Voddie T. Baucham Jr.’s recent book, Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe, has become one of the most popular religious books in America, remaining on the USA Today best-seller list for over a month. The book purports to offer a critique of critical race theory (CRT) from an African American pastor who was once a leader in the Southern Baptist church.
While the author does have a great deal to say about CRT, none of it comes close to justifying his doomsday warnings about the “looming catastrophe” now threatening the evangelical, Christian church in the form of “radical” justice warriors peddling the supposedly neo-Marxist snake oil. Neither does he explain how CRT manages to threaten the good news of Jesus Christ. What he does reveal is an absence of critical-thinking skills that, unfortunately, tends to characterize much of popular evangelical literature today. So it is particularly disheartening to read the acclamations of praise for Fault Lines printed on the book’s back cover, endorsements from professors at Houston Baptist University, Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The fact that Fault Lines found its way onto the best-seller list is, I suspect, testament to the power of confirmation bias among politically conservative churchgoers, including theology professors at denominational institutions. The book will baptize every conservative’s uninformed prejudice against CRT, whether or not they can explain what CRT actually is.
Critical race theory emerged in the 1970s as an elite group of “critical legal scholars” asked themselves a simple question: Why hadn’t the important civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s led to more significant improvements in the social, economic, and community health status of African Americans and other people of colour in the United States? Clues began to materialize as they studied the larger cultural and institutional context in which the laws were functioning. After all, new laws were only as effective as the judicial systems that managed them. Public health care was only as equitable as the economic structures governing private medical insurance and local hospital availability allowed it to be. Furthermore, since all of these systems and structures had been created and sustained by white men, critical analysis began to shift away from racism as an individual behaviour and toward a more intricate appreciation for the vast array of incentives that were maintaining the interests of white citizens across our social and civic apparatus: educational opportunities, home ownership, access to mortgage loans, zoning regulations, wage disparities, and more. That process of historical investigation and explanation is now called critical race theory.
The current debate over teaching CRT in American public schools has hopelessly muddied the waters concerning the utility of this investigative process in understanding US history and the role of race consciousness in today’s society. Fault Lines sticks a blender into that murky pool of misinformation but does nothing to bring clarity to the conversation.
The first problem is the author’s confusion between theory and application. CRT is not actually a theory so much as it is a set of analytical, diagnostic insights that help to explain why racial inequality remains a chronic problem in American society. Understanding the overlapping ways in which systemic and structural racism, white privilege, and white supremacy have functioned throughout the history of American society has been CRT’s principal contribution to our modern understanding of racism and its long-term social effects.
For example, Richard Rothstein’s overwhelming book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, provides an abundance of empirical, historical evidence explaining how the heavy hand of white supremacy forged federal, state, and local regulations intended to embed systemic and structural racism into US housing markets throughout the twentieth century. Rothstein tells story after heartbreaking story of the many ingenious (and wicked) ways that racist politicians, policy-makers, government agencies, banks, loan agencies, construction companies, corporations, and zoning and real-estate boards all collaborated across the decades to create and maintain segregated, all-white, middle-class suburbs, on the one hand, and black, urban ghettos blighted by poverty, industrial-waste sites, and substandard construction practices, on the other. Yes, a great deal of progress has been made toward equal rights and opportunity since the civil rights movement, but the long-term effects of systemic racism are still with us. Considerable work remains to be done.
Unfortunately, the crucial insights provided by CRT historians and legal scholars are sometimes squandered by the leaders of “anti-racist workshops,” people such as White Fragility’s best-selling author Robin DiAngelo, whose unilateral redefinition of “racism” is (ironically) at odds with CRT. For some, racism has been redefined as a condition afflicting all white people simply because they are white. It happens like this: After pointing out the ways in which structural racism has been constructed by white folks in order to maintain their privileged status, the word “racist” is then recast to reflect these structural observations. Consequently, all white people are now racists since all white people benefit from the privileges guaranteed them by systemic and structural racism. The definition of “racism” is transformed from “a discriminatory disposition expressed in prejudicial actions” into “the enjoyment of social and economic privileges granted to the white members of a society that are meanwhile denied, systematically, to its non-white members.”
In many ways this more combative, essentializing attitude that characterizes all whites as racists is reminiscent of the counterproductive nativist ideologies, including the négritude movement in the French colonial homelands that cross-pollinated with black, American intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes in the early twentieth century. The collapse of European imperialism and the rise of indigenous, anti-colonialist ideologies led many nativists to retain a commitment to deeply implanted Eurocentric, colonial, social structures while reversing imperialism’s racial prejudices and power dynamics. It’s a brand of reactionary racism that turns the tables on colonial oppressors.
Just as white-black racism and slavery were a legacy of Eurocentric imperialism, so black-white nativism remains a legacy of early African nationalist-nativist movements. At times, these nativist passions found expression in blanket condemnations of white, European culture. I have heard this nativist critique of “imperialistic ways of knowing” in sessions on African theology at the annual gathering of the American Academy of Religion. Contemporary African nativists sometimes continue to disparage Western logic and philosophy as “white ways of knowing,” foreign and unhelpful to the “black mindset” of storytelling.
