FORTH WORTH, Texas — At a packed Fort Worth school board meeting in mid-June, 48 speakers walked to the front of the auditorium and argued against what they called “critical race theory,” which included the school district’s racial equity work.
Of those 48 speakers, nearly a quarter invoked a powerful persuasive tool: God.
As the outcry over what is dubbed “critical race theory” continues to overwhelm school board meetings across the country, Fort Worth-area pastors also sense tremors in the ground beneath their own feet. The turmoil over critical race theory is beginning to rend the Christian church, too, local leaders say.
On one side of the budding divide, a contingent of pastors contends that systemic racism exists and that acknowledging it is the first step toward changing it. Michael Bell, the pastor at the 400-person Greater St. Stephen First Church, says the anti-CRT rhetoric distorts the reality of racism and allows people to avoid talking about it.
“It’s really a frontal assault on the truth,” Bell said. “So that they can inhibit any discussion on race, racism or discrimination. And it’s an attempt to whitewash, if you will, American history.”
Pastors including Bell are pushing back against some of their counterparts — such as Nate Schatzline, a preaching pastor at The House Fort Worth, a Watauga church with about 1,000 active members. Schatzline says structural racism is a myth in the modern United States, and that talking about it sows discord.
“It’s not about where we came from, it’s about where we’re going,” Schatzline said. “And as long as we’re pointing back and staring at the ugly nature of what slavery was — and making this a today problem when it was actually a problem that we overcame — then we’re going to stay in this oppressed vs. oppressor mindset. And it’s causing division in different people. It’s causing people to hate white people.”
Ryon Price, the senior pastor at the 1,000-person Broadway Baptist Church, was one of several pastors who attended that packed school board meeting in mid-June. As he listened to the anti-CRT speakers quote the Bible, pray or mention God, Price says he thought of a passage in the book of Matthew. In the passage, part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that many people will come to him and point to the good works that they performed in his name. Jesus will respond, according to the passage, that he never knew them.
“I am certain that not all the things done in Jesus’ name are things that Jesus would want to be associated with,” Price said.
While CRT has become a buzzword flung in the faces of school board members across the country, the actual theory is an academic framework taught in graduate-level courses. It contends that racism is structural — that is, that racism is built into American culture and entrenched in American institutions.
The theory grew out of a related but separate legal theory about four decades ago. And, while CRT is somewhat fluid and evolving, the core tenets assert that racism is not merely individual but systemic. The theory contends that systemic racism did not simply disappear with the end of slavery or the end of legally coded racism, but that it continued in American culture and institutions. For example, redlining and exclusionary zoning codes are illegal, but housing discrimination and segregation continue anyway.
“We need to pay attention to what has happened in this country and how what has happened is continuing to create differential outcomes, so that we can become the democratic republic we say we are,” said one of the founding scholars of CRT, Kimberlé Crenshaw, in a Columbia University article.
But a contingent of parents and politically active residents have begun talking about “critical race theory” as an expansive worldview. To them, “critical race theory” can refer to a wide range of actual or perceived work that schools are doing to achieve racial equity and inclusion.
They say it is racist against white children and that it teaches Black and brown children to see themselves as victims. They argue that educators should instead be teaching “unity,” which has become an anti-CRT buzzword in its own right.
National reporting has shown that the panic falls largely along partisan lines, and that anti-CRT activists tend to be Republican. Fox News has mentioned CRT dozens of times a day, the Washington Post found. Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said he wants to “abolish” CRT. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has compared CRT to the Ku Klux Klan. And nationally organized conservative networks have encouraged parents to take action, NBC News found.
The result has been a national uproar with intensely local import — a simultaneously high-profile and highly personal outrage.
A total of 27 states have made efforts to restrict teaching on racism and related topics, according to an analysis by the education-focused media outlet Chalkbeat. A number of states, including Texas, have actually restricted such teaching through state legislation or other statewide measures.
That’s despite the assertions of public school districts nationwide, including in the Fort Worth area, that they do not teach critical race theory to students.
As the CRT debate sweeps the nation, local school board members have faced much of the heat, fielding dozens and sometimes hundreds of speakers at meetings that are normally sparsely attended.
But while the tension is perhaps most obvious in school board auditoriums, it’s bubbling up in other arenas, too — including within the church.
