Rod Dreher

Racialism & The Demise Of Religious Conservatism

A protester holds up a placard outside St John’s Church near the White House (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Writing in First Things, Darel Paul has a strong piece condemning the “racialism” that is au courant in American intellectual circles today. Excerpts:

The first precept of antiracism is that “racial groups are equals and none needs developing.” This is not a socioeconomic observation. Some racial groups are indeed wealthier, healthier, more educated—in short, more “developed”—than others. One may be tempted to read Kendi here as simply asserting a common humanity. That would be a grave misreading. The heart of antiracism is multiculturalist relativism fused with racialism. Kendi’s real meaning here is that every race is culturally equal, for “to be antiracist is to reject cultural standards and level cultural difference.” Yet if every ­race-culture is equal to every other race-culture, why are the races—which Kendi also calls “racialized cultural groups”—materially and socially unequal? Enter the second precept of antiracism (best stated in Kendi’s earlier volume, Stamped From the Beginning): “Racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large.” Kendi does not even try to prove this claim. Why would he? Though expressed as a sociological observation, it is in fact a dogmatic assertion introduced to save Kendi’s racialized multiculturalism from untoward conclusions. If the Light of Truth (race equity) cannot shine in the world, some Cloud of Darkness (“racist ­power”) must be obscuring it. QED.


Antiracists are racialists. They believe that race is the prime matter of human society, the font of social and political identity, and the origin of political struggle. Their belief in the centrality of race dedicates them to heightening racial identity and urging that every social interaction be viewed first and foremost through the lens of race. Antiracists are particularly concerned to convince whites, far and away the least race-conscious group in ­America, to understand themselves racially. The ubiquity of antiracist terminology and slang today—“whiteness,” “white privilege,” “white supremacy,” “white nationalism,” “white fragility,” “white tears,” even “Karen” as a racial slur—shows that they are succeeding.

Though white Americans in general have not embraced this assigned identity, liberal white Americans and the educational, corporate, governmental, media, social, and cultural institutions they control certainly have. It is ironic to see a group that throughout the Obama years praised itself for its enlightened post-racial attitudes now embracing racialism. It is even more ironic to see liberal white managers and professionals marching under the banner of racial equity, a spectacle of the rich condemning riches and the powerful condemning power. More, it is the spectacle of a social class denouncing its own defining class norms and values, habits and modes of thought, as the oppressive culture of “whiteness.”

Read it all. 

Here’s something I’ve noticed: the antiracism movement is going to be the end of solidarity among religious conservative intellectuals. This is not just me theorizing; it’s based on things I’m seeing and hearing in my circles. Many of us have hung together through the LGBT wars, even though it has been difficult, as our non-religious peers (and even more than few religious ones) have joined the mainstream consensus that we are nothing more than bigots for sticking to authoritative Church teaching. But the antiracism moment, and the BLM moment, is tearing that to bits.

Here’s why. To generalize, religiously orthodox Christians have very solid Scriptural grounds (and, for Catholics and Orthodox, grounding in longstanding Church teaching as well) for the positions we hold on sexuality. All of us also agree that racism is unquestionably a sin. But how does the sin of racism manifest — and what are the morally just ways to combat it? This is where we differ — and, it turns out, differ sharply.

A number of white religious conservatives are finding themselves profoundly at odds with other white religious conservatives over the racial issues at the center of the American conversation now. Conservatives who have been united in their frustration of the unwillingness of liberals to discuss sexual morality without automatically imputing bigoted motives to conservatives are now experiencing that in arguments within conservative circles. This summer, an Evangelical law student friend passing through town told me that a number of his professor mentors at his undergraduate university, a conservative Christian college, have recently accepted Critical Race Theory with the force of a religious conversion. Its claims are now dogmatic in their minds; to dissent is to be a bigot.

I was thinking about this when reading the English conservative Ed West’s short piece in Unherd about the psychology of racial discussions these days. In it he explains why he no longer discusses race with white liberals. Excerpts:

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt once wrote that the “fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance.”

I’ve long thought that this explains most political debate, and via a Twitter mutual, another psychology paper confirms it: that when an empirical conclusion is likely to be true, but also points to something morally objectionable, people think that others should believe it less, even if it’s true.


One of the main obstacles to this goal, in the eyes of conservatives and other critics, is that American policing outcomes can’t be equalised while there is such a considerable gap in violent crime rates between black and white Americans. This is a brutally uncomfortable fact to raise but it is nonetheless a fact that black Americans commit murder at around eight times the white rate; there are therefore far higher rates of violent confrontations with the police (just as Asian-Americans are shot and imprisoned at a lower rate than whites, as not shown here).

But human psychology being what it is, if someone in a discussion or a media editorial meeting raised this point, the average human being would naturally think less of them, and question their motives. What kind of person would even take it upon themselves to find that information?