Edward Said’s magisterial 1993 work, Culture and Imperialism, offers incisive warnings about the problems created when previously subjugated peoples retreat into post-colonial nativism:
It is the first principle [of colonialism] that a clear-cut and absolute hierarchical distinction should remain constant between ruler and ruled. . .. Nativism, alas, reinforces the distinction even while revaluating the weaker or subservient partner. And it has often led to compelling but demagogic assertions about a native past . . . To accept nativism is to accept the consequences of imperialism, the racial, religious, and political divisions imposed by imperialism itself. To leave the historical world for the metaphysics of essences like négritude, Irishness, Islam, or Catholicism is to abandon history for essentializations that have the power to turn human beings against each other . . . or into an unthinking acceptance of stereotypes, myths, animosities, and traditions encouraged by imperialism.
By essentializing the Other, whether as black, white, brown, or yellow, nativism ironically enforces a new brand of inverted imperial sensibilities and prejudices—such as “all white people are racist.” And even though taking this leap may be an obvious temptation, such blanket, one-size-fits-all stereotypes can never offer a way forward in human relations, much less in creating an anti-racist society. With regard to the Christian church, essentializing the Other has as much relevance to shaping the body of Christ as a chainsaw in an operating room.
Against this trending dehumanization, Fault Lines remains blind to the opportunity to engage with the contextual care of a robust Christian anthropology. Instead, Baucham offers yet more screed of an embattled churchman trying to survive in the belly of a deteriorating Christendom. He seems amazed that a non-Christian, secular society would produce theories that are, well, non-Christian and secular. Having insisted that the Bible contains all the information we need to solve the problems of racism in America, the author derides CRT’s secularized analysis of our racial problems because it does not offer the Christian gospel of forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation.
But isn’t this a bit like whipping the donkey for not being a horse, while foolishly forgetting that the donkey can still get you to where you need to go, if only you were more patient and a little less snooty about your means of transportation?
Baucham forgets that just because I cannot draw honey from a well does not mean that the well water will not be sweet to drink. For him, a Christian’s interaction with secular ideas is always a black-or-white (forgive the pun), all-or-nothing affair. Every intellectual construct must be immediately transferable into a scriptural, Christian key, or it is to be avoided at all cost. At the end of the day, this becomes the author’s ultimate criticism of CRT: it is not the good news of Jesus Christ.
Such a lack of critical thinking becomes a crippling impediment to Baucham’s project, as it is to so much of the evangelical debate surrounding our never-ending culture wars. The fact that Martin Luther was able to gather up useful tools from his humanist contemporaries, men like Desiderius Erasmus who were also reading ancient texts with fresh eyes, seems never to have impressed Baucham (who completed his doctoral studies at a Southern Baptist Seminary). The Reformed theological insight that all truth is God’s truth, regardless of where or how it is discovered, is lost on him. One of the more telling examples of the author’s analytical shortfall appears in his discussion of the sufficiency of Scripture in matters of race and justice, where he claims that “the general theme of the current CSJ [critical social justice] movement within evangelicalism is a covert attack on the sufficiency of Scripture.” Again, Baucham insists that straightforward Bible reading is all anyone needs to live an anti-racist, prejudice-free life. Christians don’t need CRT. All they need is the Bible.
But the irony is palpable, for much like the leaders of the anti-racist workshops he is criticizing, the author fails to grasp the difference between interpretation and practical application. Baucham should know that exegesis (the work of interpretating a text) does not self-evidently, much less universally, determine every detail of application. All applications are situational. When I was a pastor preaching every week, I always asked myself the YBH question: “Yes, But How?” How, specifically, does this moral principle work itself out here, today, in this particular circumstance? Extrabiblical study can often shed important new light on how we answer that question. Indeed, the author of Fault Lines ought to recall the long, racist history of “straightforward,” evangelical Bible reading that was used to justify slavery, establish Jim Crow, and sustain racial segregation in the American South.
But Baucham ignores these hermeneutical and contextual challenges as they relate to both Bible reading and the usefulness of CRT.
Like many popular, evangelical critics of secularism, the author repeatedly falls into the trap of the genetic fallacy, also known as the fallacy of origins. For instance, he excoriates the Black Lives Matter movement because its three founders all claim to be Marxists. Yet I have attended BLM demonstrations and never once heard a word about the coming proletarian revolution, although I do hear a lot about the very real problems of police brutality—problems that ought to be addressed by every community leader, including evangelical leaders. Similarly, Baucham rejects CRT’s insights into the power dynamics at work in systemically racist social structures because he believes the origins of that analysis stem from such thinkers as Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, and other neo-Marxists like Georg Lukács.
