I’ve been fascinated by Glenn Beck over the years. As a kid I would overheard the angry and entertaining rhetoric of conservative talk show hosts like Jay Diamond, Michael Savage, and my favorite, Bob Grant. My dad would have News Talk 77WABC and 710 WOR out of New York playing most of the time when I was really young, and I think one of my favorite songs was The Pretenders “My City Was Gone,” with its fat bass oozing out the stereo right before Rush Limbaugh would ruin it with some nonsense about whatever was on his agenda to complain about that day.
(A frame from Rush Limbaugh Eats Everything, an old cartoon floating around the web and now only available here)
In the last decade Glenn Beck has emerged to sometimes eclipse the significance of Limbaugh, now like some wizened old emperor in his $44 million dollar Palm Beach home now only emerging in the political spars of Robert Gibbs and Rahm Emannual. That would make Beck the conservative’s Darth Vader, right down to his belabored breathing and deep-set, inward passion for what really matters to him: America.
Lately, Beck accidentally pissed off a large portion of his target audience, namely Christians, with comments about how social justice is a “code word” for communism and Nazism and that churchgoers who are part of congregations that emphasis such efforts should leave. This spawned a large response from the religious community, including the statements of a Rev. Jim Wallis who urged Christians to boycott Glenn Beck. Surprisingly, that’s about the extend of the expected public outrage, as even though Beck reiterated his claims
and extended them to say
Where I go to church, there are members that preach social justice as members–my faith doesn’t–but the members preach social justice all the time. It is a perversion of the gospel. … You want to help out? You help out. It changes you. That’s what the gospel is all about: You.
Obviously this venerable biblical scholar is a believer in prosperity theology; 3 year ago he signed a contract for $50 million over 5 years, even he doesn’t seem to have any strong advertising sponsorship, thanks to an effective grassroots effort to destroy his corporate support. But Beck’s comments may be reflective of a deeper trend in American Christianity. It’s a very old, very popular trend, the doctrine of Me.
Demagogues are effective public speakers who address the emotions of their audience to gather populist support for their ideas. Most modern political rhetoric works this way, but demagoguery is unique because it uses religious and nationalist themes to appeal to personal prejudices and fears in the target audience. Huey Long is a great example of a modern American demagogue, a Louisianan politician who portrayed himself as an everyman yet accumulated the largest amount of political power for one man in his time. The man went from being govenor to a senator of the state, yet retained control through his own puppet governor. Had he not been assisinated in 1935, there was no telling where his ambitions would have taken him. His methods were to speak directly to average citizens about their fears and wishes, and promise to use his limited abilities to achive their “shared” goals.
Religious ministers can do the same thing; they can appeal to the individual, about what benefits them personally, what their cares and concerns are, and how they can achieve personal satisfaction if they accomplish XYZ, or whatever the bullet point of the sermon is. Sometimes, Christianity is just a verbal framework for individuals to archive their own populist platforms of personal power. In a media theory class, I wrote a paper deconstructing Televangelism through Marxist analysis. Public figures like Joel Olsteen and Benny Hinn don’t have much of a deep theological root to their ministry or any significant doctrine they follow, but they teach a strong, populist message of personal betterment and well-being through faith and positivity. The Prayer of Jabez is probably one of the best examples of prosperity doctrine taking nearly coperal form and convincing people how God’s just a candy machine you can plug yourself into and get goodies out.
Social justice is the exact opposite of this mentality. On one hand we have a desire for personal power, a higher quality of life, and individual satisfaction. On the other there is a motive for decentralized power, a standard of living that’s fair to everybody, and community wholeness. Altruism and sacrifice are inherit to the social gospel aspect of Christianity that stands opposed to prosperity theology. Richard Hughes wrote a great book called Christian America and the Kingdom of God that goes over this dichotomy and he writes
John Dominic Crossan’s observation that the struggle between human civilization… and the kingdom of God… ‘is depicted inside the bible itself… The Christian Bible forces us to witness the struggle of these two transcendental visions within its own pages and to ask ourselves as Christians how we decide between them.’ Crossan’s conclusion bears repeating: ‘We are bound to whichever of these visions was incarnated by and in the historical Jesus.
Hear that Beck? We gotta act like Jesus. I know you’re a Mormon and you wear crazy space underwear in the shower or whatever, but instead of ignoring 2000 years of philosophical thought and biblical studies on the subject, why not try out those values of altruism and sacrifice?
There are concessions on some levels. Sure, social gospel can be an ethnocentric concept that ignores the postmodern relativism necessary for cultural equity in a globalized world, but Christians can show their values of love and charity without shoving their bibles down others throats. It is possible to work in a soup kitchen without dropping a track in everybody’s bowl of stew. Maybe on some level, social justice means wealth redistribution, which would definitely scare Beck and his cool $50 mil. But it doesn’t mean that it’s the same as Nazism or Communism. Obviously this won’t matter to whoever is left in the audience, who are either willfully and deliberately ignorant or just oblivious to the differences. Beck is doing what he and his ilk do best; pandering to the prejudices and fears of his audience for a nationalistic purpose. They want people who were lazy through high school and smoked pot to die of an infection because they don’t have health insurance, because it means they were right, and now those lazy SOBs are being punished for not sharing the same
red-blooded values as we do, by Gawd! Reaching a hand out? I’ll put a boot up your ass, in the words of Toby Keith!
The lack of public outrage is a good thing, though. As others have said, maybe we’re just being Christian about the whole thing. Or perhaps, the best way to respond is to keep on keeing on:
Keep loving your neighbor, and keep fighting for the poor and the oppressed. Do everything you can to bring down whatever unjust structures you believe exist in this country and on this planet, and always keep the values of charity, hope, and love in your heart.
Anyway, demagogues are only as powerful as their audiences. Case in point: