03.24.20

Black Man in White Man’s Territory, 3: Sociology, Cultural Marxism, and the Church

I strongly believe that sociological inquiry can be a wonderful tool in our analysis of the role of race in the church. However, I believe the Bible’s teachings should be the foundation for our sociological inquiry.[1] It is with this foundation that we can go into society and make observations about the world and those around us, similar to what we see in Proverbs.[2]

As I go into society, I have three central desires for the sociological inquiry I take part in. First, I desire for it to be a form of discipleship through which I may help do some form of deliberate spiritual good to others so that they may follow and be more like Christ. I desire to love them, to encourage them, to build them up, to instruct them so that they may be mature in Christ, and to stir them up in love and good works.[3] With this series of posts, I desire to do deliberate spiritual good to Black Christians within predominantly White churches so that they may grow in sanctification and thrive in their individual racial identity. Yes, it is an ambitious hope, but I truly believe all this can be done through the discipline of Sociology and the resources that may result from my inquiry. I believe that, when done appropriately, this insufficient discipline, coupled with the sufficient and transformative power of the Gospel, can be a means of sanctification for all believers.

My second desire is to use the discipline of sociology to inform and impact society and the cultures within it. If, in this process, my inquiry helps inform and impact the culture of Evangelicalism to become an environment that is spiritually and culturally healthy for all Black Christians, praise God!

My final desire is that my sociological inquiry is scientific, interpretive, and critical. Scientific in that this research is reproducible. Interpretive in that it displays an empathy for human beings, their experiences, the social activities they build and how they understand those activities. And finally, critical in that it critiques the historically unsafe environments for many Black Christians. I believe my observation and analysis of society, and of the relations between those in society, can evolve in a way that is informed by a biblical worldview.[4] I proclaim with Dr. Carl Ellis, that it is by common grace that the social sciences may give us insights on issues we face today. But, ultimately, theology will always be the Queen of the sciences that holds everything together.[5] I also understand that “this task is fraught with opportunity and danger for the disciple-maker.”[6] But I believe that contemporary discipleship through powerful art, such as sociology, is a task that must be done and with God’s help it can be done.[7]

Redeeming Sociology

As Christians participate in sociological inquiry of society and the church, we must ask “questions about society [by] standing back from the immediacy of our circumstances.”[8] Possibly the most important question for the Christian sociologist, and Christian academic in general, is where they obtain the standard for determining what is unjust and inequitable, and how to make positive change? When the Christian sociologist or academic engages in this transcendence, it is important that we acknowledge that we are ultimately dependent on the transcendence of God. We must not forget that this inquiry has the potential to either increase communion with God or increase our rebellion.[9] We must understand that sociology, like most academic disciplines, provides a type of transcendence that can lead to a sense of superiority.[10] We can, if we’re not careful, reach certain conclusions at the end of our inquiry that lead us to perceive society in ways that make us feel superior to the “uninformed” participants in our society.[11] Our inquiry can lead us to believe that we, in all of our “exceptional intellect,” are so knowledgeable of and above the many influences within our society that dominate the regular citizen as a result of their ignorance.[12] This type of intellectual superiority is, in my opinion, one of the greatest indictments of modern “woke” culture.

But intellectual superiority is not only common within “woke” culture, it has also historically plagued White Evangelicalism. Individuals in both of these cultures have turned genuine knowledge into pseudo-exceptional forms of superior thought reserved only for whom they deem to be the most honorable in society. This intellectualism separates members of society into a battle between those who are “enlightened” in thought and those who are in need of enlightening. Intellectual superiority, like all evil, exists as a result of the fallen and sinful nature of every human being. Every believer who is actively growing in theological and sociological knowledge must be mindful of the temptation to view intellect in this way. To fall victim to the sin of intellectual superiority is to forget that one was once in the same place as those whom they scoff at.

