Note: If you haven’t yet read Part 1 in this series, “Know Your Enemy: What is Critical Theory?” please do so first.
Many Christian conservatives might be tempted to agree with my assessment of Critical Theory, but also relegate it to the realm of politics. And if it’s just political, how important could it really be for the Church to address? “Jesus didn’t send us to wage a culture war,” one conservative piously declares. “The Gospel is more important than any social issue,” another responds by rote. But while neither of those statements are false, to apply them to Critical Theory is to overlook a very important fact: Critical Theory is as much a false religion as an errant form of politics.
It’s easy for unobservant Christians to make this mistake because the most obvious friction with Critical Theory generally begins when we read about its “accomplishments” on the news. Whether it’s feminists rallying together to promote abortion, LGBTP activists pushing a pornographic curriculum teaching children about gay sex, or CRT activists proposing a new hate crime bill, it’s always happening out there.
Christians must inevitably encounter evil politics in this world, even if we need not participate ourselves or bring it into the Church. We don’t have to abort our children or send them public schools. We generally have no intention of committing hate crimes anyway even if it makes for poor laws. But at the end of the day, civil law doesn’t have to match our doctrine for us to continue in that doctrine. And if policy does result in persecution, well Jesus said those persecuted in his name would be blessed. (And while such dismissiveness amounts to contempt for one’s children and grandchildren, that’s not my present point.)
It becomes even easier to adopt such complacency about politics when Christians presume that everyone else arranges their politics and religion the same way we do. Whether it’s Jesus saying “render unto Caesar”, Augustine’s Two Cities, Luther’s Two Kingdoms, or Rome’s Two Swords, Christians have always recognized some kind of distinction between earthly government and the Church. For all of Christianity’s differences on how that distinction works, it’s one we take for granted at a fundamental level.
We would do well to remember that not everyone sees things the same way. Islam, for example, is simultaneously a religion and a political ideology. Uniting all the earth into a single community sharing a common and perfected Sharia is the point, and outward adherence to such law is how one is saved. There is no relevant distinction between politics and religion in that goal–only between Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Anyone who fails to grasp this will never understand Islam in either a religious sense or a political one.
When Government is Religion
Critical Theory presents Christians with a similar arrangement. We may see it as mere political activism, but that’s because we forget how all-encompassing their narratives of oppression are. G.K. Chesterton famously wrote, “You cannot evade the issue of God; whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him.” Well, the Marxist would say the same about class and the Queer Theorist the same about heteronormativity. Feminists likewise view everything through the lens of men oppressing women. Critical race theorists view everything through the lens of whites oppressing people of color. Every individual, institution, social custom, and field of knowledge is placed under the judgment of Critical Theory’s narratives. Nothing is immune, including other religions. And in every one of those narratives, goodness is defined purely in the pragmatic terms of successful liberation of the oppressed from the oppressors.
Compare the way Critical Theory treats its narratives of oppression to what Luther wrote about idols in the Large Catechism:
A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart. I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust is right, then your god is also true. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.
If we understand idolatry in Luther’s terms here, then we should also understand that to the Critical Theorists, their narratives are effectively their gods. We are not dealing with mere political ideals, but with religious doctrines. In Critical Theory, the two are one and the same.
Critical Theory may not recognize itself as a religion, but it unquestionably occupies religion’s mental space. Indeed, it’s often noted how the acolytes of Critical Theory act with religious fervor. Any denials of their narratives are treated as high-handed blasphemy. Being identified as an oppressor calls for excommunication from society. When they cancel their infidels in this way, they cut off friends and even family among them with little hesitation, demonstrating how their politics supersedes any of the most fundamental human relationships. Conservatives have generally offered these observations ironically to suggest they take their narratives too seriously. But the truth is that they take activism religiously because it truly is their religion.
So when Christians confront Critical Theory, it is not simply a political conflict we engage in through our civil vocations. When we confront it outside the Church, it must be seen as a false religion attempting to draw souls away from Christ. But more to the point of this essay, when we confront it inside the Church, it must be seen as a heresy to be refuted and rejected.
