evangelical leaders, however, are warning their people against CRT for the most obscure reason: Marxism.
I want to be clear that cynical slur is being used as a dog-whistle. It is being employed to scare people because of the guilty by association nature of fear: communism, Soviet Russia, enemy during the cold war, Lenin & Stalin, secret police & the gulag = millions dead.
But you can read lots and lots of CRT (and Critical Whiteness Study) without ever encountering any Marx. It is such an odd objection and if it were sincere, and being brought up in good faith, I would want to be generous and irenic in addressing why it is such a big concern right now. It is, however, not sincere or being employed in good faith and I will not be addressing it as a legitimate concern.
So what is this claim of ‘Cultural Marxism’ why does it work?
First I want to tell you why it is ridiculous and then I want to tell you why there might be some utility in it.
Why it is silly to keep bringing up Marxism: an analogy
It is the equivalent of me wanting to use a cell phones and you constantly referencing Alexander Bell. First, a lot has changed since the early days of telephones. Secondly, I don’t care about Bell, I want to USE a cell phone.
You keep taking it back to history and want to focus on the early design of the rotary phone with its receiver, and land line, and how the cord used to tangle about itself, and the operator … Now all of that might be really interesting but I am not wanting to talk about the history of the phone – I want to use a cell phone.
It would be like if wanted to get a burger at McDonald’s and you got upset because in 1954 Ray Kroc started a hamburger stand in San Bernadino California and ‘you know about California!’ I could say:
- A lot has happened since then and McDonald’s is global now. Why do you keep bringing up California in the 50’s ?
- There are a lot of concerns about McDonald’s like how they get their beef and how they treat their workers … why do you keep bringing up Ray Kroc?
- I just want to eat a hamburger, I don’t have to know the history of hamburgers or the founder of the restaurant.
That is the equivalent of what is happening right now where those who want to employ (utilize) Critical Theory and specifically CRT and the evangelicals who are talking about Marxism and the Cold War. One group want to use a toolkit called CRT to address a real live situation presently happening in our moment and other group want to talk about origins and historic side effects of a remote influence on the field.
Like I have said before, this charge of Marxism is a cynical distraction technique that is not being employed in good faith. It is a scare tactic and a boogeyman.
Now having said that, “Is there any merit to addressing this?” and I think that there is.
So Marx influenced the Frankfurt School who popularized Critical Theory in the wake of WWII and this migrated and evolved over the next 40 years into Critical Race Theory which has in turn adapted and evolved greatly over the last 40 years including the integration of Foucault in the 80’s & 90’s and then eventually the insights related to intersectionality the multiple layers of overlapping and inter-acting levels of oppression and prejudice.
Here we have two important points to consider:
On one hand you have massive lineage of an entire field that has evolved and adapted over the past 80 years and so one might say ‘who cares about a guy who’s writing was influential on a bunch of guys who were influential in getting the ball rolling for a concept that eventually became this entirely different thing we are doing today?
BUT on the other hand – that language of oppression and alienation has a genealogy and legacy so maybe the origin is important because the DNA carries through the generations and influences and historical transformations, mutations, adjustments and counter-corrections. Maybe it is important how something gets started because your ancestors’ legacy lives through you today. Like it or not, you are product and a result of those who came before you. You have inherited their legacy and are a result of their actions and ideas, beliefs and decisions.
Let’s give this a little merit and see what aspects of Marx’s thoughts continue to influence or bear fruit in today’s Critical Race Theory.
If we can decouple the boogeyman of Marxism then we can see something that is really important. Cultural Marxism is a growing influence in N. America. (I would point you to several popular podcasts in Canada and the US) And
So I will openly say that Marx’s solutions were wrong. Their application was disastrous in totalitarian states. But that doesn’t mean that his diagnosis with the problems of industrialized capitalism were faulty. His critique still has teeth.
But that is, again, not the point. Because that is not the part of Marx that CRT is utilizing. Critical Race Theory employs the legacy of his concern about alienation, oppression, and disparity. It continues his concern for emancipation and liberation for working class people but has broadened that scope of concern advocate for the marginalized by exposing the mechanism and structures within the system that keep them the levers of power.
This, for me, is why it is so important to decouple CRT from the dog-whistle of Marxism because those who want to examine the structurated nature of race-relations in N. America and the intersectional aspects of race, gender, class, sexuality (and religion) are not utilizing the same part of Marx that led to communism, Soviet Russia, enemy during the cold war, Lenin & Stalin, secret police & the gulag = millions dead.
Now, admittedly, there are those who are currently employing Marx politically. No doubt. But that is why it is so important not let the specter of Marx be used as a scare tactic, dog-whistle, and boogeyman by evangelical leaders to scare people away from examining very real concerns about the structurated nature of race in this country.
Why are the evangelical leaders so concerned. Well I think that there is a lot of confusion within evangelicalism right now. There is a generational crisis with the loss of people like Billy Graham and the new attrition of their adult children. There is a political crisis with white evangelicals supporting Trump at oddly disproportionate rates. There is a economic crisis with many of their colleges and seminaries unable to sustain financial viability. There is a cultural crisis where their century old created sub-cultured has siloed so profoundly that it has become insular and fearful. There is an eschatological crisis where the much anticipated 2nd Coming of Christ appears to be waning in popularity and is compounded by the rapid loss of that generation that saw the founding of the nation of Israel as a major cornerstone in Biblical prophecy.
With all of that going on: generational, political, economic, cultural, and doctrinal – you don’t also want to be dealing with issues of race and racial disparity. Critical Race Theory and Postcolonial Theologies are an unwelcomed intrusion into your already unstable house.
That is my theory anyway. I could be wrong – maybe they are genuinely intimidated and a little naïve about CRT and are thus justified in their concern and sincerely confused.
 I often call Critical Race Theory a ‘toolkit’ that does 3 things: examines (or interrogates), exposes, and advocates. Admittedly, it is not neutral – it has an agenda: emancipation, liberation, and empowerment.
 It used to be a mark of pride that evangelical youth groups held onto a higher percentage of its kids, as compared to Liberal or Mainline congregations) as the teens graduated into their college & career phases. In the past 15 years however, the same attrition rate has plagued the evangelicals as their Mainline counterparts so that over 80% of young people either leave the faith or just stop participating in church.
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