Critical Religious Studies in Higher Education: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions
The original and still most famous critical theory, critical race theory (CRT), has been in the news during the last year. In at least 20 U.S. states, legislators have introduced bills to prohibit the teaching of CRT in primary and secondary schools, and in some cases, higher education (Pettit, 2021, par. 2). Primarily Republican lawmakers have taken against CRT, claiming that it is “divisive” and may cause students “to feel ‘guilt,’ ‘anguish,’ or other forms of distress due to that person’s race or sex” (par. 4).
The definitions being imposed upon CRT through this legislation distort its true meaning and intent. Although scholars do not necessarily agree on all components of the theory, according to noted CRT scholars Delgado and Stefancic (2012), it is based on three core tenets:
First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational—“normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country …. Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group …. A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, … races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient … (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012, pp. 7-8)
Academic leaders have spoken out against the attacks on CRT, most notably in the recent Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History (available on a variety of organizations' websites, including Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2021). This joint statement, signed by 123 associations and organizations, centers on two fundamental concerns about anti-CRT legislation: first, that “these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn … about the role of racism in the history of the United States” (par. 2) and second, that “these legislative efforts seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators” (par. 3).
State Legislatures' Possible Other Targets
While these legislative efforts are currently focused on CRT, one can imagine legislators eventually targeting other critical theories such as DisCrit (Connor et al., 2016), queer theory (Denton, 2019), or newer critical spiritual or religious theories, like my own Critical Religious Pluralism Theory (CRPT; Small, 2020). I do not relish attention from individuals who would curb my academic freedom to write and teach about Christian supremacy or students’ freedom to learn how Christianity shapes society’s laws and cultural narratives. Yet for society to change and become equitable for people of all religious, secular, and spiritual identities, the public will need to become aware of CRPT or similar change models. Just as we cannot end systemic racism without talking about it in educational settings, we cannot end systemic Christian supremacy without discussing it. And even though CRPT was not designed as an attack on Christianity itself, some Christians certainly would take that to be the case if they ever read my work. That reaction would be as “divisive” as when White people learn about their complicity in systemic racism.
If state legislatures do target critical religious theories for banning, I hope that as many individuals and associations come together in opposition as have come out in support of CRT. Unfortunately, there may not be many more educators who are aware of critical religious theories as there are legislators. Partly this is due to the newness of critical religious theories, but partly it is related to Christian normativity, which “conveys the status of truth and rightness on Christian culture, and makes Christian language and metaphors and their underlying theology the national standard” (Joshi, 2020, p. 3). Professors are not necessarily more impervious than others to the impact of Christian normativity. In fact, over 80% of U.S. undergraduate faculty identify as Christian or claim “none” as their religious affiliation (Gross & Simmons, 2009, p. 119)—with critical religious theories reminding us that most who identify with the label “none” were actually raised and/or socialized as Christians (Edwards, 2018). These faculty members may not be aware of their Christian privilege, and they consistently benefit from Christian supremacy.
Addressing Christian Supremacy
The need to address Christian supremacy in the United States is as pressing as it is to address systemic racism. The two social ills are inextricably linked together, and Protestant Christianity has been instrumental in the social construction of race (Joshi, 2020). To attempt to dismantle systemic racism without attending to Christian supremacy would be to tackle only one part of the problem. Just as there are White allies who support the teaching of CRT, Christian allies must become aware of and support the need to teach about Christian supremacy.
Association of American Colleges & Universities. (2021). Joint statement on legislative efforts to restrict education about racism and American history. https://www.aacu.org/joint-statement-legislative-efforts-restrict-education-about-racism-and-american-history-0
Connor, D. J., Ferri, B. A., & Annamma, S. A. (Eds.). (2016). DisCrit: Disability studies and critical race theory in education. Teachers College Press.
Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2012). Critical race theory: An introduction (2nd ed.). New York University Press.
Denton, J. M. (2019). Queer theory: Deconstructing sexual and gender identity, norms, and developmental assumptions. In E. S. Abes, S. R. Jones, & D.-L. Stewart (Eds.), Rethinking college student development theory using critical frameworks (pp. 55-63). Stylus Publishing.
Edwards, S. (2018). Distinguishing between belief and culture: A critical perspective on religious identity. Journal of College and Character, 19(3), 201-214. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2018.1481097
Gross, N., & Simmons, S. (2009). The religiosity of American college and university professors. Sociology of Religion, 70(2), 101-129. https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srp026
Joshi, K. Y. (2020). White Christian privilege: The illusion of religious equality in America. New York University Press.
Pettit, E. (2021, June 16). ‘Cynical and illegitimate’: Higher-ed groups assail legislative efforts to restrict teaching of racism. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www-chronicle-com.eu1.proxy.openathens.net/article/cynical-and-illegitimate-higher-ed-groups-assail-legislative-efforts-to-restrict-teaching-of-race
Small, J. L. (2020). Critical religious pluralism in higher education: A social justice framework to support religious diversity. Routledge.