A sign marks the main entrance to the Grove City College campus in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

Keith Srakocic/AP

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Keith Srakocic/AP

A sign marks the main entrance to the Grove City College campus in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

Keith Srakocic/AP

As university students return to campus, anti-race theory efforts are in full gear, claiming the legal academic concept poses a ‘threat’ to conservative Christian colleges and other institutions of higher education.

Alarmism around critical race theory has been simmering in conservative and evangelical spaces for more than two years, especially since the unprecedented outpouring of support for black lives following the police killing of George Floyd.

The term critical race theory, coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a concept created by the late lawyer and Harvard University professor Derrick Bell, who believed that racial progress was only achievable when black goals and whites were converging.

The fear campaign was largely generated by conservative journalist Christopher Rufo in 2020. In a New Yorker interview in June 2021, Rufo wrote, “Critical Race Theory is the perfect villain.”

He recently told NPR that his use of the term was “both effective and accurate.”

In November 2020, the six seminary presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention signed a statement that “condemned racism in all its forms” and also stated that “the affirmation of critical race theory, intersectionality, and of any version of critical theory is incompatible with the Baptist faith and message”.

In November 2021, parents and alumni of Grove City College, a former Presbyterian liberal arts school in Grove City, Pennsylvania, created a petition accusing GCC of “mission drift” by inviting guest speaker Dr. Jemar Tisby . In April, the GCC board issued a special report to respond to the accusations in the petition, ultimately claiming the invitation was a “mistake”.

And in an interview, President Len Munsil of Arizona Christian University said he “would not tolerate any teaching or promotion of critical race theory or Black Lives Matter at any time on its campus.”

NPR reached out to GCC, the SBC, and the ACU for comment, but did not receive a response.

“No institution embodies racist religion both in origin, in development, and even contemporary like the Southern Baptist Convention,” says Dr. Kevin Cosby.

Cosby is senior pastor at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church and president of HBCU Simmons College in Kentucky. Although Cosby was never a part of the SBC, he attended the SBC’s flagship seminary school, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in the 1980s. He has long called the SBC for what he considers racism. In fact, the SBC was founded after Southern Baptists disagreed with the Northern Baptist position against slavery in 1845.

Tisby, a historian, has been called a critical apologist for race theory. At the GCC, he spoke of Queen Esther of the Bible, a woman who spoke out during perilous times. He drew parallels with our current social climate.

Christian nationalism is the real threat to democracy, he says.

“It’s not going to go away with older people,” Tisby says. “It’s being reproduced in these conservative Christian colleges. And universities are incubators of really harmful ideas about democracy, about Christianity, and about society as a whole.”

That danger, Tisby says, radiates beyond campuses. Take, for example, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), a provocateur known for her views on critical race theory, among other issues. There’s also Randy Forbes, a former congressman from Virginia who founded Project Blitz, a conservative group intended to model public education on private Christian schools.

Faithful America, a coalition of Christians, has launched several campaigns against anti-LGBTQ efforts and Christian nationalism. More than 16,000 Christians have signed a petition rejecting Greene’s statements supporting Christian nationalism.

Faithful America executive director Reverend Nathan Empsall says Christian nationalism is about gaining and retaining power.

“We see these bills coming through state legislatures, local councils and school boards attacking CRTs or transgender people, and then say it’s parents deciding the curriculum,” Empsall said.

Program transparency legislation has been introduced in at least eight states this year, with most being voted down. But in March, Florida’s HB 7 and HB 1467, backed by the conservative nonprofit Florida Citizens Alliance, were successfully signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis.

“It sounds popular, but it’s actually all from places like Project Blitz, WallBuilders, and the Family Research Council,” says Empsall.

BlitzWatch, a project created by national civil rights organizations, has tracked more than 50 Blitz-related pieces of legislation pending in 19 states. These bills include school boards revising their history curricula and designating the Holy Bible as the official state book in places like Oklahoma.

Other coalitions such as Christians Against Christian Nationalism have mobilized to prevent the passage of Christian nationalist type legislation. But historically, black Christians have been sound the alarm on nationalists and their misrepresentation of the faith.

“I would encourage people to look beyond Christian nationalism because it is not the only expression of faith, and in particular to look at the tradition of the black church which understood the dynamic between faith and politics very differently,” says Tisby.

This is something black students at Brigham Young University can relate to.

Although BYU has not issued any official statement on critical race theory, the university has faced accusations of racism, including recently.

On August 26, at BYU’s doTERRA Classic, Rachel Richardson, who plays on the Duke University volleyball team, and her grandmother Lesa Pamplin, accused members of the school’s student wing for repeatedly using racial slurs towards him. Since then, BYU officials issued a statement saying they would not tolerate the use of racial slurs and banned a Utah Valley University student from participating in sporting events.

BYU Athletics later released a statement saying its investigation found no evidence of the use of racial slurs and lifted the student’s ban.

“Of the 5,000 people in attendance, none had the bravery or courage to speak out against pure racism,” said The Black Menaces, a group of BYU students.

In February, the small group at the Latter-day Saint school in Utah, where the campus is more than 80 percent white, created an online coalition to support marginalized students at predominantly white institutions. His TikTok account, where he conducts street man interviews at PWIs, garnered nearly 30 million likes and over 700,000 followers. Two of the main goals are to get the BYU administration to create a mandatory running class and annual training for teachers.

The five students said that despite their own racist encounters on campus, they would endure it all again, in an effort to help marginalized PWI students.

“For so many people, their idea of ​​Christianity is characterized by Christian nationalists who are against critical race theory, who ban books, who want to make voting harder, not easier,” Tisby said.

“It strikes me as incredibly tragically ironic because so many Christian nationalists place a high value on evangelism and telling people about Jesus, and they are the ones who are leading people away from Jesus.”

Sierra Lyons is an investigative intern.

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