In Redeeming Sociology, Vern Poythress includes excerpts written by French philosopher René Descartes, who believed that “custom and example have a much more persuasive power than any certitude obtained by way of inquiry.”[13] Despite the certitude obtained through our inquiries, both the Black and White community have been victims of the cruel and evil persuasive power of White Supremacy that birthed many customs and examples which we still see today. The custom of slavery produced an example of the biological and intellectual superiority of Whiteness. The custom of Jim Crow produced an example of the threat and inferiority of Blackness. And the custom of segregation produced the example of justifiable separation of human beings. These customs, and others like them, have birthed a wealth of different examples for Black and White Christians as well. For the former, an example of a persistent and deep hope in the face of suffering,[14] but also an example of liberation and prosperity hermeneutics.[15] For the latter, an example of supremacy rooted in lust for power,[16] but also a complicated example of evangelizing the nations.[17] These persuasive powers have been deeply ingrained in the customs and examples of both Black and White Christian expressions.

Poythress explains that “many people raised in monocultural situations have never asked themselves questions about society. And even those exposed to multiple cultures may not ask deeper questions about the functions of social interaction and culture.”[18] According to W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of Double Consciousness, these questions are commonplace in the lives of Black people as they live within majority White culture.[19] However, according to the experiences of the Black males interviewed in this study, Poythress’ explanation is true of the majority of predominantly White Evangelical churches and the congregants within them. There seems to be an innate belief that the “standard of whether or not something is true is based on [whether one] ever heard [or in this case experienced] it before.”[20] When analyzing Western societies’ standards and their role in the academic study of Sociology, Poythress makes a strong point that helps illuminate a very telling reality for Evangelicalism. If, in the critical sociological study that takes place in western society, there is no absolute morality from which societies social standards derive, then the standards will vary with the opinions of every new majority.[21] But what absolute moral claims remain in such a society? This is an important question. And for a culture or society that experiences a new majority opinion, such as the United States seems to be experiencing in recent years as it relates to race and culture, this must be discussed further. But just as the standards of society can change with the new majority’s opinion, they can also remain the same if that majority opinion continues to prevail.

This has been the case for much of Evangelicalism’s racial history. White Evangelicals have built a monopoly on social standards within Evangelicalism based on their own opinions as the majority. But if this is the case, what kind of absolute moral claims remain in Evangelicalism? More than likely, White Evangelicals would respond with “the Bible of course!” But this answer troubles me. It troubles me due to the continued presence of the persuasive power of White Supremacy and the custom and example of intellectual superiority it has produced within White Evangelicalism for generations.

“Some White Christians, and this has been true for centuries, like to intellectualize ethical issues such as fighting racism. If they can demonstrate a (theo)logical flaw then they deem the whole enterprise invalid. Meanwhile they offer nearly no reasonable alternative.”[22]

This culture of intellectual superiority within White Evangelicalism ensures that as long as the theologically conservative gatekeepers of orthodoxy are guarding the doors of influence, no competing opinions will be allowed to reach the level of influence of the majority’s opinion. There is a dangerous tendency of White Evangelicals to declare its culture as synonymous with orthodoxy. This conflation leads many White Evangelicals to view internal and external critiques of their culture or belief, no matter how much these critiques are rooted in scripture, as a threat to orthodoxy. But what is so puzzling for many is when the proclaimed “orthodoxy” of White Evangelicalism does not produce the orthopraxy that many Christians of color believe to be integral to the Gospel. White Evangelicalism’s historic tendency to consistently wield the sword of absolute orthodoxy while subsequently failing to follow that right belief with right conduct has been a constant source of division between Black Christians and White Evangelicalism. White Evangelicalism’s intellectual superiority and cultural monopoly on orthodoxy has assured the control of orthodox doctrine, theology, epistemology, and ecclesiology has never left the hands of the majority culture in Evangelicalism.

Misplaced Fear

We are seeing this intellectual superiority rear its ugly head within the White Evangelical church in the ways many are approaching conversations on race, injustice and critical inquiry. Cultural Marxism has been declared, by many White Evangelicals, to be the most dangerous threat to orthodoxy within the church. With many believing it is rapidly infiltrating the church today. While the threat of this neo-Marxist philosophy, modernized by Antonio Gramsci, can sometimes be seen outside of the church, I believe the fear of its perceived infiltration within the church has been largely overblown and misplaced.

