Critical race theory (CRT) provides a way to think about the intersection of politics, law, racism and religion. Applying CRT to political theology highlights epistemic racism and the ways whiteness is central to the interpretation, theorization, and understanding of religious and political phenomena. CRT is a framework or an approach to understanding the way racism is foundational to systems of judicial, political, social, cultural, religious, and theological power. Rooted in movements for social change in the 1960s and 70s, the term critical race theory was defined by a group of civil rights activists and lawyers who later became legal scholars in the 1980s. CRT described systemic racial inequalities in the judicial system that resisted liberal reform measures. Scholars were looking for a way to explain why grassroots activism and civil rights legislation could not effectively end systemic racism. According to Glenn Bracy there are six core tenants, which define critical race theory: 1) race is socially constructed, which means it is not biological, 2) racism is a normal outcome of US institutions and social relations, 3) people exist at the intersection of multiple identities and vectors of oppression, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality, 4) Racism functions on a Black and white binary logic, which impacts racial groups differently in terms of their approximation to whiteness or Blackness, 5) racism is permanent because white identity is fixated on anti-Blackness, 6) a narrative commitment to the analysis that racism animates everything, including the law.
Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw argues that CRT proposes a way to account for systemic racism in laws and policies by providing a framework to name pre-existing phenomena (George 2021).
In an interview with the New York Times on the topic, Crenshaw says, “C.R.T. is more of a verb than a noun… It is a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced… the ways that racial inequality is facilitated, and the ways that our history has created these inequalities that now can be almost effortlessly reproduced unless we attend to the existence of these inequalities.” Another early intellectual contributor to CRT, Mari Matsuda, explains, “For me…critical race theory is a method that takes the lived experience of racism seriously, using history and social reality to explain how racism operates in American law and culture, toward the end of eliminating the harmful effects of racism and bringing about a just and healthy world for all” (Fortin 2021). Author of Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, Derrick Bell, argues that racism was a permanent facet of American democracy. Quoting Jennifer Hochschild, he writes:
[T]he continued viability of racism demonstrates “that racism is not simply an excrescence on a fundamentally healthy liberal democratic body, but is part of what shapes and energizes the body.” Under this view, “liberal democracy and racism in the United States are historically, even inherently, reinforcing; American society as we know it exists only because of its foundation in racially based slavery, and it thrives only because racial discrimination continued. The apparent anomaly is an actual symbiosis” (10).
Bell argues that racism is a functional tool that can be weaponized to roll back the gains of Civil Rights legislation during periods of economic austerity and political instability. Bell’s 1992 thesis is sustained with recent legislative bans against critical race theory, Nobel Peace Prize-winning books, math text books, culturally responsive education, and diversity and inclusion policies during a time of rising white supremacist terrorism.
Despite well-funded and well-legislated attempts to popularize notions that “equity for all people” spells disadvantage for white people or teaches that white people are inherently racist, CRT emphasizes that racism is a structure of thought that undergirds all facets of society. This structure systematically and disproportionately harms people racialized as Black, Native, Asian and Latinx. It does not teach that one race is superior over another or suggest that anyone is inherently racist. CRT diagnoses the problem of systemic racism and generates solutions by advancing systemic equity (Crenshaw et al. 1996).
CRT allows us to rectify racial inequities in political theology. Cultural critic Sylvia Wynter argues that the subjective understandings or tacit knowledges developed to help make sense of our empirical realities must be questioned. For Wynter, Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage marked the epistemic shift that introduced what she terms a new “descriptive statement of the human,” because Columbus moved outside of the subjective categories known to Europe. By making this move, his voyage and subsequent actions ushered in new ideas like global European imperialism, racial slavery, racial capitalism, and the dehumanization of people not fitting under the rubric of white bourgeois Christian, property-owning hetero cis-masculinity, which became the measure of prototypic humanity in the West. In order to decenter white masculinity as the measure of humanity and Europe as the center of knowledge, we must commit to using critical race theory as an approach to episteme.
