Part 2 of a series about divisions within American evangelicalism
In June, when Southern Baptists convened in Nashville for their annual meeting, journalists flocked to the convention (including this writer), recognizing that the more than 14 million Southern Baptists in the United States reflect a significant and influential subculture of America.
Several mainstream publications ran front-page stories on the “sharp divisions” and “war” within American evangelicalism as a cultural and political entity.
I talked to six Southern Baptists on the phone before I attended the convention. I asked them about the biggest dividing issues among Southern Baptists. Each listed, with loud, tired sighs: race. Or more specifically, debates over what critical race theory (CRT) is or isn’t—and how Southern Baptists should respond to the perceived threat of CRT. At the convention, dozens of Southern Baptists showed up wearing anti-CRT badges, and people voluntarily mentioned their concerns about CRT to me without much prompting.
By then, several black pastors had already publicly left the Southern Baptist Convention over severe disagreements on race and CRT—ironically, as SBC celebrated its most diverse membership in history: About a quarter of SBC’s 45,000 churches are majority black, Latino, or Asian.
It’s not that evangelicals disagree on whether racism is a sin. Most Christ-following evangelicals unequivocally condemn racism and white supremacism. But many disagree vehemently over the role and impact of race in American society today. One group sees racism as an individual prejudice, hostility, or discrimination against someone based on their race. The other says racism can manifest itself in a society’s institutions, practices, and cultural norms with evidence in persistent disparities and inequalities. The differences were on display at the SBC annual meeting.
That’s where I met Michael Byrd Sr., a 37-year-old black Southern Baptist pastor in St. Louis. I caught him before he had to rush off to a luncheon with other pastors. I asked him what the big issue was for him at the gathering. Without a pause, he replied: “CRT.” Why? Not because he endorses or opposes CRT, but because he sees it sowing confusion and antagonism between evangelicals: “Ask a hundred people what CRT is, and you get a hundred different answers.” He admits he can’t even define it.
When I first met Beth Daranciang, a 55-year-old white woman in Seattle, months before I decided to follow her for this story, CRT was also what she wanted to talk about over boba tea, but for different reasons. “I don’t think you really get how much of a danger CRT is,” she told me. She pointed to CRT as a powerful ideology that’s fueling racism while infiltrating schools and businesses. Both Byrd and Daranciang agree racism is evil—but they talk about it from very different perspectives and sensibilities—the same issue, spoken in different languages.
CRITICAL RACE THEORY is one of the hottest topics within Daranciang’s social groups. I never mentioned CRT first among her friends— someone else always voluntarily brought it up.
Concerns over CRT circled around similar definitions: One young lawyer told me, “CRT means if you’re white, you’re a problem.” A woman said CRT is a “Marxist ideology” that teaches, “If you say you’re not prejudiced, that means you are.” One man said CRT is “indoctrinating our students in school.” Another woman told me CRT teaches black people they’re oppressed: “But they don’t have to be oppressed.” Daranciang says CRT is “dividing our country and making people so much more racist.”
All of them got their information on CRT from second-hand or third-hand sources. Daranciang’s pastor told me his understanding of CRT comes from Voddie Baucham’s book Fault Lines. Daranciang gets most of her information about CRT from local conservative grassroots groups; The Daily Wire, a right-leaning media company that mostly repackages news from other sources with a conservative angle; and Chris Rufo, an activist who single-handedly provoked a national anti-CRT campaign.
Rufo gained fame for tracing all popular discourse on diversity, anti-racism, and social justice to the single lineage of CRT. In a September 2020 appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, he described CRT as “an existential threat to the United States” that’s being “weaponized against core American values.” He then made a direct appeal to then-President Donald Trump to issue an executive order to “stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudoscientific ideology.”
Trump listened, and so did scores of Americans, including Daranciang. Rufo’s concerns about CRT rang true to her based on her experiences with Seattle’s public school district, where she says pursuit of “equity” meant eliminating advanced classes because of disparate enrollment between black and white/Asian students, or refusing to discipline a black student because reports show more black students face suspensions than white and Asian students. She’s wary of government-led policies that seek to correct racial disparities, because historically, she said, they’ve “set up systems that encourage single motherhood and promiscuity and low expectations.”
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2017, she peeped into her son’s high-school assembly. The whole session, she recalled, was “all about police brutality.” In the hallways, she heard teachers exclaim to one another, “Wasn’t that beautiful!” She was alarmed: “They’re hijacking Dr. King’s message!” Now, with the national discussion over CRT, she has a precise term for the mounting sense of foreboding she felt about the nation’s racial consciousness. Rather than having to squirrel through a long-winded explanation of why she’s anti-antiracist and anti-equity, she is anti-CRT: She’s not against racial equality, she says—she’s against a racist ideology with poisonous consequences that promote inequality.
When Daranciang says people are hijacking King’s message, she’s focusing on his one statement about not judging people by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. She doesn’t deny that individual acts of racism exist, but questions how rampant it is: “Lots of people are looking for racism where it doesn’t exist.” It also informs who she sees as victims of racism today: She said that the worst racist slurs she’s ever heard were directed at police officers of color from BLM protesters.
