How the Right’s War on ‘Critical Race Theory’ Taps into the Powerful Religion of American Innocence

Still from WSET Virginia news clip.

I would never pick a fight with the formidable Michelle Goldberg, but I must pick a tiny bone in respect to her new take on what the Right is up to in the current public school wars. 

After aptly noting how the entire history of the modern Right’s rise could be traced to white Christians’ resistance to school desegregation and anything remotely affirming of queerness in public schools, Goldberg pivots to the new assault on “critical race theory” (I will follow her in using quotation marks, as the Right’s new target of choice is no more than a crude caricature):

Now the Christian right has more or less collapsed as anything but an identity category. There are still lots of religious fundamentalists, but not, post-Donald Trump, a movement confidently asserting itself as the repository of wholesome family values. Instead, with the drive to eradicate the teaching of “critical race theory,” race has moved back to the center of the public-school culture wars.

There is nothing even slightly wrong with Goldberg’s pivot, but she leaves out how religion continues to play a central and decisive role in the new anti-wokeness campaign, which of course is far broader and deeper than its eruption in our schools and colleges. She leaves out how the remaining “identity category”whitenesscarries profound religious significance in a culture that long ago baptized whiteness and canceled any possible white sin through the blood of the Lamb. 

When she writes that religious conservatives can no longer seize the banner of “wholesome family values,” Goldberg overlooks what lies much deeper than sex phobia in the hearts of anxious white Christians. What claims their most passionate loyalty by far—and what raises their hackles when it’s called into question—is the religion of America itself: a religion centered in the idea of American Innocence and the corollary conviction that no one who chronicles the rise of This Great Country of Ours should be allowed to question the reality of ongoing moral progress on these shores.  

What so infuriates the keepers of the flame is how the witness of Black people, going back to the very beginning, interferes with and ultimately defeats the myth of the Virtuous Republic.
What the recent slaps at “critical race theory” from the likes of Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott, and the thirty GOP senators who signed an angry complaint letter condemning Biden’s extremely modest proposal for some race-conscious educational grantmaking all have in common is a loathing of the disloyalty they perceive among those who would dare to challenge the approved narrative.

That narrative, going all the way back to Cotton Mather, insists that white men’s colonization of North America and the building of the American empire (continentally and beyond) is and must be the work of Divine Providence. The core American religion holds that any failures or “mistakes” along the way (e.g., the extermination of the indigenous peoples, the enslavement of millions of kidnapped Africans to build the wealth, the subjugation and exploitation of women, the vicious treatment of Asian immigrants, etc.) cannot alter the central fact that ours remains a virtuous history, that we were and are a redeemer nation, a city set on a hill, a beacon of democracy and human rights that still sends its bright beams of hope around the world.

What so infuriates the keepers of the flame is how the witness of Black people, going back to the very beginning, interferes with and ultimately defeats the myth of the Virtuous Republic. This is why anti-Blackness is baked into the increasingly vehement defense of the approved narrative: the one thing the mythmakers cannot tolerate is the persistence of this faithful witness. 

The language of the senators’ letter to Education secretary Miguel Cardona shows how Republicans intend to tap into the still-potent religion of American Innocence and its anti-Black subtext:

Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil…Our nation’s youth do not need activist indoctrination that fixates solely on past flaws and splits our nation into divided camps…

Taxpayer-supported programs should emphasize the shared civic virtues that bring us together, not push radical agendas that tear us apart. 

The GOP senators go on to fulminate over what they call the “infamous” 1619 Project, created by the New York Times, which was mentioned in the Education Dept.’s announcement of its proposed grantmaking program:

citing this debunked advocacy confirms that your proposed priorities would not focus on critical thinking or accurate history, but on spoon-feeding students a slanted story.

Never mind that the underlying historiography informing the 1619 Project has not been “debunked.” Trump made a big fuss over it, in his usual scurvy fashion, and now it’s accepted gospel among conservatives everywhere that Nikole Hannah-Jones should be hanged by her thumbs for disturbing the peace of the Virtuous Republic.

Here’s a bright red thread—a seething hatred for the likes of Hannah-Jones and Ibram X. Kendi—that conservative strategists hope will unite swampland yahoos and oh-so-refined academics and journalists like Sean Wilentz and Ross Douthat. Because they all agree on one thing: there were no actual crimes, white people are not really guilty of anything, and the whiners need to shut up and salute the flag of the redeemer nation. 

The big question, of course, is whether the frontal assault on “critical race theory” will have significant political legs. Plenty of liberals seem willing to bet that what we have here is nothing more than white nationalism’s pathetic last gasp: that the demographic tide has finally turned decisively against the racism-drenched reactionary project.

I’m not so sure. I think we can already see that anti-Blackness dressed up as anti-wokeness may, in fact, succeed to a chilling degree. Not surprisingly, the states where Republican leaders are blatantly seeking to suppress the Black vote also tend to be the same states where conservatives lead the attacks on race-conscious school curricula. But the reach and intensity of the latest anti-Black culture war is far wider than that of the GOP’s voter suppression effort, setting off ugly fights in several elite Eastern prep schools and fomenting outraged legislative resolutions in statehouses all across the country. The religion of American Greatness has no shortage of Democratic adherents; it is a fully bipartisan creed. 

No one doubts that we are living through a moment of racial reckoning. The use of the “reckoning” frame has already attained a well-deserved cliche status. But historical reckonings don’t necessarily resolve themselves in positive ways (no matter what the keepers of the Virtuous Republic flame would have you believe). 

As historian Carol Anderson has warned, American anti-Blackness has enjoyed remarkable resilience through all previous times of reckoning. Anti-Blackness is fully capable of gaining new recruits even as its older white champions fade away: witness the gravitation of Latino men—many of them evangelical Christians who identify as white—to the old story of American exceptionalism and American Innocence. 

To be clear, I think that this war can be won, but it can only be won if we don’t make the mistake of misjudging the enemy. It can be won if Black people continue to be the field commanders, as their righteous witness can’t be dismissed and ridiculed by the Raging Right without exposing the racist core of the Right’s project. 

This war can be won, but in order to win we can never underrate the power of anti-Blackness. It is a religion, after all.