The 19th Century Roots of Black Liberation Theology and Critical Race Theory

While Critical Race Theory and Black Liberation Theology are 20th century creations, the cultural and theological roots of these ideas find a clear path back to the mid 1800’s. Black Liberation Theology is credited principally to James H. Cone, who was a leftist African-American teacher and theologian at Union theological Seminary in New York, but in many ways, it just built on what had come before it. This school of thought sees the Christian mission as bringing justice to oppressed people through political activism and recasts Jesus as the political liberator of oppressed Black masses (Let Us Reason Ministries 2009).  Black Liberation theology portrays Jesus as a poor black man who lived under the oppression of “rich white people”. The notion of “Blackness” is not merely a reference to skin color, but rather is a symbol of oppression that can be applied to all persons of color who have a history of oppression (Bradley 2010, 17-35). Cone further explains the core beliefs of Black Liberation Theology by saying, “Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill himThe task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community. Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemyWhat we need is the divine love as expressed in Black Power, which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposalUnless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love.” (West 2003)

While Black Liberation Theology could rightfully be seen as “dovetailing” nicely with both Frankfurt School Critical Theory and the Latin American version of liberation theology, and there are specific connectors in recent history, historically it stands on its own tracing its roots to the abolition movement (Sey 2020) and is distinctly American.  Abolitionist leaders predominantly came out of Northern Progressive Protestantism but found it very difficult to make a case for their position based on scripture only.  Likewise they had similar challenges making a constitutional case. Considering that the Bible is a collection of writings that was in excess of 1800 years old at the time and slavery, which took on numerous different forms, had only been recognized as a moral and political issue for a relatively short time, this shouldn’t have been surprising. The anti-abolitionist position based solely on scripture, which could be seen as being either pro-slavery or simply against extra-biblical political activism on the part of the church in keeping with the customs of Christendom, was winning the argument.  Abolition society membership, which was overwhelmingly fed by the church, had dropped from a high approaching 400,000 around 1840 to about 200,000 by the late 1850’s representing well under 2% of the adult population in the North.  Abolitionist tactics had all but killed abolition sentiment in the South.  This numerical drop occurred in spite of large population increases especially in the Midwest.  The decline in support doesn’t reflect a population that actively supported slavery so much as it did the tactics of the radical abolitionists who likewise held their own more subtly racists beliefs.

The failure of the Bible to agree with them was one factor for many prominent abolitionists, who were either protestant clergy or prominent lay people like William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Parker, to step by step move away from traditional Christian theology. In these two well known examples, Garrison was raised a committed Northern Baptist while Theodore Parker was a Congregationalist minister who became a Unitarian and both became tied to Transcendentalism.  Garrison, who was becoming increasingly antagonistic to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, wrote: “There are two dogmas which the priesthood have attempted to enforce, respecting the Bible, from which has resulted in great mischief. The first is – its plenary inspiration…the other dogma is – the Bible is the only rule of faith and practice; so that whatever it teaches or allows must be right, and whatever it forbids must be wrong, independent of all other considerations…. Hence, if slavery is or war is allowed in the book, it cannot be wrong” (Garrison 2012, 225-6). Of course, there were other factors that supported the ongoing secularization process in the northern churches which, in conjunction with their related educational institutions, acted as a conductor, integrator, and disseminator or recurring waves of worldly philosophical trends from Europe.  Still the inability to scripturally support the social and political agendas of the Yankee reformers necessitated alternate sources of supreme authority.

Frederick Douglass, who was a close associate of Garrison, also adopted liberal theology rejecting Biblical authority (Sey 2020). In his book, By These Hands, Black Liberation theologian Anthony B. Pinn explains how Douglas under the influence of colleagues like Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker, agnostic writer Robert Ingersoll, and his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, rejected biblical Christianity (Pinn 2001). Following this pattern, liberal theology became the norm amongst Black abolitionists.  Black-abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth rejected the deity of Christ stating in a speech at the Ohio Women’s Convention in 1851, “How came Jesus into the world? Through God who created Him and woman who bore Him” (Truth 1851). Author and Religious historian and commentator Samuel Sey summarized the theological orientation of the Black Church by the beginning of the 20th century saying: “By the beginning of the twentieth century, Black church leaders – particularly leaders within the African Methodist Episcopal Church, such as Henry Mcneal Turner and Reverdy C. Ransom advocated for a social gospel formed by liberal theology and Marxism” (Sey 2020). 

