The other day I was listening to one of the latest episodes of Wyatt Graham’s Heaven and Earth podcast—I was unaware of Wyatt’s podcast until he invited me on several weeks ago to discuss Theonomy but I’ve quickly become a fan; all of the other guests are far more interesting and accomplished than myself. Therein Wyatt interviewed Crawford Gribben, historian at Queen’s Belfast and (among other things) John Owen expert, about his new book on Christian Reconstructionism. (Gribben is a fair and sympathetic observer of the reconstructionist movement in the Pacific Northwest, by the way.)
The subject matter of Gribben’s latest, as fascinating as it seems, is not of interest here. (The whole podcast is definitely worth the listen.)
Rather, Gribben’s sage wisdom on theological-historical methodology is because of what it teaches us about the life and function of ideas on the ground, amongst real people. What he explicates undeniably applies to the presence of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and adjacent ideas within evangelicalism.
First, Gribben talks about how groups like Doug Wilson’s church and ministry in Moscow have enjoyed outsized influence. They’re relatively small numerically. Yet, Wilson and co. have, since the 1990s, produced material at an astounding rate through their own publishing house, magazine (Credenda Agenda), educational materials, and etc. Wilson has his own talk show available on Amazon. CrossPolitic is a big time podcast, at least by Christian podcasting standards. The CREC denomination is also small but, born of controversy, continues to command attention, like Wilson himself. (New Saint Andrews, the college Wilson founded, alum Joe Rigney was just recently the subject of Big Eva ire, mainly for his apparently objectionable affiliation with Wilson himself.) To be sure, there have been some legitimate, concerning issues within the Wilson orbit over the past several years but questioning the value of empathy and asserting Federal Vision—a very PCA kerfuffle I will never fully understand—shouldn’t be considered amongst them. (The one I’m thinking of was covered by Rod Dreher a few years ago, and Doug Wilson subsequently responded.) Peter Leithart seems to get no better treatment, in my opinion, and the worst he’s done is defend Constantine and wear vestments or something—a garment that Wilson has had choice words for in the past, by the way. So, there’s that.
Anyway, the point is that, far from being dead, at least one brand of Christian Reconstructionists/Theonomists continues to have a significant impact with their sort of insurgency style operation. This was always the case even going back to Rushdoony and his Chalcedon Foundation (and, of course, his voluminous writings), as Gribben tells us. Despise not the day of small things.
Second, because of this mass production, Gribben notes that many Christians that hail from non-reconstructionist backgrounds nevertheless come into contact with reconstructionist materials, a function of near-ubiquity of the literature. He and Wyatt talk about how the latter grew up in a Baptist, dispensationalist home that also kept some Rushdoony and Bahnsen on the shelves—a seeming contradiction or, at least, an awkward fit. Think of reading Left Behind and Theonomy in Christian Ethics in tandem. Odd, but not inconceivable. Rushdoony and Hal Lindsey did hang out a bit after all.
And this brings us to the third and central point. Gribben notes that historians and theologians—academics generally—deal with topics systematically. That is, they study coherent systems, sometimes systems that they themselves construct for the sake of study and narrative. Institutions, texts, etc. are much easier to comprehend and analyze than loose movements or even individuals themselves. But, as Gribben says, regular people, non-academics, don’t operate this way, in a coherent, consistent, systematic fashion.
“Most people approach theological meaning-making as a kind a project of bricolage. So its a bit of this and a bit of that, and then you try to work out how these different bits from different places fit together, and what kind of shapes are created as a consequence of that.”
This is an immensely helpful insight, one that has ready application on a variety of issues but especially that of CRT and evangelicalism. Gribben shows us how CRT gets in the intellectual waters.
As I recall, back in the far off days of Resolution 9 (i.e., 2019), and even prior thereto after MLK50, the predominate conversation about CRT (and ideas from critical theories generally) within evangelical circles was whether or not someone was doing it or not. Many people (mostly the right people) doubted it was having any influence at all. People like Joe Carter dismissed talk of Cultural Marxism as a “Kinist” conspiracy theory.
I’m not sure we’ve progressed too far beyond this stage of the conversation, actually, but there has been some movement insofar as certain people that originally denied their affinity for CRT have now openly and notoriously embraced it, if not wholesale. People are a lot more comfortable admitting they find CRT useful and true. That’s fine. But lots of evangelical leaders are still playing the denial/feigned ignorance game wherein they employ CRT lingo and concepts—in a way consistent with its intended use—and then deny they are engaging in CRT. Their disciples rush to their defense and the accusers are, in turn, accused of lacking charity and sowing division, etc. You’ve seen this before. Matt Chandler monologues about white privilege. It is pointed out that such talk originates from only one place, viz., CRT, and then those who point this kind of thing out—a fairly innocuous exercise—are accused of slander or ignorance or both. Matt Chandler isn’t a trained critical race scholar, after all! Maybe he hasn’t even read any Delgado. How could he possibly be doing CRT? When people like Neil Shenvi—well, pretty much just Neil—started pointing out instances of CRT in the tweets of Big Eva figures, people went berserk.
You’ve all probably come into contact with people on the ground level doing the same thing. Maybe they’ve read the pop theorists like DiAngelo or Kendi but not Angela Davis or Charles Lawrence or Gary Peller. They know what BLM is but not the Combahee River Collective. They’ve heard Mark Levin talk about some Marxist called Marcoose from the “Franklin School” in “Berlin” but not much else about any of the (real) history of inter-war development of Marxist thought. They’re not reading Leszek Kołakowski or Martin Jay (and neither is Mark Levin, by the way).
They don’t talk about organic intellectuals or interest convergence, but they do talk about divesting from their white privilege, about systemic and structural racism, about white cultural norms, and all the other buzz-phrases, and they do so in a basically correct if superficial way. They’ve not bothered to think about how alternative conceptions of oppression, justice, and truth might conflict with their preexisting Christian convictions. They certainly did not acquire these two now converging sets of ideas from the same source. But, after a while of being pelted with the new lexicon and saturated by accompanying ideas, they do begin to try to reconcile the old with the new.
What is happening?
What Gribben’s interview helps us think about is how ideas are disseminated. People on the whole aren’t consistent, purely systematic thinkers. They’re a hodgepodge of ideas they’ve picked up along the way that, for whatever reason, they’ve found appealing. Intellectual reconciliation only comes later. This is true of all of us, to some extent. It is no less true of those Christians who are imbibing certain ideas of CRT origins. Are they full-blown, trained CRT’ers. No. Are they employing and trading in CRT ideas? Yes. Many times, undoubtedly. Are they apostates? Probably not.
But let’s stop pretending that when people are saying CRT things they’re not doing CRT. Maybe they haven’t adopted all of Yosso’s tenets yet and don’t sleep with Words That Wound under the pillow, but they are exercising the bits and pieces of CRT stuff they have picked up and that stuff is no less real just because the whole package, the coherent system is not yet in full operation. So, is Matt Chandler doing CRT? Yeah, a little bit. Is Christina Edmundson? Definitely. Was Matthew Hall’s admission of racism? Without a doubt. Each of these, and many others, represent varying degrees and styles of CRT use. But they all reflect it. All three have picked up different bits of CRT.
Gribben would probably say that such a clean adoption and application of a system of ideas—especially such eclectic ideas as are featured in CRT—wouldn’t happen in the wild. Most people don’t operate that way even if academics wish they did. (As a matter of fact, the race crits arguably prove that academics don’t really work that way either.)