A Christian organization that touts “courageous conversations” as part of its mission canceled a panel on “Race and Reconciliation” after public pushback and admitted that it failed to follow its own standard of adhering to truth in its presentation of subject experts.
“With respect to our March 4 Forum, we failed to live up to our values. We did not pair one scholar with relevant subject-matter expertise with another of equal expertise, and we did not describe their credentials accurately,” The Veritas Forum said in a statement on Monday, March 1. “We also recognize that there are deeper racial dynamics at play, and we lament any pain that we caused. We apologize.”
The Veritas Forum, an Evangelical nonprofit that “helps students and faculty ask life’s hardest questions,” committed to “do better” and thanked those “who course-corrected us.”
“If they truly valued rigor, they would not have put together this pairing,” Dr. Anthea Butler, a religious studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, told Faithfully Magazine.
“Having said that, it is wise of them to recognize their mistake, and moreover, I’d say that I hope they apologized to [Professor] Jennings personally for roping him into what could only have turned out to be a messy, fraught panel,” Butler added.
While she was not among those who publicly pressured The Veritas Forum to change course, Butler welcomed news of the event’s cancellation on Twitter.
The college-oriented organization whose name is Latin for “truth” (veritas), had announced that a virtual forum titled “Race and Reconciliation: How Ought Christianity Respond to Racism?” would take place on March 4 in sponsorship with the Ratio Christi student group at the University of Washington. The event was to feature panelists Dr. Neil Shenvi and Dr. Willie James Jennings and be moderated by Justin Brierley, host of the U.K. podcast “Unbelievable.” The Veritas Forum’s announcement stated that “leading experts on the topic of race and Christianity…will engage in a thought-provoking virtual dialogue.”
Jennings, a Yale Divinity School professor renowned for his decades-long work on liberation theologies, previously spoke on race and on cancel culture in The Veritas Forum events sponsored by campus groups at Harvard, Brown, Duke, and Cornell universities. An ordained Baptist minister, Jennings’ award-winning book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, is often cited in discourses on Critical Race Theory.
Shenvi, in contrast, holds a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley and has co-authored dozens of published studies in his field. Describing himself as “a homeschooling theoretical chemist” on his website, Shenvi has not published any academic papers or books on the topic of race, except for a short booklet that he co-authored with Dr. Pat Sawyer.
“When discussing issues of race, a socio-political construct with complex historical origins, in a theological context, it’s important that the voices that receive the most attention are those with expertise in those areas,” Malcolm Foley told Faithfully Magazine.
Foley, the director of Black Church Studies at Baylor University, was among those who noticed the distinct discrepancy between The Veritas Forum’s chosen speakers.
Sociologist Dr. Samuel L. Perry also tweeted about The Veritas Forum’s “flat-out dishonest” description of Shenvi and Jennings in its promotional materials.
Shenvi quickly clarified that he was not involved in creating the promotional material presented by The Veritas Forum when it was brought to his attention on Twitter. He corrected critics who highlighted the misrepresentation of his expertise, insisting he was “not positioning [him]self as an expert on race.”
However, in recent years Shenvi has attracted attention with his writings on Christianity and contemporary critical theory, a broad series of social philosophies that reflect and critique society through understandings of power structures.
“I began reading critical theorists because I was trying to figure out why people were adopting increasingly heterodox views,” he told FM.
Critical theory became a point of focus for the theoretical chemist as White Evangelicals strove to confront racism in meaningful ways, most recently leading to fallout over opposing viewpoints on Critical Race Theory.
Some have questioned the integrity of Shenvi’s work, yet his research on critical theory has gained him a significant platform in some Evangelical and Reformed communities. He has spoken on critical theory as a guest of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Colson Fellows, and the Ambassadors Forum.
Despite all of this, Shenvi does not consider himself an expert on race.
So what compelled The Veritas Forum to pair a leading expert on race with a theoretical chemist? And why did the organization choose to cancel the event instead of finding a complimentary expert to dialogue with Jennings?
Faithfully Magazine’s efforts to contact the nonprofit via phone and email for answers were unsuccessful.
“Jennings’ history of teaching, writing, and publishing, particularly as a Black man in academia, is worthy of deep respect. For Shenvi, much of his recent popularity is rooted in his blog and Twitter responses to critical theory and [Critical Race Theory], niche topics in themselves,” said Foley, whose Ph.D. dissertation examines Black Protestants and U.S. lynchings.
While The Veritas Forum may not have intended to do so, considering Jennings’ consistent presence at their events, “Some saw this event as the delegitimizing of a prominent Black academic, an action and process we see far too often,” he added.
Butler expressed similar views about Shenvi not having “the qualifications to speak to (Jennings) on an equal footing,” adding that his arguments about Jennings’ work are not “compelling from a scholarly perspective.”
For his part, Shenvi said he was disappointed to learn that The Veritas Forum had cancelled his event. He told FM that he had mostly observed expressions of “genuine curiosity” and desires to “hear both sides” among responses to news of the previously planned “Race and Reconciliation” forum.
Sociologist Dr. George Yancey, a Baylor University professor who has been published extensively on topics related to race and Christianity, echoed Shenvi’s sentiments in a public letter to The Veritas Forum on Tuesday, March 2.
He suggested The Veritas Forum missed an important opportunity by dropping the Jennings-Shenvi panel discussion.
“Yes Dr. Jennings has academic publications that bear on issues of theology and race while Dr. Shenvi has no such publications,” Yancey wrote in a letter to The Veritas Forum he shared online March 2. “However Dr. Shenvi has offered an interesting perspective that deserves to be tested in discussion with the dominant paradigm of antiracism in our society. If his ideas are weak, it will be evident in discussions with someone like Dr. Jennings. Unfortunately we will not see a testing of these his [sic] ideas against that paradigm and individual[s] can now rightly assume that proponents of antiracism are not willing to have their ideas challenged in the realm of ideas.”
Yancey, critical of suggestions that “CRT and antiracism are viable solutions to the racial dilemma facing our society,” made himself available to the nonprofit should it choose to organize a new forum similar to its canceled event.
“I offer a nuanced approach that rejects both antiracism and colorblindness as the best paths forward. So I offer myself as a potential discussant to anyone you can find to support the notion of Christian CRT and the antiracism that logically rises from it,” he added.
The Veritas Forum had yet to respond to his letter, the professor told FM.
FM was not able to speak with Dr. Jennings before publication. However, we will update this article or publish a follow-up article should we hear back from the Yale Divinity School professor or The Veritas Forum.
In the meantime, The Veritas Forum was moving ahead with an apparently new March 4 event publicized on its Facebook page, titled “Racial Diversity & Justice: an Imam, Institute Teacher, & Pastor Discuss.”
The nonprofit evangelical organization was founded in 1992 by Kelly Monroe Kullberg and has hosted thousands of events, on everything from the question of God’s existence to the problem of suffering, in partnership with more than 200 colleges and universities.