But, again, the author fails to demonstrate how the supposed errors of neo-Marxist social analysis necessarily perpetuate similar errors in CRT. What exactly is wrong with the neo-Marxist or CRT analysis of power? There are plausible responses to be heard here, but Baucham never even attempts to answer the question. For him it is all a matter of guilt by association. I don’t know what model car Baucham drives, whether foreign or domestic, a Chevy or a Ford. But perhaps it is worth remembering that Henry Ford was a vicious anti-Semite. Yet that hardly made the black automobiles rolling off Ford’s factory assembly lines anti-Semitic machines. Nor did it make every Ford driver a rabid anti-Semite searching for Jews to run into the ditch.
Many more elements of Fault Lines merit criticism, but I will limit myself to one final point. The author makes it clear that he is a thoroughgoing libertarian, committed to individualism in both his politics and his religion. In this way, he is a typical American conservative, evangelical member of the Christian church. He has no patience for collective or corporate problems requiring collective solutions mandated by public policy. In his mind, personal transformation is the lone cure-all for every social ill.
I cannot help but wonder if the author is aware of the fact that he is repeating the very same arguments deployed by Southern segregationists during the 1970s as they refurbished their decades-long fight against the civil rights movement and desegregation with the more acceptable language of personal responsibility. As J. Russell Hawkins observes in his recent book, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy, in the 1970s evangelical leaders in the South decided that it was time to abandon (at least in public) their traditional “biblical” arguments proving that “God is a segregationist.” Their new public strategy for defending segregation insisted that racism would only be cured “not by undoing the structure that maintained the segregation but by individuals abandoning prejudicial feelings. Only when individual Christians had a change of heart would they be prepared to take on the inequality that existed around them.” Hawkins’s discussion of how this new family-friendly emphasis on personal, spiritual development was successfully implemented, and how it continued to delay the practical benefits of civil rights legislation, shines considerable light onto the public controversy surrounding CRT today. Delaying mandatory, anti-racist social changes by holding out for “spiritual revival” and “personal renewal” is a very old stalling tactic long used by white evangelicals to disguise their fear of integration.
As for Baucham, the irony of his religious libertarianism appears most starkly when he says he is one of the authors of the little known “Dallas Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel.” Otherwise known as the Dallas Statement, this document is a conservative condemnation of the current social justice movement (such as it is) within the evangelical wing of the church.
A copy of the statement appears in the book’s appendix. It includes these declarations about the problems of “systemic evil”:
- Societies must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice
- Families, groups, and nations can sin collectively, and cultures can be predisposed to particular sins
- We affirm that virtually all cultures, including our own, at times contain laws and systems that foster racist attitudes and policies
- We deny that systemic racism is in any way compatible with the core principles of historic evangelical convictions
In light of these statements, there is a strange disconnect between the Dallas Statement’s recognition of collective, systemic sins requiring collective, systemic solutions such as the imperative to “establish laws to correct injustices” on the one hand, and the author’s repeated dismissal of these very observations, on the other.
For instance, the author says that he rejects “the idea that the sin of racism is entirely structural. We [orthodox evangelicals] believe it is a problem of the human heart.” Aside from the fact that authors espousing CRT do not assert that “racism is entirely structural,” Baucham’s rigid, evangelical libertarianism causes him to slam the door tight against any corporate, legislative solutions to systemic race issues, even though they may help to ameliorate the earthly problems of structural racism here and now. I can’t help but wonder if the author is also against laws that set speed limits on our roadways. Again, the author shows that he lives in an all-or-nothing, fundamentalist world. In his mind, there is no room for thoughtful Christians to offer both-and, anti-racist solutions that capitalize on (1) the structural, collective insights provided by CRT, while simultaneously (2) preaching the gospel and calling for personal repentance and individual reconciliation. The fact that groups of sinners can create collective projects marred by collective evils requiring systemic solutions seems never to have occurred to Baucham.
So why has Fault Lines become a best-seller?
Let’s face it. The reality of confirmation bias is only one factor in making this book a runaway hit. The other is undoubtedly the fact that Voddie Baucham is a black man, a black Christian leader who is telling white conservatives exactly what they want to hear. To point this out is not to slight Baucham. Like everyone else, he is free to think and to write as he likes. He is certainly not the only African American to view CRT as negatively as he does. But it would be naïve to ignore the role that Baucham’s skin colour has almost certainly played in his book’s success. It is one thing for a white person to stand before a white audience to condemn CRT; it is another thing altogether for a black man to offer the same critique to the same audience. The white audience will certainly applaud for the white preacher, but they will stomp their feet, stand up, and cheer for the black man. The author of Fault Lines deserves criticism, but the white, evangelical conservatives who have made his book a best-seller ironically display the diagnostic accuracy of CRT in their embodiment of white privilege and systemic racism.
In the American marketplace of ideas, poor-quality chicken scratch often outsells high-quality feed. Such skimping may be acceptable when it comes to feeding chickens, but Baucham is feeding American fundamentalists and evangelicals, Fox News viewers and other political conservatives. These people compose a segment of American society that would be more than happy to continue ignoring the lasting effects of America’s racist heritage. Thus, it is unfortunate that Fault Lines is providing highly selective consumers with an unhealthy brand of misinformation perfectly packaged to blind the eyes of those who will not see, and to stop up the ears of those who will not hear.