Yes, the Social Justice Movement Is a Threat to Evangelicals
Thabiti Anyabwile, has written an article at The Gospel Coalition interacting with and challenging statements I made in a short talk delivered at CPAC earlier this year. He contacted me first and asked if he had understood me properly. I am grateful for that. It is obvious that he and I disagree on the issues at hand. I appreciate his taking my words so seriously and I take no offense in what he has written. In this article I offer a brief response in hopes of clarifying my reasons for ongoing concerns about the social justice movement and the impact it is having on many within the evangelical community.
Thabiti calls attention to two examples that I gave as evidence that Christians are being influenced by godless ideologies, notably, the ideologies of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Intersectionality (IS) as they developed out of Cultural Marxism.
The first point of his critique is my citation of an interview with Dr. Jarvis Williams, a New Testament professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In that interview Dr. Williams recommends a book on CRT that he wishes “every evangelical Christian would read.” Thabiti quotes me citing this recommendation and then writes,
That book recommendation is enough in Tom’s mind to associate Jarvis with a Satan-inspired incursion of worldly ideologies shifting people away from biblical truth. It’s a heavy charge.
But it wasn’t a mere book recommendation. It was a recommendation that every evangelical read the book with a rationale given. Williams recommends Richard Delgado’s & Jean Stefancic’s book, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, by calling it “a necessary book because evangelicals still tend to be decades behind on critical race discussions.” He also lists it as one of the books that have “most shaped” his understanding of racial justice.
This enthusiastic recommendation of a book that he says has been most influential in his understanding of racial justice makes Anyabwile’s following critique ring hollow:
Jarvis is a committed scholar. What do scholars do? They read, write and recommend books. It’s their craft, their stock and trade. And what would a good scholar do if they wished to critically engage others on a topic? They would read the works of people who differ from them, who sometimes differ dramatically. And what would a good scholar do if they wanted to encourage their audience to understand the other side’s viewpoint? They would recommend important texts illustrating the other side’s viewpoint. That’s what scholars do. But recommending a book that characterizes a viewpoint does not at all make Jarvis a proponent of that viewpoint or anything sub- or anti-biblical. Chastising a book recommendation is closer to censorship than evidence.
For the record, I was not “chastising a book recommendation.” I was citing Dr. Williams’ enthusiastic recommendation of the book (as one of the most influential shapers of his own views on “racial justice”) as evidence indicating how godless ideologies are creeping into Southern Baptist life.
To be clear let me spell it out in a simpler way:
- Concern: Godless ideologies spawned by Cultural Marxism are infiltrating the SBC.
- Evidence: Richard Delgado’s & Jean Stefancic’s book, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, is enthusiastically recommended to all evangelicals by a prominent professor (a “committed” and “good scholar”) at a leading SBC seminary as one of the books that has most helped him understand racial justice.
If Delgado’s and Stefancic’s book advocates looking at racial justice through ideological lenses that come from Marxism, which the authors readily admit (see page 4 where they stated the indebtedness of CRT to radical feminism, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and the deconstructionist, post-modern, philosopher, Jacques Derrida), then it stands to reason that anyone who has been shaped by that book and enthusiastically recommends it as a “necessary” book is doing so for reasons other than merely “illustrating the other side’s viewpoint.” I am not sure how raising a concern about this can be confused with censorship.
Thabiti summarizes his dismissal of my concern by stating,
Nor does Jarvis’ book recommendation suggest, as Tom contends, that evangelical institutions are about to be overrun by godless pagan philosophy. Mature readers and scholars read widely. That should be true of every seminarian. It’s true of Jarvis and he should not be branded a “social justice warrior” or accused of “smuggling in” CRT because of it….
That a man so committed to the Bible, rooting his arguments in the whole of scripture, could be assailed as a “cultural Marxist” or someone importing “secular social justice” into SBC institutions boggles the mind.
I would hope that those who have read what I have written and listened to what I have said regarding my concerns about what is happening under the umbrella of the “social justice movement” would resist mischaracterizing my words this way. To my knowledge, I don’t think I have ever said that “evangelical institutions are about to be overrun by godless pagan philosophy” or that Jarvis Williams is “smuggling in” CRT to Southern Seminary. I am quite confident that I have never called Dr. Williams a “cultural Marxist.”
