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The secular son of progressive Christianity

Ibram X. Kendi’s worldview is a natural outgrowth of an unbiblical theology

Ibram X. Kendi attends the 73rd National Book Awards in New York on Nov. 16, 2022. Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/Associated Press

The secular son of progressive Christianity
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Ibram X. Kendi, today’s most prominent advocate for critical race theory, is under investigation for the potential mismanagement of tens of millions of donors’ dollars. Perhaps more interestingly for readers of WORLD, Kendi is also the secularized son of progressive Christianity.

While the legacy media is understandably focused on the mass layoffs, financial issues, and criticisms of “employment violence” being leveled at the Center for Antiracist Research that Kendi founded at Boston University, it’s worth taking a step back to reckon more broadly with the social trends that formed Ibram Kendi into a social justice warrior in the first place.

As John McWhorter explains in Woke Racism, critical race theory is a “religion in all but name,” which helps explain “why something so destructive and incoherent is so attractive to so many good people.” What McWhorter misses, however, is that this new religion emerged, in large part, out of a progressive stream of Christianity that no longer had a convenient place for God in its worldview.

Perhaps most surprising is that Kendi more or less acknowledged this in his breakout book, How to Be an Antiracist: “I cannot disconnect my parents’ religious strivings to be Christian from my secular strivings to be an antiracist.” He writes, “my own, still-ongoing journey toward being an antiracist began at Urbana ‘70,” referring to a triennial conference put on by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a parachurch ministry that serves college campuses. Kendi’s parents met in the leadup to the InterVarsity conference in 1970, which they had decided to attend because Tom Skinner, who was “growing famous as a young evangelist of Black liberation theology,” would be there.

At Urbana, Skinner taught students about the dark history of Christianity’s entanglement with slavery (a history that Kendi also recounted in his first popular book, Stamped from the Beginning). As a result, Kendi’s parents left the “racist church they realized they’d been part of.” Along the way, the founder of black liberation theology, James Cone, even helped Kendi’s dad to redefine Christianity as “striving for liberation.” From there, it was only natural that his parents “stopped thinking about saving Black people and started thinking about liberating Black people,” as Kendi writes.

If Christ is risen, it changes everything, including how we think about race.

When Christianity is reduced to a social program, God is left to an afterthought. And when God is an afterthought, it’s no surprise that faith in God would be abandoned when belief in God becomes inconvenient. Why tithe to your church when you could give to the ACLU? Why sit through a Sunday sermon when you already participated in antiracism training at work? And why break bread with a church made up of sinners, and even racists, when you could sleep in, practice “self-care,” and break brunch with what McWhorter calls the antiracist “Elect”?

Kendi’s parents continue to identify themselves as Christian. But if God is just an afterthought, then Kendi is right to look elsewhere. Even the Apostle Paul would agree: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Better to look for absolution by making your donations out to Kendi’s antiracism center, because without Christ, the church has no power.

But if Christ is risen, it changes everything, including how we think about race. Kendi complains in Stamped from the Beginning that “a truly multicultural nation … would not have Christianity as its unofficial standard religion.” But the truth is, God is making us into a multicultural people in Christ: “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

In spite of all the racism that Kendi (and Skinner before him) can chronicle, that great multitude, “clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,” will worship God together in eternity. The Lord, and not the ACLU, will bind us together in this way. This is the Christian hope, and it explains all the difference between orthodox Christianity and the antiracism religion that emerged out of it, from the multicultural Christian heights of the Civil Rights Movement to the divisive identity politics of Black Lives Matter.

Ross Douthat once warned that “if you dislike the religious right, wait till you meet the post-religious right.” As it turns out, the post-religious left isn’t so rosy either.

John Schweiker Shelton

John Shelton is the policy advisor for Advancing American Freedom. He received degrees from Duke University (M.Div.) and the University of Virginia (B.A), and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Katelyn, and their children.

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