Conservatives have their own realities, of course — everyone does — but this issue is so sacred to the Left that, while only a relative minority are actually engaging in cult-like behaviour like publicly washing feet, a larger hinterland at least believe the faith’s broader claims. It’s why I’m no longer talking to white liberals about race, so to speak, because I’m not sure what we can achieve beyond accepting that we see the world in different ways, and leave it at that.

He’s onto something. But what’s new here is that the line passes not just between liberals and conservatives, but also between conservatives — or at least religious ones. It’s splitting churches and intellectual circles. And here’s what makes it such an unanticipated victory for the left. Race is such a radioactive issue today that when conservatives disagree among themselves about Black Lives Matter and antiracism, those who fall on the “wrong” side of the issue become, by that fact, too toxic to tolerate on just about anything else. The result is that religious conservatives who were once allies on protecting religious liberty from attacks by those supporting full LGBT rights will find those former alliances hard to sustain.

UPDATE: David French has a really thoughtful piece out today about how Critical Race Theory is sometimes a helpful tool of analysis, but it becomes tyrannical if it is taken as the key to understanding race and society. Excerpt:

I used to advise a number of Christian schools, and several years ago the county offered one of those schools a county sheriff to serve as a school resource officer, free of charge. The purpose was to deter/respond to potential school shootings, and a number of board members were initially enthusiastic about the idea. What’s not to love about free security?

But the headmaster spoke up and quickly changed their minds. The chances of a school shooting were vanishingly low, he said, but the presence of law enforcement in the halls would be reasonably certain to criminalize school discipline. When a police officer is present a fight often isn’t just a fight—dealt with jointly by parents and the principal as a matter of school discipline. Instead, it might be deemed an assault. A student found with weed isn’t just a kid who might need parental and spiritual intervention, he might be judged a drug offender.

The headmaster argued that the school needed to retain maximum liberty to raise and discipline its kids. And he prevailed. The board rejected the county’s offer and devised its own school security plan.

What the heck does any of that have to do with critical race theory? After all, race never came up during the discussion, and none of the participants had a known racist bone in their bodies. Race couldn’t have been relevant, right? But viewed through the CRT lens, the entire incident was absolutely laden with power and privilege, and that exercise of power and privilege reinforced existing racial disparities.

How? Let’s contrast the disproportionately white private school with the disproportionately black public school that was located a mere five miles away. First, look at the difference in power—the private school parents had the wealth to create and maintain a separate institution that was governed separately from the local board of education. Unlike public school parents, they had the absolute autonomy to say yes or no to a law enforcement presence in their halls.

This power thus created an important privilege. Their students had the privilege of committing low-level crimes without fear of criminal enforcement. They could grow and learn from their mistakes without being fed into the maw of the criminal justice system.

Power and privilege thus distorted our language and understanding. How could one even begin to understand, for example, the true difference in crime rate between the public and private school? If a fight is an assault in one place and just a “scrap” in another, how do we know which school is more dangerous? If a marijuana purchase is a drug deal in one place and a “mistake” in another, how do we know which environment is more perilous for vulnerable youth?

When you overlay these considerations with local histories, including residential segregation, a history of redlining, “white flight,” and other factors that might concentrate black families in worse schools, then you start to have a eureka moment. “Ahh, so that’s what we mean when we say that racism has ‘systemic’ legacies and creates systemic problems.”

That’s really helpful to me. But then French writes about the trouble with taking CRT too far. Read it all to see what he means. 

French’s piece resonates with me because I’ve thought about how Marxist criticism has been useful to me in trying to understand culture war issues. Why? Because it has illuminated the hidden power dynamics within these clashes. It has helped me understand that culture war is often a form of class war. 

I agree with French that Marxist analysis — and CRT is based on Marxist theory — is helpful only in limited doses. If you take it as a total explanation, it will radically distort your analysis, and lead to constant internal warfare among parties trying to sort out power relationships. Think about science. It is an incredibly powerful tool of analysis, but if you commit yourself to the view that science is the only valid theoretical lens for understanding everything, then you will misunderstand the world as it is. Therein lies the difference between science and scientism.

It is not an accident that the Black Lives Matter organization is committed to dismantling all power structures that they consider to be unjust — including the traditional family. This is just the same mechanism driving Critical Race Theory, applied to other social structures.

If you think about the traditional family as nothing other than a matrix of power relationships, it becomes impossible to maintain it. I grew up in a household with a strong patriarch who ruled authoritatively. He was usually fair, and kind, but there was no question that his word was law. Had he been a mean man, life would have been miserable for my mom and us kids. But he wasn’t that, and we had a home in which we all felt cared for and protected. It was a good way to grow up.

Had my mother been introduced to the radically egalitarian CRT way of understanding the world, it would have been impossible for her to live with my father, and our house would have been chaotic and filled with conflict. Had we kids been introduced to it, it would have been even worse, because we would not have been able to accept the authority of our parents, even though that authority was legitimate. What CRT and its related ideologies seem incapable of doing is recognizing that hierarchy is inherent in nature, and that some forms of non-democratic, non-consensual authority are legitimate and necessary.

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