What I have said repeatedly and in as many venues as have been afforded to me is that I am concerned that evangelicals are in danger of being seriously misled by godless ideologies that are infiltrating some of our churches and institutions. I have especially tried to be careful not to impugn motives, so I have avoided words like “smuggling.”
Here is my thinking on this. Scripture repeatedly warns us about false teaching. We are told to watch out for it, resist it, and to refute it. We are also taught that Christians are not immune to being played by the devil. Paul specifically tells Timothy how he is to try to help fellow believers to “escape from the snare of the devil” who have been “captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26). And Jesus illustrates how subtle and effective the devil can be by exposing his influence on Peter when the apostle thought he was serving God’s purposes (Matthew 16:23).
If the devil could influence Peter to speak in ways that, to Peter’s mind, honored Christ, let us not be so arrogant to believe that we—or any Christian leaders—are immune to such demonic strategy. Peter wasn’t “smuggling in” Satanic strategies. He was being played by Satan. That is what I fear is happening to Christians today who are advocating the use of godless ideologies in service to our Lord.
Thabiti encourages his readers not to merely take his word, or the words of Williams’ critics in order to understand what Williams believes and teaches. I heartily concur. I am sure that there are many wonderful, insightful, helpful things that Dr. Williams has written and said. He is, after all, a highly esteemed professor at Southern Seminary. Though I have never met him, we have mutual friends, whose discernment I trust, who esteem him highly. That being said (which, I should note, in a less toxic environment than the current evangelical milieu, would not have to be said), here are a couple things that Dr. Williams has produced that underscore my concern about his engagement with and attitude toward ideologies that I am convinced are dangerous and antithetical to the gospel.
He wrote this article, Intersectionality and Reconciliation in Our Churches, in 2017. The caveat (“author’s note”) was included after I first called attention to the article last year, but, to my knowledge, Williams did not change any of what he actually wrote about the value of using Intersectionality in working for racial reconciliation. Here is the way that he applies it to himself:
Though I’m a marginalized African-American man within white male-dominated evangelical movements (Southern Baptist and Reformed), I’m still part of the privileged male majority in my Christian tribe. My brown, marginalized identity intersects with my male identity. Though my African-American identity has caused me to lose certain privileges and has caused me certain traumatic experiences of racism in both the SBC and in the broader evangelical movement, my male identity affords me certain privileges that are unavailable for many black and brown women in white male-dominated, evangelical Christianity.
To understand more of the way that his thinking on racial justice is framed watch his discussion of his book, Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, at Oklahoma Baptist University, with his co-editor, Dr. Kevin Jones.
The second example that I cited to which Thabiti takes exception is the book, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice. After quoting a few lines from my talk, he observes,
Tom paraphrases Mason as saying the church must be busy righting wrongs to gain access to people’s hearts. Tom then contends that the actual mission of the church is to make disciples (i.e., grow the church) who then impact the world in truth and righteousness. What really is the difference between these two statements once you remove the unsubstantiated charge that Mason is influenced by cultural Marxism?
I will accept the unstated criticism that I merely paraphrased, rather than quoted, Mason when citing my concern. However, I do not think that I misrepresented his meaning and I find Thabiti’s attempt to rehabilitate Mason’s meaning unsuccessful. Mason says that the “Woke Church” should have a “three-level approach to justice,” with the first being “Intervening Justice.” He then defines Intervening Justice as “the effort to tend to and meet pressing needs without which persons will not be receptive to the gospel message” (34, emphasis added).
This belief is in stark contrast to my own. Mason’s statement makes the pursuit of social justice a sine qua non to people coming to Christ. I do not believe that and believe that such thinking will undermine our confidence in the preaching of the gospel as the power of God to save all who believe. Perhaps if I had quoted rather than paraphrased Mason’s point then my words would not have been interpreted as making “virtually the same argument” as that which I was criticizing.
Could I have been clearer? Undoubtedly. Could I have said more? Yes. But in my defense, the talk that Thabiti chose to engage was one in which I was limited to 15 minutes to make my points. Here is a longer talk I gave on the same general subject at a recent Founders Conference.
I am grateful for the spirit in which Thabiti has critiqued what I have said. I want to take to heart his concerns and learn to be more careful in how I represent those with whom I disagree. However, I don’t think he has sufficiently understood the evidence I set forth in my arguments and for that reason I find his conclusion unconvincing.
