What is critical theory and why is it so influential today? How might Christians respond to current controversies surrounding gender and race? In this interview, Sean and Scott talk with philosopher Doug Groothuis about his latest book Fire in the Streets. Dr. Groothuis defines critical race theory, explains some of its history, and discusses how Christians can best respond.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, where he has served since 1993. He is the author or co-author of fourteen books, including the best-selling, Unmasking the New Age, the much-used apologetics textbook, Christian Apologetics, and introduction to philosophy, Philosophy in Seven Sentences, a memoir, Walking through Twilight, and a children’s book, I Love You to The Stars (with Crystal Bowman).

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. A podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. I'm your host Sean McDowell professor of Apologetics.

Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and professor of Christian Ethics.

Sean McDowell: Today we're here with Doug Groothuis who's a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of multiple books, including the book we're talking about today, called Fire in the Streets. Doug, it's great to have you on thanks for joining us and for writing such a thoughtful book.

Doug Groothuis: Thank you. I'm happy to be with you.

Sean McDowell: Well, let's jump right in because your book is provocatively titled Fire in the Streets. What are you aiming to communicate and or capture with that title?

Doug Groothuis: I'm really reflecting on the kind of ideology that set the country and in some ways, the world on fire in 2020 after the death of George Floyd. So, I was considering race relations, a Christian approach to race, politics, society. And I was like, everyone, very troubled by what was happening that summer. I spent most of it in Willow Alaska. So, I was away from most of the protests and so on. But my wife, Kathleen, and I really wondered if we should just hold up there indefinitely because it seemed like the whole country was up in flames either literally or metaphorically. So, it came to me that I needed to respond to this in light of my studies, in light of my political views, my Christian convictions and my desire for a peaceful and just society.

Scott Rae: Doug, you make the claim in your book kind of early on that the leading philosophy behind these protests is critical race theory. Now, some folks may take issue with that, but let's start first with definition. What do you mean by the term critical race theory and what are a few of its key elements?

Doug Groothuis: Right. It is kind of a political football right now. Some people say it doesn't exist. Some people say it's taking over the country. I try to give a thoughtful response to what it is, but it's essentially the idea that racism is common in American culture, that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow persist to the degree that our society is systemically racist. That is its racist to the core in the structure. And those that oppress are white males. And those that who are oppressed are people of color and females. So, it divides society into two basic groups, which is overly simplistic. Now I think that looking at how racial inequalities have developed and considering how to respond to them is good and important. I believe we should teach American history, the good and the bad of it. Not whitewash literally, or figuratively anything bad about America. But then also look at the strengths of the United States. And a critical race theory really denies the goodness or the fundamental goodness of American culture and really wants to replace the system we now have with something very different.

Sean McDowell: Many people have said, and guests we've had on this program and particularly many minorities who have said that critical race theory and the focus on it is really a side show from just real injustice and racial prejudice that has take place historically and today. Can you tell us why you disagree with that and why you think critical race theory is so influential today?

Doug Groothuis: Well, as I look at news stories, and as I study the issue, I think the ideas of these various thinkers, such as the late Derrick Bell, Kimberly Crenshaw, and others are affecting education, are affecting political views. And I don't find anything really helpful in the theory. It's rooted in Marxism and nothing good comes out of Marxism. It's a twist, it's a variation on Marxism where economic categories are not primary, but more racial and gender categories are primary. So, I don't find critical race theory under every rock, but I do find it under quite a few rocks. And I don't think it's an ideology that is helpful for giving American citizens opportunities and possibilities.

Doug Groothuis: I think it tends to breed distrust and animosity, and we need to address racial tensions, inequalities, injustice. But the fundamental American system of all men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights. And then we think of America as a self-correcting system in many ways, abolishing slavery and Jim Crow and so on. I think we should not try to tear down the system or fundamentally change the system, which is what critical race theory people are doing. And not everybody who advances these ideas has read primary sources, can quote their Derrick Bell and so on. But nevertheless, an idea can have powerful effects, even if people don't know the roots of the idea. And I think that's what's happening with critical race theory.

Scott Rae: Doug, let me pursue that a little bit further, because I know in a lot of the more popular expressions of critical race theory, there is this notion that the whole system is corrupt and that things like market or market based economy, democracy, the nuclear family, all of those are labeled as oppressive institutions that have to be done away with. Do you find any distinction between the more academic expressions of critical race theory, for example, how this started in the law schools, in the 60s and 70s where I mean, you know this, but our listeners might not, that critical race theory really began in critical legal studies, where in the aftermath to sort of 10 years in, after the civil rights legislation had been passed, things hadn't changed much for people of color.

