Kengor Writes . . .
Paul Kengor is a professor of political science and the executive director of The Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College, in Grove City, Pennsylvania. These essays are republished from The Institute for Faith and Freedom, an online publication of Grove City College, and The American Spectator. Paul Kengor is the author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004); The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007); The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007); and The Communist — Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor (Threshold Editions / Mercury Ink 2012).
Teach MLK, Not CRT
Here’s a critical question for enthusiasts of critical race theory, particularly its growing number of advocates on the religious left: How did MLK do what he did without CRT?
That is, how did the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. manage to accomplish what he did without critical race theory? MLK preceded CRT, which began its rise in the 1970s, exploding in American universities still later. King was assassinated in 1968.
A few more questions:
How did Rosa Parks do what she did without this very, very narrow ideological theory known as CRT?
How about Thurgood Marshall?
How did the NAACP, founded in 1909, ever get off the ground without CRT?
How about Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and the Freedom Riders?
How about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass?
What about Abraham Lincoln?
Juneteenth long preceded critical race theory. How was that possible?
Returning to the Rev. King, how did he manage to accomplish what he did without critical race theory? The answer is obvious: MLK didn’t need CRT. Neither did any of these other figures. Neither do you.
King, in fact, would have rejected CRT, least of all because of its roots in Marxist critical theory, whose origins are the destructive Frankfurt School.
I asked David Garrow, the preeminent biographer of King (and certainly no conservative), about King and CRT. “CRT so post-dates him that there’s no connection,” Garrow told me, “but MLK would have most certainly rejected ANY identity-based classification of human beings.”
No question. For King, you were to be judged by the content of your individual character, not lumped into an ethnic category based on the color of your skin. You were a child of God made in the image of God. You were defined as a person, not stereotyped according to a group.
As St. Paul stated, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
The Christian faith, which of course was King’s faith, rejects these identity-based classifications of human beings.
King’s associates who survived him certainly rejected CRT.
Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker was close to the Rev. King. He stated: “Today, too many ‘remedies’ — such as Critical Race Theory, the increasingly fashionable post-Marxist/post-modernist approach that analyzes society as institutional group power structures rather than on spiritual or one-to-one human levels — are taking us in the wrong direction: separating even schoolchildren into explicit racial groups, and emphasizing differences instead of similarities.” Walker stressed: “The roots of CRT are planted in entirely different intellectual soil. It begins with ‘blocs’ (with each person assigned to an identity or economic bloc, as in Marxism).”
For the record, I get asked constantly about the Rev. King’s views on Marxism and socialism. They are frustratingly and notoriously difficult to pin down. Garrow would put King in the camp of some form of “democratic socialism,” probably closer to that originally envisioned by “social justice” Catholic Michael Harrington during his founding of the Democratic Socialists of America in the early 1980s, a DSA far removed from today’s DSA — the DSA of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Cori Bush. Today’s DSA is saturated with members who are sympathetic to Marxism — what its leadership calls “our 94,915 comrades” —and to atheism (and also virulently anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic). Harrington would have been very troubled by this.
It was precisely the atheism of Communism that bothered the Rev. King.
“Communism, avowedly secularistic and materialistic, has no place for God,” noted King.
“I strongly disagreed with Communism’s ethical relativism. Since for the Communist there is no divine government, no absolute moral order, there are no fixed, immutable principles; consequently, almost anything — force, violence, murder, lying — is a justifiable means to the ‘millennial’ end.”
King would have vehemently rejected the embrace of Marxism by the likes of BLM founder Patrisse Cullors, a stalwart proponent of critical theory generally and CRT in particular. “We are trained Marxists,” says Cullors. “We are super-versed [in] ideological theories.”
If only Cullors knew what a terrible racist Karl Marx was. I’ve written about this at length in articles and books. Both Marx and Engels nastily flung around the n-word; that is, the actual American-English racial epithet for black people. It’s alarming to read letters between Marx and Engels in German and be struck by the n-word jumping off the page.