Rob Smith, a lecturer at Sydney Missionary Bible College and editor for Themelios, details the history and influence of neo-Marxism extremely well in his journal article, “Cultural Marxism: Imaginary Conspiracy or Revolutionary Reality?”[23]According to Smith, Gramsci desired to dechristianize and decapitalize western society in order to make way for the triumph of his theory of Socialism. With this theory, Gramsci desired to “subvert society by changing its culture and change its culture by infiltrating its institutions.”[24] Gramsci desired to infiltrate schools, universities, media and also the church. Gramsci believed the consciousness of society could be transformed once the culture of these institutions were captured. This flipping of the system would then create a “periphery-centred society where oppressors must now be oppressed and those formerly privileged must have their privileges taken away.”[25]

In the years since Gramsci’s works were translated and widely distributed in the 1970’s, “nowhere were his ideas followed more effectively than in academia. The whole discipline of ‘cultural studies’ is largely the result of his influence and his impact on the humanities and social sciences has been nothing short of immense.”[26] In my time in the social science community, I have seen remnants of this influence. Because of the influence it has had in academia in recent years and Gramsci’s intentions for Socialism to be “the religion that must kill Christianity,” many in the Evangelical church have a legitimate reason to be concerned for those in society embracing pieces of this ideology. They have a legitimate reason to make themselves and others in the body aware of its growing influence in certain pockets of society. And if this was the extent of the action of many in Evangelicalism as it relates to this neo-Marxist ideology, I probably would not be including this piece in my article series. But unfortunately, it is not. Instead, Cultural Marxism’s influence within the church has been stretched to proportions like that of a conspiracy theory. And it is being used in a manner that is frighteningly similar to the fear mongering of William S. Lind,[27] the manifestos of white supremacist terrorists,[28] and the anti-Semitic claims of the radical political right.[29] Those who perpetuate this conspiracy declare fellow Christians who may use similar long-standing language as embracing neo-Marxism and subsequently label them Cultural Marxists. But as Dr. Ellis pointed out in his recent blog post, “language usage is not evidence of ideological affirmation.”[30]

As a result of perpetuating this conspiracy theory, many of the concerns of Christians labeled “Cultural Marxist’s” regarding race, injustice and critical inquiry are depicted as influenced by the ideology and therefore an enemy to the church and the Gospel. “There is some justification for describing ‘Cultural Marxism’ as ‘a viral falsehood used by far-right figures, conspiracy theorists, and pundits to explain many ills of the modern world,” Smith says.[31] This “weaponized narrative,” as Smith calls it, is a dangerous and lamentable evolution of the intellectual superiority that has historically plagued White Evangelicalism. Because of this history of intellectual superiority, it is not a coincidence that many Black Christians are on the receiving end of this label–adding more and more Black Christians to the list of those who have been shut out of the realm of influence in White Evangelicalism. In the midst of this weaponized narrative, we must understand that to declare someone a “Cultural Marxist” may be one of the heaviest claims a Christian can make of another believer. If Gramsci’s neo-Marxism seeks to end Christianity’s “cultural hegemony” and dechristianize western society, then to call another Christian a “Cultural Marxist” is to call them an apostate and declare them an enemy of Christ.

The point of disagreement in the conversation on race, injustice, and critical inquiry in the church is not found in differing diagnosis of society sinfulness–though many Christians still struggle with the obvious realities of systemic oppression–but in the prescribed methods for changing society. On one end of the spectrum are Christians who say, by word and deed, that right belief in the Gospel (orthodoxy) is the sole remedy needed to redeem society. And all social action Christians take part in are “implications” of this orthodoxy. This end of the spectrum tends to separate the two. They claim orthopraxy as being a “Gospel implication,” but not integral to the Gospel. This belief has historically led to a deep social blindness often rooted in a desire to maintain power and control regarding theological and social truth. All the while labeling such beliefs as orthodoxy.