Scott Rae: And so people started asking why hadn't they changed? And so that's where it began. But I'm wondering, do you see a distinction between the academic side of the house on this and it's more popular expressions? And I think Sean and I will both agree that some of the popular expressions have clearly gone off the rails in what they're prescribing, but do you see that distinction between the academic and the popular expressions of it?

Doug Groothuis: Well, I think so. But I think there's some basic ideas that come out of critical race theory that are not true, and which are very unhelpful, such as racism is common and actually is a constitutive part of the American system. It still exists. And certainly it's a blight on American society, on our history. But I think the idea of addressing the roots of problems is very important, but actually critical race theory does not get to the root, which is sin in the human heart. And it also tends to be status. The idea that the way to correct any imbalances or injustices is always from the top down through legislation, regulation, control, quotas, and that sort of thing. And I argue in the book that is really not a helpful way of trying to bring about a more equal and just society. So, as I say in the book, trying to discern what is causing inequities and injustice in this society is extremely important.

Doug Groothuis: We don't want to whitewash the past or the present. But I find critical race theory in both its academic and popular expressions to be pretty much empty of any helpful concepts. Now, the concept of trying to figure out how to make a better society is certainly important. But a critical race theory, both popularly and academically, I think denies the genius of the American system. I think it misreads the situation often. It assigns racism as the cause to all disparities in our culture, which is not true. I quote one of my intellectual heroes, Thomas soul, many, many times in this book, who's an African American economist and historian. There are multiple reasons for discrepancies, disparities between different racial groups. Racism can be one of them and is one of them, but it's not necessarily the leading cause.

Doug Groothuis: Especially today after the civil rights movement, after the advantages that we've seen in our society, having an African American president for two terms and so many of the gains, now that's not saying well, let's just fold our hands and say, everything is hunky dory. But when I see a problem as a Christian philosopher, I want to say, well, what caused the problem and what are the best ways of addressing it? And I don't see critical race theory as the best way of either assessing or addressing the kind of problems that we face.

Sean McDowell: Doug, let's take a step back for a second and talk about the Marxist roots of critical race theory. You referred to it earlier. It's often called cultural Marxism and one of the thinkers, Herbert Marcuse that you mentioned, interestingly enough, my father-in-law had him as a professor in the early 70s at UCSD for, I think it was just intro to philosophy. And just so interesting, he had some stories and memories of that class in particular. But you talk about his influence taking certain Marxist ideas that were focused on economics into larger cultural realms, like sexuality and race. Make that connection for us.

Doug Groothuis: Yes. Herbert Marcuse is extremely important. Let's look at the lineage for a minute. So, consider black lives matter, Angela Davis, a radical from the 70s, African American woman and professor, was mentored by Herbert Marcuse. And Angela Davis has been very formative on the thinking of black lives matter, which is a Marxist organization. They have admitted that. Now Herbert Marcuse was German. He and a number of other thinkers left Germany and came to the United States and were able to propagate basically a new form of Marxism. Marcuse and the other Marxist realized that Mark's predictions did not come true. The working class in America was not revolting on Moss against the [inaudible 00:11:18], the owners, the man, the system. And so they had to figure out, well, why is that? And they tried to show average Americans and anybody that they were far more oppressed than they thought.

Doug Groothuis: So, instead of looking at the economic situation, primarily, although they did address that, they looked at matters such as sexual minorities, racial minorities, and so on. And said, we need to bring these folks into the revolution. So, there was this cultural element. Classic Marxism says, you have to look at the base. The base of society is economics. The issue of who controls the means of production and that determines consciousness. So, you have to work on the base. And the people like Marcuse and others didn't deny that. But they said, we also have to look at the super structure. We have to look at the various manifestations in culture that do things like promote the traditional family and which respect property and so on. So, Marcuse, although I think he was really bankrupt having any constructive solution. He and his compatriots were very clever in updating. They were essentially Marxist ideas and all the people in the critical theory movement were atheists. And none of them had a biblical view of anything.

Scott Rae: Doug, let me pursue one aspect of this a little bit further, particularly in the more popular expression of critical race theory. As part of our Christian world view, we hold to a doctrine of general revelation and common grace, and we're all interested in avoiding committing the genetic fallacy, which for our listeners, the genetic fallacy, it is sort of a philosophical guilt by association type of thing where you dismiss a view simply based on where it came from.

Scott Rae: And so I think our doctrine of general revelation, I think suggests that God's common grace and God reveals truth to people regardless of their worldview. And now that's not to say that a Christian worldview isn't a really, really helpful necessary part of a window into truth and reality. But people of faith are not the only one who have access to truth. And so given that one of the things that's been argued often about critical race theory is that because of general revelation and common grace might we have something to learn from its proponents. What would you say to that based on the theological assumption that underlies that?

Doug Groothuis: Right. I certainly hold to common grace and I think Christian should be ruthless scavengers to find common grace wherever it is, because it's a gift of God. Years ago, I studied postmodernism, wrote a book on it called Truth Decay. And I came to the conclusion that postmodernism offered nothing of value that could not be found in another worldview. And I think I hold the same thing about critical race theory. I've studied it and they identify real problems, no question. And in as much as they identify and call attention to problems that would not have been otherwise they do us a service, the critical race thinkers. However, I think there's a parallel with postmodernism that anything good you find in critical race theory could be found in another conceptual system. And a lot of what we find in critical race theory is just flat out wrong.

Doug Groothuis: Doesn't have a biblical true anthropology, divides people against each other, certainly favors socialism as the way to bring equity, supposedly. So, in my book, Fire in the Streets, I critique socialism and I defend and essentially free market view as being better for people of color, better for everyone and so on. So, I certainly hold to that doctrine of common grace. And going back to postmodernism, I think one of the best defenders of realism in epistemology, is an atheist, John Searle. And I used one of his books in critiquing non-realism that we can't know what reality is. We just impose constructs on it. So, John Searle an atheist made some very good points about our ability to know the objective world, which is a claim Christianity makes. So, I try to be careful and I'd look for ideas everywhere that are true and worthwhile. And there are some distinctive ideas that come out of critical race theory.

Doug Groothuis: And I have not found any of them very helpful. Well, maybe here's one, but you don't need to be a critical race theorist to hold this. And that is, we need to take very seriously the perspectives and experiences of people of color in the United States because they have a vantage point and they have a story that's different from, let's say, white males or anybody who's different from them. And the same would be true of Hispanics and so on. So, I say, yes, let everyone have a voice and have free speech. But where critical race theory goes wrong is when it appeals to something called a lived experience or standpoint epistemology, which is back to postmodernism, in some ways, that let's say a black woman has a perspective that is uniquely privileged and which could not be challenged because after all this person has experienced prejudice and discrimination, and I say, yes, let's listen to people. Let's consider their story. But that doesn't make them an expert on race simply because you happen to be Hispanic or African American doesn't mean you understand the politics and economics of race very well.

Doug Groothuis: You understand what it means to be that particular person. And if I just could take a second, let me give an example. I was on a podcast recently and I was being interviewed by two folks and they were joining the discussion, actually three people, two white and a young African American man. And it was interesting because the host said, well, who's white. Said, well, race really doesn't mean anything. I view my brother here as a brother in Christ made in the image of God. And I said, "Well, indeed, I agree heartedly. But you know what? We don't know what it's like to live as a black man in America. So, let's hear what he has to say about it." That's a long answer, Scott.

Scott Rae: Yeah. But I think that, yeah-

Doug Groothuis: [inaudible 00:18:33] philosopher, I give long answers.

Scott Rae: I understand. Well, we're with you on that. But I do think there's merit to, of course, to listening and hearing the unique stories of people of color. I mean, Sean and I have, and you have not walked in their shoes and can't pretend to know exactly what that lived experience is. And I think for some, what they mean by the term lived experience is just listening to their voice. And not dismissing their experience as somehow a play on victimization or somehow manufactured, but taking their lived experience seriously giving-

Doug Groothuis: Yeah. I think that's [inaudible 00:19:20]. Just be loving. Listening to people be quick to hear, slow, to speak, slow to anger as James says. So, I agree with that. But then again, we don't need critical race theory people to tell us that I think we should know that from scripture. And what they do with standpoint of epistemology is say that the perspective of people who may have been oppressed or are oppressed just trumps everything else.

Scott Rae: Yeah. I think giving a lived experience, epistemic authority, I think is a different matter than hearing and respecting someone's experience because we can't walk in their shoes.

Doug Groothuis: Yeah.

Scott Rae: But one other just clarification. Would you see a distinction between critical race theory as a diagnostic tool, as opposed to when it gets prescriptive, then I think we'd all agree that's the prescriptive part about sort of dismissing the free market, seeing democracy as essentially a white construct. Those kinds of things I think are a that, those are solutions that I think are more destructive than helpful. But would you see a distinction between the diagnostic part and the prescriptive part?

Doug Groothuis: Well, there's certainly a distinction, but I don't think the tools of analysis are adequate either. I mean, let's go back to the very liberal black theologian James Cone. He was the one who said that Christians can use Marxism as an analytical tool for exposing oppression. And that actually comes into critical race theory. And you have some Christians using that very term. Well, we can use critical race theory, which of course is based in Marxism, as an analytical tool. But of course, we're not going to adopt everything. I think it's a broken tool. I don't think it's a good tool to discern the deepest problems in American society. And if you want to understand how politics and economics and race work together, then read Shelby Steele, an African American historian who was a black radical back in the 70s. Read Thomas Sowell, an African American economist. Read Jason Riley, who is a writer at the Wall Street Journal and read people who disagree with him.

Doug Groothuis: But I certainly favor the analysis of people like Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Jason Riley and others. And there's a younger African American political scientist who's making some very good points, also named Wilfred Riley. So, I have to say, no, I don't think critical race theory gives us good analytical tools for assessing what's going on because it's rooted in Marxism. It's rooted in a false worldview. And Scott, as you said, false world views can stumble on the truth, certainly. But I don't think that's really the case here. I think we need a good, clear, historically informed, logically rigorous, biblically sound assessment of race and economics and politics and religion and American culture. I don't think you're going to get that from critical race theory. I've tried to do something to that end in my book, Fire in the Streets.

Sean McDowell: There's a chapter in your book in which you talk about capitalism or free enterprise. And you say that according to CRT proponents, there's a connection between free enterprise and racism. Can you help us understand what that connection is as they see it and why you actually reject that connection?

Doug Groothuis: Well, one thing is to say that white America became very wealthy under slavery. And that wealth was procured in some kind of a free market situation. It was unjustly procured. And so they tend to conflate slavery and free enterprise. And I point out that slavery actually was not very good economically in the long run for even people in the south. Thomas Sowell made this point. And of course the entire country did not support slavery, was not supported in the north. We fought a civil war over that. So, I think the essential problem is to misplace the blame. The blame for racism goes essentially to the human heart. And then it goes outward from there in horrible things like racism, like Jim Crow laws, like red lighting, red lining rather. But it's not that the free market engenders racism or makes slavery inevitable by no means.

Doug Groothuis: So, they're not properly identifying the root of the problem. And then they're blaming a system for perpetuating a problem when it's not something that the free market does. You can have racism in the free market. You can have a lot less racism in the free market and socialism doesn't eliminate or even reduce racism. So, a lot of people don't realize that critical race theory is very committed to socialism and very anti-free market. So, I critique socialism in one chapter, and then I deal with this idea, Ibram X. Kendi says this, that capitalism brings racism. So, if we want to get rid of racism, we have to get rid of capitalism.

Doug Groothuis: He realizes that racism can exist under socialism. But what he thinks is that capitalism is a sufficient condition for generating racism. It's not a necessary condition because racism can exist in socialist countries. But I think socialism is a bad idea for everyone. I think history shows that, and I think that the free market allows for benefits to people of all races. If in fact, the legal structure gives people a fair shot. And I think overall in our society today, our legal system does give people of various colors and of both genders, tremendous opportunities. Some people will use those opportunities well, and some people will squander them. That's the way it is in a fallen world.

Scott Rae: Yeah. I think it's pretty common for people to say that free enterprise and capitalism fosters greed in the same way that they say it fosters racism. And I think that's a category mistake that both greed and racism are fundamentally matters of the heart. They're not fundamentally matters of economics and exist independently of those. So, you have a lot of discussion in the book about reparations. And we're hearing more about that from both critical race theorists and those who don't explicitly espouse that reparations are necessary in relation to slavery and Jim Crow laws and the disadvantages that those created for people of color. For one, what does the term reparations actually mean? And what's your assessment of the argument for bestowing reparations on, especially particularly African Americans who have been victimized by slavery and Jim Crow laws?