Of course, Cullors probably has no idea of that. She attended our universities. She would have learned only good things about Marx and Engels, and about critical theory.
Dr. King would surely recoil at statements like the one issued at Thanksgiving from Cullors’ Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation blasting what it dubs “White-supremacist-capitalism.” The statement declared:
“White-supremacist-capitalism uses policing to protect profits and steal Black life. Skip the Black Friday sales and buy exclusively from Black-owned businesses.”
The shocking statement continued: “Capitalism doesn’t love Black people.”
It’s hard to imagine the Rev. King engaging in similar deeply divisive Marxist-based rhetoric. This is what can happen when the ugly specter of Communism is dragged into civil rights. It divides. That’s what Marxism has always done. It’s a toxic ideology with corrosive effect.
All of which brings me back to my opening question: Why do so many people on the left, and particularly the religious left, feel the need to embrace critical race theory in order to teach about the nation’s past racial sins? Believe me, I know. I’m hearing from them constantly, especially as modern times have prompted me to regrettably write about CRT, which for years I avoided like the plague because it’s so incendiary.
Few modern topics have become as divisive, which is no surprise, given that CRT divides. It divides people into groups pitted against one another, into categories of oppressed vs. oppressor. And your group defines you. This certainly flies in the face of the Judeo-Christian conception of all individuals as children of God.
King and Parks and the others, to the contrary, united everyone with their struggle. Sure, they were opposed by racists of their day. Today, however, they are national icons, widely respected, if not revered, by all sides.
We’ve grown so much that there’s now a national holiday for King. Everyone celebrates it. It was approved by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, even given Reagan’s early questions about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When Reagan was first asked about a King holiday during a press conference on May 10, 1982, he unhesitatingly said: “I have the deepest sympathy for it. I know what he means and what he has meant to a movement that I think is important to all of us.” After tasking his administration to consider the costs of such a federal holiday, he approved of it in August 1983.
Today, everyone approves of it.
Figures like King pull together. Critical race theory pulls apart. That’s why it has long been rejected, until, strangely, its recent embrace by many on the religious left as well as many on wider political left.
But not everyone on the wider left. Liberals ranging from the likes of Bill Maher to Andrew Sullivan to John McWhorter to James Carville firmly reject it and take it on. Entire groups like the 1776 Unites project, made up of longtime leading African-American scholars like Carol Swain, Glenn Loury, Bob Woodson, Shelby Steele, Wilfred Reilly, and dozens more have sprung up to counter CRT’s influence.
What inspires people and brings them to their better angels are brilliant works like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birmingham Jail letter, not the works of CRT writers like Robin DiAngelo, Kimberle Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and Ibram X. Kendi.
As I’ve said in this space before, it reminds me of a constant caution I urge to religious-left Christians who oddly feel compelled to say sympathetic things toward Marxism: If you want to help the poor, just follow the Gospel and teachings of Jesus. Why follow militantly atheistic Communism merely because Karl Marx likewise talked of helping the poor? That’s silly. Marxists vehemently reject religion. Just as Marxists don’t get to claim ownership of workers’ rights, neither do critical race theorists suddenly get to claim ownership of civil rights.
People on the religious left have long been easily manipulated by radical theories repackaged and dressed up in a pretty pink bow. They are very naïve about many of these noxious ideological notions, and Marxist practitioners have long known that and targeted them. I wrote a 700-page book on the subject. Again, they should simply stick with the Gospel. Go to Christ. You need not go to anything rooted in Marx. That is not fruit from a healthy tree.
For those of us in education, especially at Christian colleges, this is the time to do what King did in that cell in Birmingham: appeal to the Gospel, Judeo-Christian teaching, natural law, Jesus, St. Paul, Augustine, and Aquinas, and not to a theory developed from the ideas of Karl Marx and the Frankfurt School.
