Amid the profound racial discourse and protest movements of the last several years, a debate has arisen in Evangelical Christian circles regarding the proper means of addressing racism. With zeal, faith leaders have sought to establish whether Critical Race Theory (CRT) is compatible with Christianity. Denominational leaders have released contested statements. Pastors have called for ex-communication of those who promote CRT, as some have asserted that it is a comprehensive worldview that is “godless” and “Marxist.” Black pastors have left their denominations over the handling of the CRT conversation.
These concerns over CRT often come from a stated earnest desire: doctrinal fidelity and the Church’s flourishing. Church history is filled with instances of doctrinal compromise, often rooted in corruption of belief and practice involving ideologies contrary to the Christian faith. Yet, as these Evangelical faith leaders vigilantly condemn CRT, it is worth asking if their zeal is itself the product of worldly ideological influences.
Red-Baiting and Racial Justice
The CRT discourse has parallels to a century-old reactionary pattern called red-baiting. Red-baiting is a term used to describe a logical fallacy that intends to discredit the validity of political opponents and their arguments by accusing, denouncing, or attacking them as Marxist or sympathetic to Marxist ideologies. It is a century-old phenomenon in the United States and the fruit of unbiblical, ideological impulses.
Red-baiting has been a common feature of opposition to racial justice movements in the United States, going back to the early 20th century. For several generations, cries for justice and equality by African Americans have been met with accusations and fear-mongering over Marxist influence.
An article from a 1957 edition of The American Scholar titled “The Red-Tagging of the American Negro” shows how red-baiting detrimentally impacted the integration movement. According to Jane Cassel Record:
A recurrent theme coming out of the South these days describes desegregation as part of a gigantic Communist scheme to subvert the American way of life. Almost every occurrence of racial friction produces its quota of speeches and editorials labeling Negro protest as Communist-inspired or, at the very least, Communist tinged.
Stirring fear over integrationists’ alleged ties to Communism had an immense impact on how the American public viewed racial issues. According to Record, everyday conversations became littered with insinuations that Blacks “never would have gotten any of these equality ideas in their heads if they’d been let alone” by Communist influences. Segregationist congressmen denounced advocacy for integration as “confusion and strife” which they attributed to the Communist Party. States invoked “dust-covered” anti-subversive statutes against the NAACP for alleged communist-association. Segregationists discredited judicial support for integration, claiming that the “Supreme court was indoctrinated and brainwashed by left-wing pressure groups.” The accusations of Communist-influence served as a bulwark against increasing support and consideration of desegregation.
Paranoia and Dismissal of Evidence
According to Record, the talking points that associated Communism and integration started as a fringe conspiracy that was initially widely rejected by the public. But after years of repetition, the association became mainstream. Paranoia and misinformation spread like wildfire. One Roman Catholic clergyman felt it necessary to assure congregants that joining the NAACP would not result in helping a subversive cause. The spread of the accusations dragged individuals doing the work of racial equality into having to defend themselves from red-baiting. Record makes the case that the allegations were essentially ahistorical and anachronistic: “After all, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, the Atlanta race riot and the [NAACP] do antedate the Russian Revolution.”
Yet, opponents of integration found ways to dismiss evidence that Communist associations were rooted in a conspiracy. Record reports that segregationists often presented writings from African Americans who opposed integration to insinuate that the actual reason Blacks supported integration was because of Communist influence. Such sources, according to Record, “suggested that the Southern [W]hite man is the best friend the colored race ever had; castigated the [NAACP] as a troublemaker; [and] denounced integration as something the real Black Belt Negro does not want anyway.” Additionally, any report of a Communist supporting integration served to justify the entire conspiracy: “they seize upon any smoke wisp of Communist involvement in the race issue to ‘prove’ that there is fire in their basic accusation.”
The Danger of Simple Answers
The reason Record believed that red-baiting was so attractive to consider was that it “fills the gaping hole of Southern logic.” Many believed that Blacks were satisfied with segregation and did not desire reform. Others believed Blacks were not capable of rising up to fight for justice. Protests and pressure challenged these notions. Calls to change material and racial conditions were viewed as challenges to the status quo. Rather than deal with the issues of racial injustice being presented, Communist conspiracies resolved that cognitive dissonance and provided a simple scapegoat: “[The] Communist-plot thesis [was] attractive because it helps explain away the gap between what [the segregationist] says and what he sees.”
Record’s article is one account of many. Martin Luther King Jr. frequently faced such accusations. Billy Graham initially hesitated to support organized racial reform efforts because “it seemed to him that communists and communist sympathizers were at the root of most such efforts.” Red-baiting did real harm to the Civil Rights Movement. But it also laid the groundwork for an anxious posture toward race issues that opponents of racial justice movements exploited for decades to come.
Evaluating Discourse in Light of History
Christians should note this historical context and consider if some of these patterns are repeating themselves today. CRT is utilized by some Christian leaders as an analytical tool and certainly warrants evaluation like any ideological influence. Yet, as CRT discourse heightens, many have questioned why it has become a primary issue within evangelical spaces. Sociologists have noted that very few Evangelicals hold to beliefs affiliated with CRT, especially compared to the number of Evangelicals that hold to some sort of nationalist syncretism.
Regardless of the merits of attending to the topic, false accusations abound. As Rasool Berry notes in a dialogue, Christians who are active in racial justice work and do not identify as Critical Race Theorists have been falsely labeled as CRT-proponents and categorized as unfaithful or “Marxists.” Such accusations have pulled faithful believers away from the work of justice and into dialogues defending their fidelity. Furthermore, the term “CRT” is often used in imprecise and ill-defined ways, betraying the probability that it is frequently utilized as an ambiguous catch-all rather than in earnest engagement of its content. The fruit of this discourse has unfortunately been increasing distrust between races and political leanings in the Church.
Perhaps, as it is sometimes supposed, those who have improperly appropriated CRT haven’t realized how they have been compromised by unbiblical ideological influence. Yet, those who are eager to accuse racial justice advocates with doctrinal compromise due to CRT must consider that they have been influenced and compromised themselves. As in the days of segregation, there are unfounded accusations of leftist-affiliation and, arguably, overblown paranoia regarding the association of racial equality and so-called Marxist ideology. Red-baiting continues today.
Given the disproportionate and often inappropriate attention given to CRT, it could be possible that some actors are stoking these anxieties in bad faith. But even in the cases where the concerns are genuine, the rhetoric and tactics being employed are often misguided or ungodly. Interestingly, Record notes that Communist accusations of integrationists “had gained currency with people who are neither paranoiac nor callously opportunistic” and many “so-called moderates.” In other words, the currents of anti-Marxist anxiety and conspiracy swept many earnest people into bearing false witness against their neighbor and falling captive to fear rooted in worldly ideology. These ideological currents remain present to this day. The church must see to it that it is not taken captive by the hollow and deceptive philosophies that undergird red-baiting. It is time to consider if these philosophies have warped the Church’s beliefs, sowed division, and hindered our faithfulness.