Blending True and False Religion
Conservatives resist this classification because so many of the proponents of Critical Theory among us also hold to various Christian doctrines. However, the same was true of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Gnostics happily borrowed stories, persons, and even theology from Christianity. However, everything it adopted was made subservient to its own theology of hidden knowledge and matter/spirit dualism. In other words, Gnosticism used Christian lingo because it was syncretistic, not because it was in any way Christian.
The pragmatic view of truth at the heart of Critical Theory also lends it to syncretism. It liberally borrows from Christianity when a verse or a story is useful in support of its own doctrines. Individuals are likewise quite comfortable confessing to a Christian identity when doing so is useful to their causes. However, what may look like devotion amounts only to utility because they are quite happy to disregard anything in Scripture or theology which fails to support their activism. Think about how often you’ve heard people say that they would never accept any god that “oppresses” women or who failed to adequately condemn the “sin” of racism. Consider what it means that such human standards are held even over God Himself. What, then, do they truly count as their god?
All this is apparent in practice as well because even articles of faith are constantly subjected to deconstruction. When Critical Theory enters the Church, it respects no distinction between the Two Kingdoms. When feminists see “wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord,” they recognize it as aiding the oppression of women and come up with many inventive ways to make sure it can never be applied in practice. Likewise, when Queer Theorists see Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 6, they spin yarns about how Paul couldn’t possibly have been referring to the loving homosexual relationships we see today. And as we recently saw in the new Large Catechism, our doctrines concerning theft and covetousness can easily be recast into Marxist concepts, and pedophilia can be recast as a speck in our neighbor’s eye.
And we could keep going at this all day because the examples are an ever-growing legion. Many people are now saying we must confess that David raped Bathsheba because of the power imbalance between them. Bible verses about hospitality are being co-opted to demand “pronoun hospitality” for people who deny their God-given sex. “Equity” is being misused to represent the equality of outcomes demanded by Critical Theory, and “partiality” is being redefined as discrimination so they can finally claim evidence of racism being condemned in the Bible. Even the Gospel itself is being denied as cancel culture enters our church body through the use of excommunication against those who reject Critical Theory too aggressively. Our entire church body is being steadily eaten alive by the Critical Theory present in our own institutions, but conservatives want to call it a mere “culture war.” After all, Calvinism is surely the bigger problem today, right?
And this has been going on for generations already. Even a decade ago, 56% of LCMS members believed the sin of homosexuality should be accepted, in contradiction to Holy Scripture. God only knows how much higher that figure is now. Feminist denials of Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 2 have become matters of church tradition. The Duluth Model which renders Biblical headship as inherently abusive is offered as guidance from Synod. Statements calling racism a sin have long ago made it into Synod documents and now into both of our Catechisms. And all this syncretistic heresy has been allowed to build up among us because conservatives were fooled into thinking that these are merely political differences.
But the problem doesn’t stop with our leniency and complacency about what is actually false religion in our midst. Conservatives themselves end up throwing in their lot with the heretics on a regular basis. They engage in the same kind of syncretism whenever they adopt the narratives and terminology of Critical Theory and attempt to put it in service of the Faith. We try to appear sensitive to LGBTP sinners by adopting their framework of sexual orientation and perceptions of gender. We try to placard Christianity’s justice by denouncing racism alongside the Critical Theorists who own the terms we put into our own mouths. But syncretism does not undermine false religions; it only undermines Christianity.
Here’s how conservatives usually fall into this trap: Even false religions make true statements from time to time, and so there will always be some overlap. Sexism may not be a real sin, but there are real sins which could be considered sexist. The same could be said of racism, homophobia, and the rest. Critical Theorists know this, and they are not shy about pragmatically using our convictions as leverage to make us support their convictions. And so Christians are often challenged to denounce Critical Theory’s enemies for the sake of the Bible.
Conservatives, being the innocent doves they are, blithely take this bait. “There are some genuine evils out there! Don’t Christians therefore have a moral obligation to denounce them when called upon?” No. You do not need to let God’s Word be their means of manipulating you into action anymore than Jesus did.
The Pharisees often tried to trap Jesus in such ways, but unlike conservatives, our Lord never fell for it. For example, when they approached him with a trick yes/no question about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus didn’t simply answer “yes” because it’s technically correct. And he certainly didn’t launch into a sermon about how important it is for his disciples to be good citizens in order to prove to everyone how seriously he took Romans 13 (which he would inspire a few decades later.) Instead, he departed from his opponents’ script and changed the rules of the engagement altogether. He turned their attack into an object lesson about how they had already accepted Caesar’s rule along with his money & the taxes that came with it. He didn’t deny that we ought to pay taxes to lawful government, but he refused to adopt his enemies’ frame in any way while affirming it.