The civil rights figures of the early 20th century followed much the same pattern. NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois joined the Communist Party in 1961 after a lifetime of socialist activism. He was a staunch supporter of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize in 1959, and traveled to China during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” denying the Chinese government’s role in wide spread famine.  One of his more enduring quotes is, “Capitalism cannot reform itself. Communism — the effort to give all … what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute — this is the only way of human life ” (Conservapedia 2020). DuBois held complex religious beliefs that blended his childhood association with Protestantism and Marxism (Blum 2007). While he was the face of the organization, white progressives like Mary White Ovington, Henry Moskowitz, William English Walling, and Oswald Garrison Villard were instrumental in creating the NAACP. Jamaican born author and poet Claude McKay, who was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, was a Communist until he broke with the Party later in life. Langston Hughes, who was also a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance was a member of the Young Communist League and wrote for the Soviet Russia Today which was published by the CPUSA. Martin Luther King cited Walter Rauschenbusch’s 1907 book, Christianity and the Social Crisis espousing the Social Gospel, liberal theology, and social activism in 1952 as a guiding work for his teaching writing, “Christianity and the Social Crisis…left an indelible imprint on my thinking by giving me a theological basis for the social concern which had already grown up in me. (Sey 2020). Black conservative Booker T Washington stands as a conspicuous exception this pattern.

In the 1930’s, after fleeing Germany, the Frankfurt School and its key element, Critical Theory was imported to the US and took root first in Columbia University followed by the other Ivy League schools. By the mid 60’s, it was set to spread  across the country leveraging adherents with a missionary zeal as students became teachers, lecturers, media employees, civil servants, and politicians (Grozinger 2018). The most damaging figure of the group was Herbert Marcuse in part because he stayed in the states as opposed to returning to Europe after the war, teaching at Columbia, Harvard, Brandeis, and the University of California, San Diego, but also because he adapted Critical Theory to Critical Race Theory.  His One Dimensional Man in 1964 laid the groundwork for integrating Critical Theory with race and proposing an alliance of racial minorities, liberal academia, and violent outside agitators to acquire power.  He enjoyed a pop culture sort of popularity in the 60’s and saw the student rebellion of the 60’s as a great opportunity to make Frankfurt School Critical Theory the core political philosophy of the New Left in America (Preston 2007).  The outcome of all of this, as summarized by commentator Robert Grozinger was, “In thousands of more or less important, but always influential, positions of authority they succeeded in injecting an entire generation with a disgust for their own culture and history, and a selective inability to think.  With their allegedly liberating tolerance, they have torn down natural and culturally nurtured inhibitions and replaced them with state enforced prohibitions on thinking and acting.  These in turn have almost completely destroyed the natural workings and defense mechanism of a healthy society.” (Grozinger 2018)

From this foundation of liberal theology, race hatred, and the social gospel sprang James Cone with his book, Black Theology and Black Power in 1968 defining the tenets of Black Liberation Theology. Cones rejected the authority and infallibility of the scripture stating, “if the basic truth of the gospel is that the Bible is the infallible word of God, then it is inevitable that more emphasis will be placed upon ‘true’ propositions about God than upon God as active in the liberation of the oppressed of the land” (Cone 1970, 88). Cone and other Black Liberation leaders acknowledged that their beliefs were built on hatred of white people but do not hold that this to be racist: “It is important to make a further distinction here among black hatred, black racism, and black Power. Black hatred is the black man’s strong aversion to white society. No black man living in white America can escape it…. But the charge of black racism cannot be reconciled with the facts. While it is true that blacks do hate whites, black hatred is not racism” (Cone 1970, 14-16). This has some obvious parallels to Marcuse’s Repressive Tolerance concept where only one side could be guilty of a sin and only the other side could be a victim of it.