To my knowledge, the term critical race theory is currently not a key term in political theology and Religious Studies, but it should be. Critical race theory is a critical framework for Religious Studies and political theology because many of the early founding CRT scholars, like Derrick Bell, had religion in mind when formulating the term. In his last article, “Law as a Religion,” Derrick Bell (2018) wrote that law has not ended injustice, but in many cases has perpetuated it and the value that religion places on life has not cured genocide, but has in many cases provided the rationale for it. Therefore, the value placed on law and religion as arbiters of morality and justice are misplaced. He wrote, “Law and religion are each ultimately about belief systems—systems that require faith notwithstanding reason, evidence, and experience… Our history of racism, our national belief system, shows that it trumps both law and religion in that racial hierarchy persists notwithstanding religious precepts or legal reforms promising otherwise” (11).
Conducting a brilliant review of the history of critical race theory and religion in his article, “The Spirit of Critical Race Theory,” Glenn Bracy writes,
“Race, law, religion, and spirituality need to be of primary concern to critical race theorists because a complete critique of U.S. law must account for how religion—specifically Protestant Christianity—is implicit in the nation’s founding legal documents and undergirds much jurisprudence. Whites often used religiosity to justify spiritual claims (e.g., that people of color did not have souls) with legal consequences (e.g., whites could possess nonwhites’ land).”
As Bracey argues, the founding legal documents shaping the architecture of the United States, are mired in religious justifications of racist laws and policies. Even though this history is well documented, there remain scholars in religious studies and political theology that are unconvinced that racism is so central to the field. To this school of thought, I argue the Holocaust is an example of teaching CRT because in order to understand the genocide against Jewish people in the mid-20th century, we must understand that laws passed in Germany were partially based on the history of Eugenics, the state-sanctioned genocide against Native Americans, and legalized racial segregation in the United States. Legal scholar James Q. Whitman argues,
The Nazis were never interested in simply replicating the United States in Central Europe. Nevertheless, Nazi lawyers regarded America, not without reason, as the innovator and the world leader in the creation of racist law; and while they saw much to deplore, they also saw much to emulate. It is even possible, indeed likely, that the Nuremberg Laws themselves reflect direct American influence (Whitman 2017, 5).
Germans perfected their torture and mass murder techniques in the 1904-1908 Herero and Nama genocide in Namibia before taking that expertise to Germany and other places in Europe. Racism against Africans, African-Americans, and Native Americans directly influenced antisemitic action in Nazi Germany. CRT helps identify antisemitism as fortified by racism that was foundational to the judicial, social, political, and cultural systems in Nazi Germany. Fundamentally, CRT allows us to identify the ways histories of racism are connected and offers solutions to ensure these harms are never repeated. CRT provides opportunities to learn about historical facts, exchange ideas, engage in critical thinking, and innovate equitable and sustainable futures.
Even though some institutions and individuals were galvanized to make symbolic pledges to end racism in the summer of 2020, the backlash against these moves has been swift and legislative. Those committed to the permanence of racism as a facet of US democracy have embarked on well-funded legislative campaigns to outlaw CRT. Journalist Sarah Schwartz writes, “Since January 2021, 42 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. Seventeen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues.” The vast legislative power eroding the practice of academic freedom, curtailing the possibility of critical inquiry, and privileging disinformation, underscores the urgency of using critical race theory as a lens for envisioning and building the foundational pillars of democracy.