The same could be said of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. (Yes, that text is a later addition; but I also believe that the early Church’s frequent inclusion of it alongside Scripture indicates it’s a true story.) The Pharisees came to Jesus with an Old Testament law which really does require executing adulteresses. But Jesus didn’t recognize a moral obligation to support the Pharisees on that account. He knew they were his enemies; he knew it was a trap; and he knew how sketchy it was to A) bring the matter to him in front of a crowd and B) only bring the woman and not the man.
So Jesus didn’t fall for it. Instead, he changed the rules of engagement and responded by writing something in the dirt. We don’t know what he wrote, but we do know everyone voluntarily left after reading it. He didn’t deny the Biblical law that applied to the guilty woman before him, but neither did he allow it to be a lever his enemies could use to force him into their agenda rather than his Father’s.
Like the Pharisees, Critical Theorists are happy to use our own principles as tools to gain our submission to their gods. However, we only have to denounce what our God tells us to denounce, not what their gods tell us to denounce. Yes, there’s occasional overlap, but if it is truly our God who drives our action, it will be apparent by the fact that we only make our condemnations on His terms and not our enemy’s. That will never involve taking their lengthy list of fake sins like racism or sexism and adding them to God’s Law.
Since President Harrison used it as a condemnation in his letter, let’s take “fascism” as an example. When people say “fascist” today, they certainly aren’t referring to historical fascism. Hardly anyone has bothered to read Mussolini’s fascist manifesto, let alone figure out where exactly they take issue with it. (Or even if they do; most people will be surprised by the contents.)
No, what ultimately triggers people about fascism is the Holocaust. But while it would be appropriate to condemn any modern fascist who has a dozen Jews buried in his basement, that’s completely immaterial to anything that’s actually at issue in the LCMS today. And if it were actually germane, we could make the condemnation on the basis of the 5th Commandment without ever using a weasel word like “fascist.” Some might pretend to oppose “beliefs that lead to a Holocaust” as well, but since the little they know of fascist beliefs comes from parroting the TV, that’s a moot point.
And avoiding their terminology is key because to our pragmatic Critical Theorists, to every institution under their influence, and to the audiences they hold captive, “fascist” means anything it’s convenient to mean at any given moment. On that basis alone, condemning fascism is grossly irresponsible from the perspective or either politics or spiritual care. Our every condemnation lends Christianity’s legitimacy to their weapon of convenience. God never commanded us to be grossly irresponsible.
But it gets worse than that because of the syncretism. To speak of such things as sin, we are joining the Christian faith to an alien religion and propping up its idols. Our God never commanded us to prop up vain idols–quite the contrary. Morally speaking, we ought not make ourselves servants of a false religion by carrying out its prerogatives.
Anyone who truly believes God commands him to denounce a particular sin which Critical Theory would also decry must do so without falling into these traps–and without blaming God by saying He commanded him to be trapped. One may only speak of their “sins” in extremely specific senses and without adopting their shorthand. After all, that shorthand is their religious doctrine. They own it and will shapeshift it into anything they want after the fact. Christianity has given us thousands of years of terminology with which we can condemn sin without borrowing from postmodern pagans.
And fair warning: when people actually try to do this, they will be amazed at just how vapid they sound most of the time. But using Christian terminology isn’t what makes it vapid; it’s just revealing what has always been true. The fact is, most of the time when we feel a need to condemn such sins, the impulse comes from the Spirit of the Age rather than the Holy Spirit. After stripping off the cultural taboos Critical Theorists have constructed around their list of fake sins, there’s really not much there of substance.
It is clear that the conflict between Christians and Critical Theory is a spiritual battle, and it must be fought as such. When we can finally understand that, we can begin to take it seriously. We will recognize that we are free in Christ to refrain from fighting for the other side. We will also understand that we can make no pretense of fighting the good fight when we studiously ignore the deadly heresy Satan has planted right in our midst.
And that leaves us with two final question for next time: How can we recognize Critical Theory among us, and what can Christians do about it?