Doug Groothuis: Right. In fact, a book on reparations won Christianity Today Award recently defending reparations. Reparation basically means restitution. So, the idea is that African Americans were terribly deprived of their freedom and economic benefits under slavery and even under Jim Crow to a lesser extent, but there as well. And so they are owed restitution. So, the idea is that these previous injustices have to be righted somehow today. Now I have a lot to say about that. I'll just make a few points. One is yes, restitution is biblical. Look at Exodus 21, look at Jesus, talking to Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus was a fraudulent tax collector and he repented, and he said, "I'm going to make restitution." And Jesus commended him for that.

Doug Groothuis: I believe that's in Luke 19. So, yes, the principle is right, but you have to talk about who was wronged and who wronged them. And whether or not justice can now occur. And in the case of slaves, the slave owners and the slaves or the enslaved people are dead. They're long dead. So, you have to ask, well, who then receives the benefit? So, there's a historical question. There are many African Americans today who have no ancestry in slavery. They may have come from other countries like Haiti or something. They had slavery there, but it's not American slavery, obviously. So, there's the issue of principle. Do we really have a situation where restitution can occur to the original actors? No. And then there's a question of discerning who has been adversely affected by slavery and Jim Crow. Well, a lot of people, a lot of African Americans have, but who exactly are they?

Doug Groothuis: How do we determine that? And another issue here is this really a constructive solution? And I point out in the book that in the 1960s, particularly under president Lindon Johnson, there was something called the war on poverty. And the essential idea was that we need to redistribute wealth and create all these social programs to help the poor. Many of whom are African American and people like Charles Murray and Marvin Olasky and others have pointed out that the word poverty was lost.

Doug Groothuis: Thomas Sowell also deals with this, the idea that just by redistributing wealth and generating all these social programs will better poor people who were to a large extent of African American simply did not work. So, there are all kinds of reasons to question reparations. I mean, there's a sense that this was so horrible. Something needs to be done. Well, I think what needs to be done is give people a fair chance and to try to minimize a racial animosity and believe that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. The old song, red and yellow, black, and white, they're precious in his sight. But I think reparations are a very bad idea. And I defend that in more detail with lots of footnotes, lots of documentation in my book.

Sean McDowell: Doug, one last question for you, the end of your book, very helpfully you lay out some kind of practical things, ways that Christians can respond in this present moment. But maybe without stealing the thunder so to speak, give us one thing that stands out. You'd say, you know what? I want people to respond to this present moment of Fire in the Streets this way.

Doug Groothuis: Well, develop a biblical worldview and get up to speed on American history. I defend the essential American vision in the book. I think we need to have a qualified patriotism. In fact, I thought we were going to be on video for this. So, I wore my nice coat and my American flag pin. So, I think we need to teach our children and grandchildren what it means to be an American. I have a testimony in my book from one of my colleagues from Korea who became an American citizen. And he very eloquently said what he loves about America, the opportunity, the freedom, the possibilities, the structure of law and so on.

Doug Groothuis: So, let's teach young people, children, grandchildren, the meaning of America. Yes, the faults of America, but America is still the freest country in the world. And we're also part of a system that is self-correcting. That's part of the genius of a constitution is we have the amendment process. We have the division of powers and so on. So, I guess I would end with that, teach what it means to be a Christian who is an American who understands what his country, her country is all about.

Sean McDowell: Well, as far as teaching a Christian worldview, Scott and I are sitting here saying, amen, because that's what we do in our classrooms and our writings. That's our-

Doug Groothuis: Absolutely.

Sean McDowell: Our goal of this podcast think biblically about everything. And that's what you do in the book. Again, Fire in the Streets, it's provocative, it's timely, it's thoughtful. As you know, there's all over on different sides of this issue and you present a case and you'd defend it well. And I think Christians should read it and wrestle with it and discuss it, like you said, to try to think biblically about this issue at this time. So, Doug, thanks for writing just a fascinating book and for joining us today.

Doug Groothuis: You're welcome. And our mutual friend, JP Moreland said in his endorsement of the book, "If you disagree with Dr. Groothuis, than give better arguments."

Sean McDowell: That sounds exactly like what JP-

Doug Groothuis: That's right.

Sean McDowell: Would say. I love it. Well, this has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. We offer programs in Southern California and online, including our masters in Christian apologetics fully online, which is where I teach. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing with a friend. Thank you for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.