“Again and again it has been demonstrated that the lines are held by those whose hold on security is sure only as long as the status quo remains intact. If security or insecurity is at the mercy of a single individual or group, and [that group] is convinced that [they are] safe only as long as [they] use [their] power to give others a sense of insecurity, then the measure of [others] security is in [their] hands.”[32]

If “all imperialism functions this way,” as Howard Thurman says, then the historic and contemporary spiritual imperialism of White Evangelicalism must be lamented and vehemently rejected. On the other end of the spectrum, where many Black Christians historically land, are Christians who hold the belief that integral to orthodoxy is orthopraxy.[33] To those at this end of the spectrum, the Gospel is not the Gospel without the “Gospel implications” of the former. In order to be a complete and genuine witness, orthopraxy must accompany orthodoxy in the social action taken to redeem society.

Contrary to the division many in the church continue to perpetuate, the current debate regarding neo-Marxism should not be between these two ends of the spectrum that declare belief of the Gospel. The debate lies between the church and an ideology that has labeled the church as the enemy. Gramsci’s Cultural Marxism believes our society must be dechristianized, flipped and reconstructed to take power away from the powerful and give it to the oppressed. Thus, flipping the system on its head. But that is not redemption! To flip an evil system on its head may change the hand who wields the power, but it does not redeem the system. This dechristianization of society is what many Christians who entirely oppose critical inquiry and social justice seem to be fearful of. But this fear is being misplaced on fellow Christians and overblown within Christendom. The insufficient and ideological desire for revolution of neo-Marxist ideologies is simply not the desire of the latter group of Christians who believe justice is integral to the Gospel. It is not what those concerned with matters of race, injustice, or critical inquiry are promoting or affirming.

Pursuing Civility

“The Gospel is the only message that keeps the abused from becoming abusers once they gain power. If you have the constraints and the restraints of the Gospel, you can look at your oppressors, know that you’re equal to them, overcome them and not hold against them, for the duration of eternity, what they’ve done to you.”[34] If the justification for calling other brothers and sisters enemies of the Gospel–which is what one is saying by calling others a Cultural Marxist– is that this ideology has manipulated them into affirming certain aspects of the movement for Social Justice and academic theories, then I would urge one to consider the spiritual and eternal weight of the claim they’re making. The fear has been misplaced. This vitriolic declaration of war on fellow Christians and society is simply not the charitable and civil way in which Christians are called to live. It is not an accurate representation of members of the body seeking to do justice. It is not a genuine, Gospel-centered, Christian witness to our increasingly secular society. The fervent fear and efforts to resist non-Christian ideologies–with little to no corresponding fear and effort to resist historic Christian ideologies such as racism, White supremacy, and intellectual superiority ingrained in its patterns–is yet another lamentable evidence of the insufficient witness of White Evangelicalism. The lack of urgency to collectively act against this insufficient witness is deeply harmful to Black Christians, and all Christian’s of color, in and outside of predominantly White Churches. This posture of apathy and blindness has seemed to always plague White Evangelicalism.

I am deeply grateful for the timely resources put forth by both Dr. Rob Smith, Dr. Carl Ellis and others who have helped lead Christians on both sides of this conversation towards a more civil discourse. I pray these pieces will help lead all Christians to personal examination, contemplation and meditation, so that we may move forward toward unity in a more charitable and civil manner. As Poythress states:

“Human action is purposeful, meaningful action, in imitation of God’s meanings and purposes in his actions. God’s comprehensive knowledge is the foundation for our derivative knowledge as human beings. Because God created man in his image, we have the prospect of genuinely understanding someone else’s meanings, and even the meanings of a culture other than our own. God’s instruction in the Bible, combined with his work to transform us, can be the foundation for a biblically based “critical” approach to society.”[35]


Further reading on Sociology and the Church:

  1. Redeeming Sociology by Vern Poythress
  2. Divided by Faith by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith
  3. Blacks & Whites in Christian America by Jason Shelton & Michael O. Emerson
  4. Beyond Racial Gridlock by George Yancey

[1]Poythress, Vern, 2011, Redeeming Sociology: A God-Centered Approach, Crossway,  p. 293.

