Is Religious Exclusivism Racist?

In Douglas Moo’s Romans commentary (NICNT, 2nd ed.), there is an excurses on the Paul Within Judaism or Radical New Perspective movement. In it, he notes:

To be sure, the gospel, with its exclusive claim about salvation, is unavoidably a “stumbling block” to Jews. The NT can justly be said, therefore, to be “anti-Judaic,” in the sense that its claims leave no room for the claims of “Judaism” to mediate salvation through torah. But the NT is not “anti-Semitic,” that is, hostile to Jews as such.[883]

(p. 755)

The relevant part of footnote 883 reads:

… This distinction is vital and needs to be vigorously asserted in response to those, such as Ruether (Faith and Fratricide), who argue that the exclusive christological claims advanced by the NT make Christianity unavoidably “anti-Semitic.” On this view it is only by jettisoning traditional Christianity that anti-Semitism can be avoided. As Hagner and others point out, such a line of argument confuses anti-Semitism (race hatred) with anti-“Judaism” (denial of Judaism’s claims to mediate salvation). Indeed, it is anachronistic to speak of Paul’s “anti-Judaism,” for the very nature and definition of Judaism were still being debated in Paul’s day (see Dunn, Parting of the Ways, 143–61). One must speak in a more limited way of Paul’s anti-“one variety of Judaism” (see also Hagner, “Paul’s Quarrel,” 128–29). …

Notice that in order to rebut the charge of racism, Moo relies upon an older and narrower definition of racism that is largely rejected today (particularly on the left, but increasingly among moderate conservatives and some evangelical Christians). It’s worth considering whether the progressive and expansive definition of racism is still capable of resisting the idea that religious exclusivism is racist. (Side note: by “still capable” I don’t mean to imply that Moo’s thoughts here are, in general, dated. The excurses is new to the second edition, which was published in 2018.)

While I don’t want to take the time to explore the details of how such an argument would unfold, I think the broad strokes of it would go like this:

  • If racism can be ascribed to structures which intentionally or unintentionally advantage or disadvantage a particular race, then this goes for ecclesiastical, theological, and soteriological structures just as much as political or economic structures.
  • Religious exclusivism intentionally or unintentionally creates a ecclesiastical/theological/soteriological structure(s) that put some groups, including some racial groups, at a disadvantage.
  • QED, religious exclusivism is racist.

One implication of this would, of course, be that certain forms of Judaism (particularly biblical Judaism, as opposed to modern rabbinic forms) are themselves racist. In fact an argument could be made that all religious systems turn out to be more or less racist, given this definition of racism and some other sociological ideas that are commonly held to. The difference would be that some religions have what we might call dogmatic racism, insofar as ideas like exclusivism are theologically justified.

An obvious objection might be that I’ve misconstrued the progressive definition of racism — that I’ve made it too broad. But I think it correctly captures a popular expansive use of the term. (Consider the way in which representative Cedric Richmond accused Barr of systemic racism because Barr didn’t bring any black people with him to his hearing. It seems clear that Richmond must be working with the sort of broad definition that my argument uses.)

P.S. I don’t believe religious exclusivism is racist. My point is not to endorse the sort of argument I sketched above. In fact I think that if one’s understanding of racism can be utilized in the sort of argument that I sketched above, then that is in fact an indication that one’s understanding of racism is seriously flawed.

For all posts on Douglas Moo’s Romans commentary see the following:

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John Bowling

Throwing half-baked ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.