Critical race theory is doing what it was designed to do: divide people. We need to unite people around what is true. Teach MLK, not CRT.
COVID and Conscientious Objection
The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to stop a state vax mandate for health care workers invoking religious objections. It declined to halt New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s denial of the First Amendment religious rights of health care workers. Only three justices stepped forward to intervene: Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas. Gorsuch was clearly disappointed with his colleagues, no doubt Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh chief among them.
“No one seriously disputes that, absent relief, the applicants will suffer an irreparable injury,” stated Gorsuch, denouncing New York’s intention to fire workers and strip their unemployment benefits. This undermining of First Amendment freedoms “alone is sufficient to render the mandate unconstitutional.”
Gorsuch added in his 14-page dissent:
“The Free Exercise Clause protects not only the right to hold unpopular religious beliefs inwardly and secretly. It protects the right to live out those beliefs publicly in ‘the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts.’”
He concluded: “Today, we do not just fail the applicants. We fail ourselves.”
Among those failed, Gorsuch pointed to two New York Catholic physicians who object to the vaccines’ incorporation of aborted fetal cell lines:
“These applicants are not ‘anti-vaxxers’ who object to all vaccines. Instead, the applicants explain, they cannot receive a COVID-19 vaccine because their religion teaches them to oppose abortion in any form, and because each of the currently available vaccines has depended upon abortion-derived fetal cell lines in its production or testing. The applicants acknowledge that many other religious believers feel differently about these matters than they do. But no one questions the sincerity of their religious beliefs.”
An added injustice is that these health care workers were the front-line first-responders when New York was first under siege from COVID (many acquired natural immunity from that exposure). They feel an ingratitude from their governor. That governor, ironically, has not hesitated to insist that God is on her side on this matter. Gorsuch quoted Hochul:
“The day before the mandate went into effect, Governor Hochul again expressed her view that religious objections to COVID-19 vaccines are theologically flawed: ‘All of you, yes, I know you’re vaccinated, you’re the smart ones, but you know there’s people out there who aren’t listening to God and what God wants. You know who they are.’. . . The Governor offered an extraordinary explanation for the change too. She said that ‘God wants’ people to be vaccinated — and that those who disagree are not listening to ‘organized religion’ or ‘everybody from the Pope on down.’”
Governor Kathy Hochul invoked her religious beliefs to vaccinate New Yorkers against their will, while simultaneously saying those New Yorkers could not invoke their First Amendment religious rights to protect themselves. The Supreme Court effectively shielded her, not them. Gorsuch’s objection received literal silence from the six other justices: Barrett, Kavanaugh, John Roberts, and the three liberals — Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.
Particularly notable was the silence from Barrett, Kavanaugh, and Roberts. New York’s health care workers likely expected scant protection from the court’s liberals, but the lack of backing from justices known for defending religious liberty was a major letdown. It points to a larger and growing problem throughout the pandemic.
Sadly, not only are religious rights not being respected, but they are being widely suspected. Increasingly as the pandemic has worn on, supporters of forced vaccination are insisting that many Americans seeking religious exemptions aren’t actually religious. They’re faking it, hiding behind phony faith claims. What really is “religious?” the New York Times asks.
To be sure, one would hope that most people making religious appeals are genuinely religious. Surely some are not. On its face, this seems a legitimate criticism. But think again. Dig deeper into the history of American religious-conscientious objection.
Note the crucial second word there: conscientious.
From the start of the religious-appeal process against COVID mandates, I’ve been concerned that these appeals are more often labeled by employers as “religious exemptions.” They ought to be called religious/conscientious exemptions — that is, appeals based not merely on one’s religious faith but on conscience. This is a critical distinction.