[2]Ibid, 293.

[3]Mark Dever, 9 Factors to Consider When Choosing Someone to Disciple, 9Marks, 03  May 2016,  https://www.9marks.org/article/9-factors-to-consider-when-choosing-someone-to-disciple/.

[4]Poythress, 308.

[5]Carl Elli,  Seven Points of Clarification, Prophets of Culture, 05 February 2020, http://drcarlellisjr.blogspot.com/2020/02/seven-points-of-clarification.html

[6]Carl Ellis, Racism Alone? Reflections on the Current National Divide, Prophets of Culture, 12 December 2014, http://drcarlellisjr.blogspot.com/2014/12/racism-alone-reflections-on-current.html#more

[7]Ibid.

[8]Poythress, 290.

[9]Ibid, 290.

[10]Ibid, 291.

[11]Ibid, 291.

[12]Ibid, 291.

[13]Poythress, 282.

[14]Andre Willis,What Hope Really Meant to Martin Luther King Jr, 05 July, 2017, https://bigthink.com/videos/andre-willis-what-hope-actually-meant-to-martin-luther-king-jr

[15]Thabiti Anyabwile, 2015, Reviving the Black Church: New Life for a Sacred Institution, Nashville, TN, B&H Publishing, 20-21.

[16]Wilson, Charles Reagan, 1980, Baptized in Blood : The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920, University of Georgia Press, 100-118.

[17]Ryan Hoselton. A Tragic Chapter in Christian Missions. The Gospel Coalition. 15 February, 2019. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/christian-slavery/.

[18]Poythress, 290.

[19] Du Bois, W. E. B. 1989, The souls of Black folk, New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books.

[20]Ameen Hudson, Twitter Post ,06 February, 2020, 10:46pm, https://twitter.com/Ameen_HGA/status/1225641882522251264?s=20.

[21]Poythress, 305.

[22]Jemar Tisby, Twitter Post, 06 February, 2020, 10:19pm, https://twitter.com/JemarTisby/status/1225635089708511232?s=20

[23]Ron Smith, Cultural Marxism: Imaginary Conspiracy or Revolutionary Reality?, themelios, December, 2019, https://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/cultural-marxism-imaginary-conspiracy-or-revolutionary-reality/.

[24]Ibid.

[25]Ibid.

[26]Ibid

[27]Joe Carter, Kinism, Cultural Marxism, and the Synagogue Shooter, 30 April, 2019, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/kinism-cultural-marxism-and-the-synagogue-shooter/.

[28]Reuters, Factbox: Excerpts from 1,500-page Norway killer manifesto, 24, July, 2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-norway-manifesto-factbox/factbox-excerpts-from-1500-page-norway-killer-  manifesto-idUSTRE76N14J20110724.

[29]Bill Berkowitz, Cultural Marxism’ Catching On, Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 August, 2003, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2003/cultural-marxism-catching..

[30]Ellis, http://drcarlellisjr.blogspot.com/2020/02/seven-points-of-clarification.html.

[31]Smith, https://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/cultural-marxism-imaginary-conspiracy-or-revolutionary-reality/

[32]Thurman, Howard. 1949. Jesus and the Disinherited. Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, p. 14-15.

[33]Darryl Williamson, The Pilgrim’s Progress: How a Pilgrim Identity Becomes Our Main Identity, 05 March, 2020, Just Gospel 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwnYQiweFfw.

[34] Project, What is Biblical Justice?,  18, November, 2018, https://www.courageousconvos.org/justice. Quote attributed to Charlie Dates (20:32).

 

[35] Poythress, 150.

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (ESV)

Tryce Prince
Tryce Prince is the husband of his wife Erin and the Executive Coordinator for the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies & Spiritual Action at Abilene Christian University. He is set to begin his work on a PhD in Sociology in the fall of 2020. You can reach him on Twitter @TrycePrince.

C’mon Up!