Veritas Forum cancels discussion on critical race theory after uproar over speaker

The Veritas Forum, a nonprofit group that explores truth and life through various disciplines, including religion and science, apologized Monday and canceled a discussion on critical race theory after critics pointed out that one of their featured speakers was not a leading expert on race and Christianity.

Willie James Jennings, an associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School, and Neil Shenvi, a blogger with a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry, were set to discuss whether a secular worldview like critical race theory can address racism or if Christianity provides a unique response.

While Shenvi has discussed critical race theory on several panels and written a number of articles on the issue, he has no academic training in the subject matter. The event, which was set to take place virtually on March 4, describes both speakers as “leading experts on the topic of race and Christianity.”

The flyer for the canceled Veritas Forum on race and reconciliation. | Facebook/Veritas Forum at the University of Washington

“How does racism manifest itself today? Can a secular worldview provide a grounds for addressing such evils, or does Christianity yield a unique response? Is Critical Theory an epistemically justified and useful tool in the fight against modern injustices?” the promotion for the forum asked. “Leading experts on the topic of race and Christianity Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. Neil Shenvi will engage in a thought-provoking virtual dialogue at this year’s Veritas Forum.”

The forum, which was sponsored by the University of Washington chapter of Ratio Christi, an apologetics evangelism organization that “builds thoughtful Christians and shares compelling reasons for following Christ at universities,” quickly came under fire from critics, including several academics, for describing Shenvi as a leading expert on the subject matter.

“That’s just flat-out dishonest. @veritasforum, please take that language down. In what world?” Samuel Perry, associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, whose research areas include religion, culture, families and race, asked in a tweet Monday evening.

“Even if we were to practice the philosophical exercise of hypothesizing what alternate realities ‘could’ exist; in what possible world would Neil be an expert on Race & Christianity @veritasforum? Whatever possible world in which that reality exists, it isn’t in this one,” theologian Kyle J. Howard argued in another tweet.

Several hours later on Monday night, Veritas Forum announced the cancellation of the event, along with a mea culpa in a statement on Twitter.

“We have canceled the Veritas Forum on race and reconciliation that was scheduled to take place on Thursday, March 4,” the group said.

“At Veritas, we value rigor and respect around life’s most important questions, inviting those with opposing worldviews to the table, and expertise as well as honesty and truth. We also value critique, learning, and admitting our mistakes,” they explained. “We failed to live up to our values. We did not pair one scholar with relevant subject-matter expertise with another of equal expertise, and we did not describe their credentials accurately. We also recognize that there are deeper racial dynamics at play, and we lament any pain that we caused. We apologize.”

Shenvi told The Christian Post in an interview Tuesday that while he agrees it “was a mistake” for the forum to promote him as a leading expert on race, he believes the discussion could have continued.

“I’m disappointed. I was looking forward to it, I prepared a bunch, but these things happen. There’s not much I can do,” he said.

“The Veritas Forum did list me as a leading expert on race, which I certainly am not, prof[essor] Jennings certainly is,” he added, while making it clear that there is nothing wrong with a debate between an expert and a non-expert. As long as both parties agree to the debate, he said he did not see it as a problem.

“If they agree to do it, it’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with doing it. The Veritas Forum had other experts of various kinds dialogue with non-experts,” he said.

“If I ended up having bad arguments, I think that would have been exposed in the dialogue. The aim of these dialogues is to get to truth, to hear both sides. Both before and after the event was canceled, people talked to me and expressed disappointment because they wanted to hear that dialogue,” he added.

Jennings did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CP on Tuesday, but The Veritas Forum received mixed reactions for canceling the discussion between the race scholar and Shenvi.

“Well done. Have the debates, but don’t disrespect a world-class black scholar by pairing him with a Blogger who has already demonstrated ineptitude in understanding both sociology & theology, and in late their credentials. Thanks @veritasforum,” wrote Howard on Twitter.

Eric Reed, pastor of the Journey Church in Tennessee, called the cancellation “weak.”

“This is weak. There’s a reason why Veritas Forum invited Neil to participate in the event, but progressive Twitter got angry. If he’s so unqualified, let him get up there and get humiliated by his lack of knowledge … if that’s really the issue. We’re becoming such pansies,” Reed wrote on Twitter.

Critical race theory, as explained by Purdue University, “is a theoretical and interpretive mode that examines the appearance of race and racism across dominant cultural modes of expression.” Through this framework, scholars seek to “understand how victims of systemic racism are affected by cultural perceptions of race and how they are able to represent themselves to counter prejudice.” 

The subject matter has been controversial, especially in evangelical circles in recent years. In summer 2019, the Southern Baptist Convention passed Resolution 9, “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality,” with much dissent.

It notes in part that while “critical race theory and intersectionality alone are insufficient to diagnose and redress the root causes of the social ills that they identify, which result from sin…these analytical tools can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences.”

In recent months in the wake of racial protests, Southern Baptists like Texas Pastor Dwight McKissic Sr. have argued there is a growing movement to rescind it.

Christopher Lee Bolt, a pastor-teacher at Elkton Baptist Church in Tennessee and head of theology at Legacy Bible College, said Tuesday that the arguments against Shenvi speaking at the Veritas Forum is evidence of why he believes SBC Resolution 9 should not have been adopted.

“The arguments against Neil Shenvi speaking at something like the Veritas Forum because he is said to lack the proper expertise in the area of Critical Race Theory is the main reason I now believe Resolution 9 should have never come to the floor at the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said.

Shenvi told CP on Tuesday that he had been planning to use respected professor of sociology at Baylor University, George Yancey’s model of mutual accountability for the discussion.

He then quoted the closing line of the opening statement he had planned to deliver at the forum.

“We need to talk to each other rather than yell at each other. We need to call each other brother and sister rather than call each other racist and Marxist. So let’s reject unbiblical approaches to fighting racism and embrace a better one,” he said.