My article “How Should Christians Think About White Privilege?” was inspired by the recent Unbelievable debate on Critical Race Theory and “Woke” Christianity, but it wasn’t a direct response to it. However, I cannot resist but to say something about Owen Strachan’s debate performance. In this article, I want to make just a few comments. The first is a general comment on Strachan’s debate strategy. The second is a comment on Strachan’s Calvinism which he ironically throws under the bus in the course of the debate.
Strachan’s Debate Strategy: Special Pleading and Distraction
So let’s begin with the debate strategy. Strachan is insistent that systemic racism no longer exists in the United States as it did during Jim Crow and antebellum slavery. Late in the debate when Jermaine Marshall, his debate opponent, reiterates that systemic racism does exist, Strachan counters: “if you’re arguing that there’s systemic racism today you have to prove it. You have to point to realities that show that there is systemic oppression in the way that there used to be. And that’s gonna be a tall order.”
See what Strachan did there? He engages in a bald case of special pleading by insisting that the claim that systemic racism exists today requires one to identify factors and conditions equivalent to those that existed in the past as in the eras of Jim Crow and slavery. But that is a patently absurd requirement. It’s equivalent to saying that for Jan to defend the charge that her present boyfriend is abusive, she must establish that he is beating her and threatening to kill her as did her previous boyfriend. On the contrary, Jan’s current boyfriend may be abusive even if he has never laid a hand on her or overtly threatened her at all. Abuse comes in degrees, after all.
The same is true of systemic racism. And to be honest, even as I point that out, I feel a bit like Captain Obvious. Surely, Strachan must know this? This places me in a bit of a pickle as regards the principle of charitable interpretation as I find myself torn between concluding either that he really is ignorant of such a basic fact, or that he is deliberately obfuscating by insisting on a fallacious evidential demand.
This brings me to the single biggest frustration with the debate. Early on, Strachan boldly dismissed the notion that racism remains widespread within American Christianity. In response, Marshall countered by noting a couple of luminous examples: the popularity of birtherism among American evangelicals (i.e. questioning Obama’s birthplace) and the Tea Party. One could have cited facets of MAGA Christianity more generally. Of course, MAGA Christianity is centered on Donald Trump, so at the heart of the conversation is evidence that Trump is avowedly racist. The answer is yes. Here are some examples from a comprehensive fact pattern:
- In 1973 Trump and his father Fred were sued by the federal government for racial discrimination for refusing to rent apartments to black people. They settled out of court.
- In 1989 the Central Park 5, all black/Latino teenagers as young as 14, were arrested and tried for the rape of a woman in Central Park. They were all later exonerated and the case was exposed as a massive miscarriage of justice. The government later settled for $41 mill. Then, also in 1989, Trump published a full-page ad in several New York newspapers calling for the execution of these teenagers. He has never recanted this position. As recently as June 2019 he insists on their guilt even though they’ve been fully exonerated.
- For years, Trump promoted the birther conspiracy, suggesting, with no evidence, that America’s first black president was actually born in Kenya. He never apologized for promoting this racist theory.
- Trump launched his campaign with the quip that Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Some? You assume?
- Trump has claimed that an American-born judge cannot rule fairly on a legal case because that judge’s ancestry is from Mexico. As Paul Ryan noted at the time, that is the definition of racism.
- Trump called African countries “shitholes” and stated that he would prefer immigrants from Norway over immigrants from shithole African countries.
- Trump fear-mongered about invasions of “caravans” of “illegals” at the Mexican border and Fox News promoted the idea that these people have “smallpox” and “leprosy.”
- Trump insisted on calling the virus from China the “China virus” and “Kung flu” despite the current practice of the WHO to eschew regional/geographic naming of viruses for fear of perpetuating prejudice and racism. Not surprisingly, that language has contributed to a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in the last year.
- When asked to disavow the support of klansman David Duke, Trump repeatedly declined to do so, demurring that he didn’t know who David Duke was. In fact, he knew Duke well.
- Trump told four non-Caucasian congresswomen to go back where they came from despite the fact that three were born in America and the fourth is a naturalized citizen.
- Trump insists on calling Elizabeth Warren “Pochahontas.” He has joked about the Trail of Tears and valorized Andrew Jackson who led a genocidal charge against indigenous peoples.
- Trump stated that there were “good people” within the crowd of klansmen and white supremacists marching at Charlottesville.
- Trump repeatedly defended confederate statutes and the confederate flag that celebrate and valorize the period of antebellum slavery.
This is the horrid man that has been enthusiastically embraced by evangelical Christians. And yet, Strachan sees no evidence of racism here. This is like a health inspector who gives a restaurant a clean bill of health even though the grease trap is overflowing, there are mouse droppings in the rice and a dead cockroach on the cutting board.
Frustratingly, Strachan managed to take control of the debate by telling an anecdote about a white friend who adopted non-Caucasian children. That allowed him to frame the conversation by focusing on how his friend was unjustly accused of racism by a “woke” pastor. I guess it’s easier to talk about that then evangelical support for a racist demagogue.
Strachan’s Ironic Disavowal of Calvinism
Strachan claims that he is a Calvinist. Indeed, at one point, he effusively states that if there are nine points of Calvinism he will surely endorse them all. Yeah, okay, well, then why does Strachan effectively undermine Calvinist principles? I’ll give two examples.
First, Strachan insists that “biblical” justice is different from “social” justice because biblical justice is concerned with equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. But Mr. Strachan, that’s Arminianism. Arminianism is the doctrine that says God offers the same prevenient grace to all. It is Calvinism that insists God has a special electing love and enabling grace for his elect that ensures they will respond to the offer of salvation whereas others remain dead to it. Thus, by Strachan’s own definition, Calvinism is a fundamentally unjust system because everyone doesn’t have equality of opportunity.
Second, Strachan insists that he is not responsible for the sins of his ancestors as CRT claims because each individual is responsible for their own sin (Ezekiel 18). the problem is that Calvinism accepts the imputation of Adamic guilt to the entire human population. On Calvinism, we are all held responsible for the sins of Adam.
It would seem that Strachan is so intent to find points of disagreement with CRT and “woke” Christianity that he has inadvertently sawn off the theological branch he is sitting on.
At one point in the debate, Strachan confidently says that he is not racist. I don’t know Strachan, but I will say that I am suspicious whenever people make such a confident and unequivocal claim. Personally, I struggle with all sorts of impulses to be prejudiced against other people. This is a manifestation of the more general struggle with sin and the fallen human nature. Day by day, I need to seek and call out my own internal fallen impulses to otherize and dehumanize my fellow human beings. Wokeness is at its best not as a punctiliar moment of revelation equivalent to the old Methodist perfectionism but rather an invitation to examine oneself and become woke every day to one’s own sin and wickedness including in the area of race.