Southern Baptist seminary presidents reaffirm their commitment to whiteness
At the recent annual meeting of the Council of Seminary Presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, leaders ostensibly met to recommit to their guiding statement: the Baptist Faith and Message. In reality, these seminary presidents reaffirmed and gave themselves over to another historic Southern Baptist commitment: whiteness.
For those who may not be familiar with what is meant by the term “whiteness,” theologian Willie James Jennings offers a succinct explanation in his new book After Whiteness:
“…‘[W]hiteness’ does not refer to people of European descent but to a way of being in the world and seeing the world that forms cognitive and affective structures able to seduce people into its habitation and its meaning-making.”Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness
Whiteness is the illusion that what is deemed “white” is better, central, and superior to the beliefs, cultures, and peoples coming from different racial and ethnic groups. The practice of whiteness can be overt, as in the heinous practice of race-based chattel slavery, or more subtle, as in the subordination of any theological tradition that is non-white or non-European. In this case, a commitment to whiteness shows up by naming a framework developed within legal studies as an imminent threat to the integrity of the Christian witness in the United States.
The seminary presidents could have simply acknowledged the 20th anniversary of the Baptist Faith and Message’s adoption and stated that they remain dedicated to its doctrines. Instead, they focused on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Intersectionality. By highlighting “Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory” as particularly acute threats to Southern Baptist orthodoxy, the seminary presidents take aim at virtually anyone who advocates for racial justice beyond hugs, handshakes, and symbolic statements.
For several years, fundamentalist Christians have positioned CRT as an epithet within certain Christian circles. It is the theological and ecclesiastical equivalent of the “Red Scare.” Slap anyone with the label “Critical Race Theory,” and they automatically become enemies of the church.
There is no coherent understanding of the framework among the critics of CRT. Their main objections seem to be concerned with how Critical Race Theory explains race as a matter of power wielded by certain groups–namely white people–to exploit and subjugate other groups. Others have extensively written about fundamentalist Christian grievances with Critical Race Theory. Their work should be consulted for further background.
It is important to note the significance of this particular statement from Southern Baptist seminary presidents. Their position does not arise in a vacuum. There is a deeper context that demonstrates SBC leaders’ capitulation to the most extreme voices in the denomination.
Within the Southern Baptist Convention, a far-right group called the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN) has formed in response to what it perceives as a liberal drift in the denomination. It cites Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality as particular threats. The network “rejects worldly ideologies infiltrating the Southern Baptist Convention, including Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and other unbiblical agendas deceptively labeled as ‘Social Justice.'”
This perception of threat has even reached the White House. Earlier this year, Donald Trump issued an executive order against “racial sensitivity training” that might use components of Critical Race Theory. Later, the Office of Budget Management distributed a memo that instructed its agencies to “cease and desist” funding for training that uses Critical Race Theory, saying that “[a]ll agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory.'”
An increasing number of Christians in the SBC seem to slap any stance on racial justice that they find objectionable with the label of “Critical Race Theory” or “Intersectionality.”
Do you want to talk about systemic racism? That’s Critical Race Theory.
Do you support the Black Lives Matter movement? That’s Critical Race Theory.
Do you think white men may have a blind spot about race because of their social location? That’s Critical Race Theory.
Do you think that people who identify as both Black and female face racism and sexism’s compounding effects? That’s Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.
The Southern Baptist seminary presidents continue to affirm their commitment to whiteness by quashing any meaningful effort to address racism in their schools or denomination and making those who attempt to do so targets of criticism. Of course, they covered their backs by saying, “[w]e stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form.” Still, such statements have all the hallmarks of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
When it comes down to actual practices that address racism–renaming buildings so they don’t feature slaveholders, re-examining history to discover why America is not so exceptional, breaking with a political party whose leaders traffic in racist statements and xenophobia, changing policies that create or perpetuate racial inequality–Southern Baptist leaders side with the status quo over transformative change virtually every time.
It is worth noting that each SBC seminary president has made some statement or offered some gesture supporting racial equality. Danny Akin has supported the Kingdom Diversity Initiative at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. JD Greear has taken heat merely for saying the words “Black Lives Matter” as the current president of the SBC. While these men seem to have personal commitments to racial equity, their public statements as seminary presidents draw their institutions and their denomination as a whole into a vortex of complicity and compromise.
If these men had taken their stated commitments to racial justice beyond simple statements and basic support, it would have led them to produce a very different statement than the one that came out of this annual meeting. A statement in support of racial justice would not have honed in on Critical Race Theory or Intersectionality. A more helpful statement would have cited what has been and continues to be the greatest threat to Christianity in the United States–Christian Nationalism.
According to sociologists Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead, Christian Nationalism is “an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic belonging and participation.”
In their book Taking America Back for God, they go on to explain that “’Christian’ in this sense represents more of an ethnocultural and political identity that denotes a specific constellation of religious affiliation, cultural values, race, and nationality.
It is Christian Nationalists who support draconian laws aimed at excluding immigrants from the US. It is Christian Nationalists who say Confederate monuments are about southern pride and not white supremacy. It is Christian Nationalists (even more than white evangelicals) who believe that the Republican party is the only Christian option for voting. It is Christian Nationalists who think Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality are the greatest threats to the gospel while doing nothing of substance about the racists and white supremacists in their midst.
The greatest failure of this most recent statement from Southern Baptist seminary presidents is not its fixation with a threat that is not there; it is that it ignores the threat that is.
In the year 2020–when a pandemic has ravaged Black and brown communities, when millions protested the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, when so many others have dedicated themselves to taking steps on the journey toward racial justice–Christians in the United States have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take bold steps for racial justice.
Instead, these Southern Baptist leaders have chosen to prop up whiteness.
It is ironic that in their statement, these Southern Baptist seminary presidents claim they are “standing against the tide of theological compromise.”
There is no form of theological compromise that is more American than vigorously opposing those who advocate for racial justice while remaining silent about the racism and whiteness running rampant in the church.