George Washington University
Holding a placard with the trademark hammer and sickle of Communism in one hand, and the swastika of Nazism in the other, Fox News commentator Glenn Beck last week told his listeners that churches that talk about “social justice” are really fronts for Communism and Nazis and they should flee them as fast as they are able.
“I beg you look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church’s website. If you find it run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes.”
Beck’s urging of disaffiliation cuts a broad swath in the ecclesiastical landscape, running from the Unitarians to the Catholic Church. In between he would catch mainline Protestants like the United Methodists, Presbyterian Church USA, and United Church of Christ, the Black Church tradition, as well as many Evangelical and Pentecostal congregations.
Responding to Beck, Evangelical leader Jim Wallis urged “Christians to leave Glenn Beck.”
Whether you look to the Scriptures of the Old or New Testaments or to historic teaching of popes and theologians, a concern for a just society is an unavoidable part of Christian faith and teaching. From the Old Testament prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before God,” to Jesus' preaching, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” — justice is part of the message.
Is social justice the whole message? No, it is but one part of Christianity though certainly an integral one.
Still, Beck’s flamboyant claim that religion fronting a political agenda is a turn-off found confirmation (though not the kind Beck has in mind) in a recent Pew Research study of “Religion Among the Millennials,” (ages 18 – 29). While the majority tends to be believers, this group is disaffiliating from churches. But according to Pew they are not leaving because churches care about social justice; pretty much the opposite. “Youth’s disaffection is largely due to discomfort with religiosity having been tied to conservative politics.” If there’s too much politics in religion, at least the millennials see that as more of a Religious Right issue.
On another recent occasion Beck went after the idea of “community.” Speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Beck claimed that the Founders were against community. Listening to his weird rant, I found myself recalling the eloquent words of John Winthrop, Puritan leader and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as he preached aboard ship before landing in the new world.
As the Arabella drew toward land, Winthrop warned that the only way to avoid a figurative shipwreck “and to provide for our posterity is to follow the Counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God, for this end, we must be knit together as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly Affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities . . . we must delight in each other, make others’ Conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work . . .”
One would have to count Winthrop among the founders, I’d think.
So what does the popularity of a person who so distorts both religion and history, as seems to be Glenn Beck’s stock-in-trade, tell us? That this kind of things sells? But that begs the question. What does that tell us? That the long and ugly American tradition of anti-intellectualism and right-wing demagoguery is alive and well? That contemporary Americans are now so ill-informed about history and theology that they will buy this? Or does this suggest some new low-water mark in American culture?
I find it hard to say for sure what the Beck phenomenon tells us. Except possibly this, the anxiety level in America today is very high — orange alert for sure, maybe red. And anxiety, in such large and steady doses, makes us stupid.
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