by Neil Shenvi
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a framework used to conceptualize the interaction of race, law, and culture. It grew out of the Critical Legal Studies movement during the late 1980s, where it was shaped by legal scholars including Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, Charles Lawrence, and Richard Delgado. Since then, CRT has expanded well beyond its original environs. It entered education during the mid-1990s and now enjoys broad application in fields as diverse as health care, sociology, and theology.
As debates over the compatibility of Christianity and CRT continue to roil the evangelical church, a common refrain among some evangelicals is that we can “eat the meat and spit out the bones” of CRT. Unfortunately, few people go beyond this slogan to ask exactly what it implies or whether it is appropriate. In this essay, I’ll suggest four reasons we should be hesitant to employ this analogy.
The most common defense of “eating the meat and spitting out the bones” is the assertion that “all truth is God’s truth.” This observation is correct, but it cannot—by itself—justify “eat the meat” language with regard to CRT or anything else. After all, elements of truth can be found even in fundamentally corrupt ideologies. Would we tell Christians to “eat the meat and spit out the bones” of Porn Studies? Could we imagine Elijah encouraging the Israelites to mine Baalism for insight, or the Apostle John telling the early church to affirm the positive aspects of Gnosticism?
Even the most dangerous systems of thought get some things right. Indeed, it’s the admixture of lies with truth that makes the lies so potent and so deadly. Consequently, the “meat and bones” illustration is faulty, unless we are prepared to apply it consistently to everything from Queer Theory to eugenics. Whatever metaphor we use needs to convey the seriousness of the errors made by these ideologies.
A second common defense of the “eat the meat, spit out the bones” analogy is an appeal to areas of agreement between Christianity and CRT. For example, Christians who read large CRT anthologies are likely to find that sixty percent of the articles are—on their surface—unremarkable, that twenty percent are genuinely insightful, and that twenty percent are patently absurd or grossly unbiblical. Similarly, Christians sometimes argue that CRT and Christianity are compatible by focusing on obvious, shared affirmations like “race is a social construct” or “we ought to seek justice.”
However, we should not make too much of this merely superficial agreement. For example, it is quite possible to read books on parenting or leadership or time management by Mormon authors and to agree with nearly all that is said. In many cases, Mormons will even use words familiar to Christians, like “grace” or “salvation.” Yet beneath this superficial agreement lies deep theological disagreement. In the same way, superficial agreement is no reason to think that Christianity and CRT are fundamentally compatible, especially once you understand the semantic baggage that CRT proponents pack into words like “whiteness,” “equity,” or “justice.”
The key question in this discussion is not whether critical race theorists ever affirm anything that is true (they certainly do) or whether Christians can learn anything from reading the work of critical race theorists (we certainly can). The real question is whether the central tenets of CRT are compatible with a Christian worldview. While Christians who are friendly to CRT tend to define it nebulously, there is no shortage of CRT thinkers who have drawn up explicit lists of the “defining elements” of their discipline. For the sake of space, I’ll focus on one claim that shows up again and again: CRT insists that racism, sexism, and homophobia are all “interlocking systems of oppression” that must be fought simultaneously. Here are just a few examples:
Critical race theory works toward the end of eliminating racial oppression as part of the broader goal of ending all forms of oppression. Racial oppression is experienced by many in tandem with oppressions on grounds of gender, class, or sexual orientation. Critical race theory measures progress by a yardstick that looks to fundamental social transformation. The interests of all people of color necessarily require not just adjustments within the established hierarchies, but a challenge to hierarchy itself.
The intercentricity of race and racism with other forms of subordination [is a tenet of CRT].… CRT acknowledges the inextricable layers of racialized subordination based on gender, class, immigration status, surname, phenotype, accent and sexuality.
[CRT] insists that one cannot understand the inequalities within society if one fails to understand classism, sexism, religious intolerance, homophobia, transphobia, etc.
Note that “oppression” and “subordination” here do not refer primarily to “discrimination, violence, and cruelty,” but rather to the very existence of norms surrounding gender and sexuality that produce “social inequality.” This sentiment spans nearly three decades of CRT scholarship and is found in some of the very earliest texts (Words That Wound) written by the movement’s founders (Matsuda, Crenshaw, Lawrence, Delgado) just four years after its creation (1993).
This foundational element of CRT exposes the folly of thinking that it can be applied solely to race. Critical race theorists themselves will be the first to insist that CRT is necessarily embedded in a larger liberatory and revolutionary project. To the extent that you affirm complementarian theology or traditional sexual ethics, you must reject one of the core tenets of CRT. Moreover, this disagreement is merely a symptom of a much deeper underlying conflict in how Christianity and CRT conceptualize ideas like “justice,” “equality,” and “oppression.”
This single contradiction is enough to show how deep the disconnect between Christianity and CRT actually is. We need hardly go far into the culture or into the church before we see how embracing the ideas of CRT has led to the rapid abandonment of biblical teaching on gender and sexuality.
THE PROBLEM OF DISCERNMENT
One final problem with the “eat the meat and spit out the bones” analogy is its misguided assumption about the ability of many to exercise discernment on these topics. Handing DiAngelo’s White Fragility to an unprepared Christian and telling him to “eat the meat” is a bit like handing a basket of cyanide pills to your ten-year-old and telling him “there are four Skittles in there.” Ideally, Christians should have a familiarity with primary sources when engaging with contemporary issues. But there is a significant difference between recommending a book negatively as a prime example of unbiblical and toxic thinking that needs to be resisted and recommending it positively as a source of profound insight that needs to be embraced.
If Christians are insistent on using this slogan, they must specify exactly what supposed “meat” is to be found in these books and precisely which “bones” readers are likely to choke on. However, an entirely different approach is far more prudent: simply explain the “meat” on its own without any recourse to CRT. If common grace has allowed certain scholars to discover particular truths about race via the fundamentally flawed lens of CRT, then why not teach these truths directly, as they are discerned through general revelation and illuminated by Scripture? My fear is that vague sloganeering has, more often than not, allowed people to smuggle error into the church under the mantle of “plundering the Egyptians.”
We can and should tell the truth about the United States’ sordid racial past, about present-day discrimination, and about the unity we find in Christ without appealing to unbiblical frameworks. As Christians, we don’t have to choose between embracing racism or embracing CRT. We can and must reject both.
1 Gloria Ladson-Billings and William F. Tate, Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education, 97 Teachers College Record 47-68 (1995).
2 Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction 7-9 (1984).
3 See, e.g., Kimberlé Crenshaw et al., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement (1995); Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge (2013).
4 See, e.g., Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (2000).
5 Mari Matsuda et al., Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and The First Amendment 6-7 (1993).
6 Tara J. Yosso, Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth, 8 Race Ethnicity and Education 69, 73-74 (2005).
7 Khiara M. Bridges, Critical Race Theory: A Primer 14 (2019).
8 Among other things, DiAngelo insists that “a positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy.… I strive to be ‘less white.’ To be less white is to be less racially oppressive.” Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility 149-50 (2018).
Reprinted with permission. This article originally appeared in the Journal of Christian Legal Thoughts, v. 12, n. 1.
About The Author:
Dr. Neil Shenvi has a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry from UC Berkeley and an A.B. in chemistry from Princeton. He is a member of CFBU's Academic Advisory Council and homeschools his four children through Classical Conversations. He can be found on Twitter at @NeilShenvi. His extensive research on critical theory from a Christian worldview perspective can be found at www.shenviapologetics.com. He was a contributing author to Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan Academic, 2020), the author of Why Believe: A Reasoned Approach to Christianity (Crossway, 2021) and co-author of the book, Critical Dilemma.