Again, I’ve chosen Tom Ascol for this post because he has played a pivotal role in the anti-social justice “side.” His comments are representative of the kinds of comments typical to that viewpoint. The wider mass of argument decrying a “social justice movement” depends on the same kind of methodology and “evidence” Tom uses here.
In my opinion, demonstrating that a “social justice movement” exists has failed utterly….
There is no evangelical social justice movement.
If by “movement” he means a coordinated effort by evangelicals to make social justice something that will undermine or supplant the gospel, then perhaps he has a point. But, in my opinion, it is beyond doubt that, in the name of “social justice,” tools forged in the furnaces of godless ideologies are being taken up, utilized, and recommended by evangelicals with increasing frequency. The recent adoption of Resolution 9 “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality” by the Southern Baptist Convention is a clear and alarming example.
But there are others. Many others. Here are just a few:
- Public theologian, Ekemini Uwan, at the March 2019 Sparrow Women’s Conference revealed her CRT-shaped judgments on racial justice when she said, “the reality is that whiteness is rooted in plunder, in theft, in slavery, in enslavement of Africans, genocide of Native Americans, …. It’s a power structure, that is what whiteness is, and so that the thing for white women to do is you have to divest from whiteness.” You can watch her whole interview here, or read the transcript here.
- Dr. Anthony Bradley, professor of religious studies, chair of the program in Religious and Theological Studies, and director of the Center for the Study of Human Flourishing at The King’s College, is so fully committed to CRT that he cannot even allow the thought that evangelicals have ever possessed the gospel. “[F]rom a black church perspective, evangelicals have never had the gospel. Ever.” (though he has since removed his lengthy twitter string elaborating his point). If you want more evidence of the CRT lens through which this evangelical scholar views the world, just read this extended string of comments.
- A commitment to CRT is the only reason that Dr. Matthew Hall, provost at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, can openly confess, “I am a racist,” and not immediately resign his post.
I could easily cite many more such examples and add to them evangelical social justice advocates welcoming gay Christianity and women preachers into the ranks, but this article is already longer than I planned. Suffice it so say that even if there is not a formal evangelical social justice movement there is enough evidence of influence from godless ideologies on evangelical teachers and entities to warrant concern.
Thabiti suggests that I am part of an “anti-social justice” movement, citing my involvement with others in writing the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, and our speaking, writing and spawning hours of podcasts to express our concerns. I am grateful that more and more people seem to be waking up to the reality that we have a real threat at our door, but from what I can tell, evangelical opposition to social justice, Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Intersectionality is far from an orchestrated movement.
Quite honestly, I wish the opposition were more organized. I particularly wish more Christian leaders would stand up and speak out about these things. We desperately need to have honest conversations about these issues. They are vitally important. I am grateful for those leaders who have ventured to raise concerns at points.
In the wake of the adoption of Resolution 9 by the SBC, Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, gave his thoughts on Intersectionality and Critical Race Theory,
They emerged as analytical tools, but they were never merely analytical tools, and in the common discourse in the United States, and especially in public argument, and in higher education, both critical race theory and intersectionality are far more than analytical tools (emphasis added).
In addition, Dr. Michael Haykin, history professor at Southern, has stated,
The cultural precondition of Marxism, and this is also true of cultural Marxism, is atheism. The idea that some sort of rapprochment can be made with this ideological wordview and it’s analytical tools used without fear of pollution is extremely naive especially in the light of the history of the twentieth century (emphasis added).
Dr. Denny Burk has also expressed concerns in the plainest of language:
Intersectionality is the most unforgiving, unsparing, and unmerciful system of legalism that I have ever seen. If you cross the line, there is no absolution or redemption. There is no expiation of the original sin of privilege. There is only a black hole of shame and disgrace.
I don’t think Thabiti or anyone else would accuse Mohler, Haykin or Burk of being a part of “an anti-social justice movement.” So, if you don’t want to take my word for it, take theirs. We have a problem. Godless ideologies are running rampant in our culture. They are also making inroads into some of our evangelical churches and institutions. If we do not open our eyes and address it, it will get worse. Failure to recognize this is naïveté in the extreme. Recognizing it and failing to address it is dereliction of duty.