Legislation against CRT harms all of us, regardless of race, class, sex, or religious and political affiliation. Working at the intersections of religion, race, and politics, a number of scholars are analyzing systemic racism as foundational to religious practices and curtailing religious freedom. Stephen C. Finley, Biko Mandela Gray, and Lori Latrice Martin’s anthology, The Religion of White Rage: White Worker, Religious Fervor, and the Myth of Black Racial Progress (2020), argues that white rage itself becomes a religion when using Charles Long’s definition of religion as an ultimate orientation. Combining this notion of whiteness as the center of epistemology with critical affect theory, which interrogates the normativity of white feelings, the authors identify white rage as a religious orientation that threatens our ability to recognize the humanity of Black and Brown people. In her book, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (2021), Anthea Butler makes a similar argument, identifying racism as a tenet of white evangelical theology. In fact, she argues that because racism was such a focal point of white evangelicalism, lynching Black people became part of performing religious obligation. In her book, Banning Black Gods: Law and Religions of the African Diaspora (2021), Danielle Boaz uses the criminalization of practitioners of Africana Religious traditions combined with anti-Black racism to define the Brazilian based term “religious racism.” She explains that “discrimination against African-based religions is more than mere prejudice against a faith or group of faiths; it is the intersection of religious intolerance and racism” (2). CRT enables political theology to foreground the systemic and pervasive ways Africana religious practitioners have been criminalized globally through judicial systems.
This scholarship has serious implications for the ability to interpret social phenomena. Many were surprised by the U.S. white supremacist insurrection of January 6, but attending to the work of scholars like Crenshaw, Bell, Matsuda, Bracey, Finley et al., Butler, and Boaz illuminates the volatility of white supremacy. Like the work of Liberation theology, Black power theology, womanist theology, and others, CRT will help the discipline of political theology be poised to diagnose and assist in implementing solutions gifted by brave scholars who have chosen to chart a path outside of a white epistemic center.
CRT teaches that the very category of race is socially, politically, legally, and economically constructed – not biological. If race is not biological, it means that a world where racism does not exist is possible. If critical race theory becomes a central lens for thinking about political theology, it can inaugurate healing from epistemic harm and invoke the will needed to chart new epistemological coordinates that center the marginalized global majority and advance equitable futures.
An, Yountae and Eleanor Craig. Beyond Man: Race, Coloniality, and Philosophy of Religion. Duke University Press. 2021.
This edited volume discusses the need to decolonize the philosophy of religion through an analysis of its colonial and racial origins.
Boaz, Danielle. Banning Black Gods: Law and Religions of the African Diaspora. Penn State University Press. 2021.
This book discusses the persistent criminalization of Africana religions globally because they are not included in many legal definitions of religion internationally.
Butler, Anthea. White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. The University of North Carolina. 2021.
This book centers the ways slavery was central to the belief systems of white evangelicals and that even after slavery was abolished, racism became foundational to their faith.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, Kendall Thomas. Critical Race Theory: Kew Writings that formed the Movement. The New Press. 1996.
This volume brings together central writings in the field of CRT.
Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power, 50th Anniversary Edition. ORBIS. 2019.
This book argues that Black power is foundational to the development of moral Christian theology.
Finley, Stephen C. Biko Mandela Gray and Lori Latrice Martin. The Religion of White Rage: White Worker, Religious Fervor, and the Myth of Black Racial Progress. Edinburgh University Press.2020.
This book argues that whiteness becomes a religious orientation through the codification of white supremacy as the social center.
Long, Charles. Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. The Davies Group Publishers; 2nd edition. 1999.
This book argues that the human center in religious studies is white, and this undermines the construction of comprehensive knowledge in the field.
Townes, Emilie M. Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. Palgrave Macmillan. 2007.
This book argues that Black women develop ethical and moral practices for navigating the evil of white supremacy.
Whitman, James Q. Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton University Press. 2017.
This book argues that Nazi Germany utilized eugenics theory, Jim Crow laws, and genocide in the U.S. to develop legal and social logics as justifications for the Holocaust.
Wynter, Sylvia. (1995). “1492: A New world view.” In V.L. Hyatt & R. M. Nettleford (Eds.), Race, discourse, and the origin of the Americas: A new world view (pp. 5-570.) Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. Doi: 10.1086/ahr/102.3.875.
This article argues that 1492 marks the epistemic shift that led to racism, imperialism and colonialism as central to modernity.
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