There have long been fissures, some of them more like yawning canyons, within American Christianity. As one example, Price pointed back centuries to the antebellum period, when churches used the Bible to justify slavery.
“The truth of the matter is there’s been this tension within American Christianity for a long, long while. And these things are not new. The Bible says nothing is new under the sun,” Price said. “These are not new arguments. These are not new battles. The battle lines just seem to be in a little bit of a different place now.”
In the current battle, the lines falls roughly like this:
Pastors such as Price and Bell say that acknowledging historic and systemic racism’s ongoing impact on people of color is the first step toward healing and doing better. Price said that because the church traditionally teaches original sin — the concept that humans are born sinful as a repercussion of the fall of Adam — it should seem obvious to churchgoers that the past reverberates into the present.
“For Christians, this shouldn’t be that great of an issue to wrestle with, understanding that the past impacts the future,” Price said. “Racism is the original sin of our country.”
Meanwhile, Schatzline says that he’s all for the accurate teaching of history, but denies the existence of systemic racism. He also said that, while slavery was in full swing during the foundation of the United States, that doesn’t mean that slavery and racism are necessarily foundational to the country.
“I just don’t subscribe to the idea that America is a racist country. I believe there’s racists who live in America. But I don’t think that the fabric of our nation is built right here on racism,” Schatzline said.
Schatzline said racial disparities such as the wealth gap between Black and white families — which economists and researchers often attribute to systemic racism — can instead be explained by a “disparity in fatherhood in those families” and by “liberal ideologies” such as CRT and abortion rights.
Steve Penate, a former Fort Worth mayoral candidate and a founding pastor at the nearly 5,000-member Mercy Culture Church, similarly contends that structural racism is a myth. To partially explain persistent racial disparities, Penate instead points to the attitudes in and around communities of color, particularly Black and Hispanic communities.
“It all comes down to the cultures we’re creating,” Penate said. “According to the culture, such is the fruit that comes from it, such are the mindsets that come from it.”
Neither Schatzline nor Penate deny that racism exists. But they both said they believe American racism is confined to individual acts — that interpersonal racism exists but structural racism does not.
The Christian church is no stranger to disagreements.
But Bell said the CRT furor is poised to divide the church so deeply that the opposing sides might not be able to set aside the debate in order to talk about other things.
“I don’t see us agreeing to disagree,” he said.
There would be some obvious repercussions of a fault line so complete — congregations would struggle to see each other’s humanity, similarities would be obscured, cooperation would fall by the wayside.
But Bell worries about a more existential fallout: as the church focuses on internal battles, it could lose sight of the people outside its walls.
“The church is really blind to the possibility that it’s going to argue itself into irrelevancy,” Bell said.
Bell sees that potential irrelevance as one symptom of the church acting as a political entity.
This tangling up of religion and politics is neither new nor shocking, said James Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. Riddlesperger pointed to the civil rights movement, which largely stemmed from Black churches. Civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were pastors.
“The truth is that religion has always been embedded in American politics,” Riddlesperger said. “But it is cyclical, there are times when it seems to raise its head.”
CRT may be one of those times.
Schatzline, for example, acknowledges that his conservative politics influence his beliefs on CRT.
“Obviously my conservative values are going to line up with my Biblical values,” Schatzline said. “It’s a conservative viewpoint that’s opposing CRT.”
And at Mercy Culture, which toed the line of outright candidate endorsement during the spring municipal elections, pushing politics is just another way of living faith out loud.
“We are creating the culture of heaven in your hearts so that you can take that culture into every sphere of life,” Penate said. “We’re called to be loud and bold about our faith.”
But Tom Plumbley — pastor of First Christian Church, which has about 130 active members — said there is a material difference between a church that’s politically active and a church that’s being used for political purposes. While a congregation’s faith may influence its politics, the reverse can be damaging, he said.
“The church needs to take great care whenever it wades into the public arena,” Plumbley said. “It [must] always remain the church and not let itself get used by political interests. And that’s a tightrope we all walk, liberal and conservative. … We always have to maintain our integrity as church.”
Because it is charged by politics and characterized by base-level disagreements about the way the world works, Bell said the budding CRT divide may be nearly impossible to bridge.
“Unless something happens out of the blue, this thing is going to be deepened,” he said.
But if there’s any chance of a resolution or a cease-fire, Bell said it would have to start with simple conversation among the church factions. And there hasn’t been much of that lately.
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