Conscientious objection, of course, has a long and noble history in America. (We held a conference on the topic in 2019.) There are few more honored rights in our history and Judeo-Christian tradition. One of our most revered founders, James Madison, father of the Bill of Rights, insisted that an individual’s conscience was a possession “more sacred than his castle.” Just as one has the right to property, one has the right to conscience, which the state should not infringe upon. Your conscience is yours, and it’s sacred. In fact, it’s part of an eternal nature that transcends the mere physical.
Madison said that “all men are entitled to the full and free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” He argued for inclusion of freedom of conscience in the Bill of Rights. He made that argument in Philadelphia, where William Penn, a century earlier, had implemented a historic Act for Freedom of Conscience.
This freedom has served America so admirably for centuries, from conscientious objectors in World Wars I and II to the Vietnam War, from the appeals of citizens as diverse as the Quakers, Mennonites, Sergeant Alvin York, Desmond Doss, Muhammad Ali, the Berrigan brothers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, it is appealed to by the likes of Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters of the Poor, Kim Davis, and court cases such as Arlene’s Flowers v. the State of Washington, Zubik v. Burwell, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
Liberals are aggressive supporters of conscience when it comes to, say, refusal to fight in an unpopular war. It’s a great irony that liberals who once championed conscientious objection for the Vietnam draft-dodger spurn it for the Baptist florist or Christian cake-baker who begs to decline serving a same-sex wedding, or now for millions of Americans claiming rights of conscience against mandatory vaxxing.
Our onetime precious consensus on conscience is being ignored unlike ever before and redefined unlike ever before.
James Madison lost his effort to get the word “conscience” in the First Amendment, and it’s too bad he did. Nonetheless, courts have long honored appeals to one’s conscience as well as appeals to one’s religion.
Indulge me as I take this to a deeper theological-philosophical level, one that justices like Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, both products of Catholic education and likely admirers of Pope John Paul II, ought to be able to appreciate.
The late pope for decades was one of the world’s leading voices on conscience. He stressed the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of the free will that the Creator bestowed on all human beings. In his August 1993 Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), he wrote: “The relationship between man’s freedom and God’s law is most deeply lived out in the ‘heart’ of the person, in his moral conscience.” Citing the Second Vatican Council, he noted that in the depths of our conscience, we detect a law which we do not impose on ourselves, but which nonetheless holds us to obedience. This is a law written into the heart of all men and women by God, telling us “do this, shun that.” To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (Romans 2:14-16).
The pope brought that message directly to our shores, telling Americans in Miami in September 1987: “The only true freedom, the only freedom that can truly satisfy, is the freedom to do what we ought as human beings created by God according to his plan.”
As noted by political scientist Thomas Rourke, “Possessed with reason and free will, the person seeks vertical transcendence when he seeks to know the truth and act in accord with it.” To arbitrarily interfere with this search for the truth, or to prevent a person from acting according to the demands of conscience — as oppressive governments do — is to deny people their right to responsible personhood.
How a person chooses to act defines the person. Our moral choices matter and, in a sense, make us. This is the very essence of John Paul II’s published work (as Karol Wojtyla), The Acting Person. God wants us to choose rightly. It is truly about how the person acts in accord with the conscience that God gave us.
John Paul II’s conception of the human person speaks not only to the dignity of the person but also as the person living within community. That includes a community like the America of the Founders that created a system that honors the dignity of that person and his or her conscience.
For our modern state to act as an obstacle to an individual moral relationship with God is an affront. It is an outrage. Not only would popes be outraged but so would our Founding Fathers.
Again, James Madison: “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”
In short, modern Americans stand on firm ground whether they appeal to their religion or conscience. Vax mandates should be no exception. It’s already terribly troubling that COVID survivors with natural immunity rarely receive medical waivers even with letters from their physicians arguing that vaccination could be counterproductive and unhealthy. Religious and conscience appeals, however, ought to be literally sacrosanct.
This should be a matter of not only religion but conscience. It’s incumbent upon critics and HR departments and governments to realize and honor this. In this nation, your conscience must remain sacred. *