It’s such blatant hypocrisy that most irks Daranciang, and it’s why she’s skeptical of the existence of structural racism. “If there truly has been racism recently, it has to be stopped,” she said, but pointed out that the loudest cries against white supremacy are in states run by Democrats: “Why are the most liberal areas insisting that their own systems are systemically racist and have to be overthrown? Why didn’t they just stop being racist over the years and decades they’ve been in charge?”
To prove her point, Daranciang sent me a video clip of a Black Lives Matter training for Seattle city employees in 2017. The clip showed an activist standing in front of a whiteboard with the words “All white people are racist” in all-caps and telling her white audience, “You’re always going to be racist, actually.” On the whiteboard, she had written her PayPal account info. That, to many, is CRT in practice: Not only is it toxic, it’s appealing to certain groups who make money by fueling the country’s racial tension.
ANOTHER GROUP OF EVANGELICALS sees how people who aren’t personally racist participate in institutions that perpetuate racially disparate outcomes. Rather than focusing only on individual feelings of racism, they point to slavery and segregation, whose legacies they say preserve glaring disparities in income, wealth, education, healthcare, incarceration, and life expectancy.
This group points out that the same Christians who reject the systemic and cultural realities of racism don’t hesitate to fight against the systemic and cultural evils of the sexual revolution. “The majority of people who talk about abortion, they’re not pro-life. They’re anti-abortion,” Byrd said. “Because a black man can get gunned down on the street, and they call him a thug. … There’s no way we can hate one sin and ignore the other.”
When Byrd hears conservative evangelicals focusing on welfare abuse and the lack of personal responsibility and morals in inner-city black communities, he bristles: “The opportunities just haven’t been the same for us.” He says he doesn’t know anyone abusing the welfare system, but he knows several who worked hard to get off it: “People who don’t agree systemic racism exists think that way simply because they’ve never experienced the pains that my people have had to wrestle with.”
Byrd, born and raised in the urban black community, has four children. His oldest daughter Triniti was an excellent student: She won a full-ride scholarship to one of the best private high schools in the area. But her grades plummeted at the school. She suffered from bouts of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. By her junior year, she was sighing, “Just one more year. I just need to survive one more year.”
Triniti was one of two black students in her all-girls school. Almost all the other 600 students were white, and some classmates treated her like a black almanac, expecting her to answer questions about all things black culture. Some said her hair looked like a rug, and her cheerleading coach also made negative comments about her hair. Some girls thought it funny to call her the N-word. Over and over, Triniti felt her blackness being crushed into something she needed to hide.
The Byrds confronted the school principal, but they said the principal dismissed and excused what was happening until Traci Byrd alerted the school board, other mothers, and some alumni through an email. It took several people outraged on Byrd’s behalf for the principal to take the matter more seriously, they said. Meanwhile, others were offended by Byrd’s email.
Michael was sitting next to his wife when one mother called her and asked why her daughter couldn’t call their daughter the N-word or touch her hair. Eventually, the Byrds pulled their daughter out of that private school and found another that’s majority-black. Triniti graduated on the honor roll.
That, to the Byrds, is an example of systemic racism, and it’s why they say a colorblind approach doesn’t help, even as their own denomination strives to be more diverse. Southern Baptist church planters are expected to be self-sustaining after a certain period, but black church planters like Byrd whose congregants tithe from much lower incomes struggle to meet those standards. Certain comments from white Southern Baptists turned him off. Some criticized him for refusing to vote for Donald Trump. Some questioned the theological orthodoxy of black churches: “You people don’t know the truth,” Byrd remembers one telling him. Another questioned his oratorical style: “You people preach too loud.”
In the Byrds’ experiences, few people operated out of explicit hate or prejudice, but they feel the differences of being black in America. Byrd remembers driving to other Southern Baptist churches in the South and almost turning back when he saw Confederate flags waving on their churchyards. “I felt like running,” Byrd recalled.
The Byrds’ experiences transcend race. A year ago, Byrd and his family moved from their house in Baden, a majority-black inner-city neighborhood, to a bigger house in Florissant, a middle-class and working-class northern suburb that’s about 50 percent white and 40 percent black. In the last two decades, many white families, restaurants, and companies left Florissant (in the 2000 census, Florissant was 86.9 percent white), while more black families moved in, attracted to the low housing cost and quieter neighborhood. Some residents express worry about declining property values, but when I pointed that out to Byrd, he shrugged: “When you’re here because the Lord called you, you don’t make decisions based on finances.”
Florissant is completely different from what Byrd was used to. For the first eight months, Byrd couldn’t sleep. The quiet of the night felt deafening, eerie, unsafe. He went to therapy and figured out that all those years of living in inner-city neighborhoods—with police sirens, gun shots, the night traffic of human voices and activities—meant the abrupt stillness of suburbia triggered anxiety and insecurity: “I always felt like something was about to happen.” That’s one of the symptoms of the trauma, dysfunction, and poverty Byrd sees in his community—and why he has little patience for Christians worrying about CRT.
But the national debate on race isn’t just an intellectual, abstract exercise for Daranciang, either. It comes with a personal cost. For her, the on-the-ground ramifications of focusing on racial outcomes will affect her half-white, half-Asian kids, simply because they fall under two demographic groups that tend to be more financially and academically successful. But doing nothing—and labeling discussions about race as “critical race theory” or “wokeism”— also comes at a cost to Byrd and his children. Whose cost is more dear?
—Part 3 will appear in a future issue of WORLD Magazine
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