Following Cone was Derrick Bell, who is the second most prominent academic associated with Black Liberation Theology and whom Barack Obama praised at a Harvard protest Rally as being comparable to Rosa Park (Loudon 2019). Bell wrote “Race, Racism, and American Law” in 1970 which is now a standard law school textbook in its 6th edition. Bell was a founding member of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, which describes itself as the “legal arm of the Black Liberation Movement”, and was a contributor to the journal Freedomways.  According to declassified documents from a FBI operation to infiltrate the Communist Party (Operation SOLO), Freedomways, which shutdown in 1986, was subsidized by both the Russians and Chinese (Loudon 2019). The last major contribution to this toxic mix of religious and political philosophy was added by Kimberle Crenshaw with her theory of Intersectionality. Intersectionality sought to unite all supposedly oppressed and marginalized groups into one united theory of social justice, and held that different parts of one’s identity could intersect to “compound their oppression”.  People who have been subjected to corporate or government “diversity training” are typically familiar with these sorts of intersectionality diagrams.

Most Americans got their first exposure to Black Liberation Theology during Barack Obama’s first campaign where his close relationship with Jeremiah Wright came to light along with Wright’s anti-American rants.  The most well know of which goes as follows: “When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains, the government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton field, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America”. No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America  – that’s in the Bible  – for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human.” (Sey 2020)

 To most people affiliated with conservative congregations or traditions, much of rhetoric of Black Liberation Theology would seem shocking and one could easily simply conclude that this sort of thing would be a fringe position adopted by very few.  This conclusion unfortunately would be dramatically wrong both in the case of Black churches and mainstream Protestant churches, groups, and seminaries. Looking first at predominantly Black churches, it is widespread representing app. 40% of Black churches.  Quoting again from Samuel Say’s study on the topic, “Black Liberation Theology has infiltrated all types of Black American churches today, and is perceived as orthodox Christianity within all types of Black churches in America. Millions of Black Americans in Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and other churches today are subjected to sermons from Black Liberation Theology perspectives every Sunday morning. Approximately 40% of Black American churches identify with Black Liberation Theology. This includes thousands of churches from major Black American denominations like the Church of God in Christ and the African Methodist Episcopal Church” (Sey 2020).

What is of even greater concern, however, is the degree to which these beliefs have taken root in mainstream conservative Christian groups and churches. The Southern Baptists, the largest and generally considered one of the most conservative in the country, at their convention in June of 2019, endorsed Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality by a strong majority. They stressed that “critical race theory and intersectionality should only be used in submission to Scripture,” (Loudon, Marxist Critical Race Tehory infiltrates Churches, the Culture 2019). They must have missed the part about all of these teachings being fundamentally against the Scripture.  This vote probably represents the best survey of the views of traditionally conservative or fundamentalist clergy on the subject of what amounts to a political puzzle for church leaders and in many cases their responses have not been that different from “woke” corporations.

Throughout the history of the church in America, the process of secularization has remained roughly the same whether in the 19th century or the 21st. Church affiliated academics and prominent preachers, fearing their social irrelevance, adopt and propagate extra-Biblical or anti-Biblical teaching by masking their intent and message to their congregations. The church has survived successive waves of ever changing popular teachings imported from Europe but not without its scars. Overcoming this current assault will require that believers are willing to understand and defend their own beliefs and heritage because this adversary is relentless.  There is no such thing as being “woke enough” to appease “the woke”.

Bibliography

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—. Virginia Christian Alliance. August 9, 2019. https://vachristian.org/marxist-critical-race-theory-infiltrates-the-churches-and-the-culture/ (accessed 2021).

Pinn, Anthony B. These Hands; A Hisotry of African Anerican Humanism. New York, New York: University Press, 2001.

Preston, Keith. Lew Rockwell. January 22, 2007. https://www.lewrockwell.com/2007/01/keith-preston/the-new-totalitarianism/ (accessed 2021).

Sey, Samuel. Ezra Institute. June 8, 2020. https://www.ezrainstitute.ca/resource-library/articles/what-is-black-liberation-theology/#_edn9 (accessed 2021).

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