Look, in lots of ways, Glenn Beck is a loon. A loon poorly informed by history, at that. But plowing through the veritable scads of secondary material on my dissertation topic (Protestant fundamentalism) has driven one particular truth pretty well home to me: there’s nothing so destructive to a piece of academic writing as a slightly concealed sneer on an author’s face. Concluding that any particular individual or group is so hopelessly drenched in wingnuttery or disappointing political positions or slavish and bewildering adherence to the blindingly goofy that they are no longer worthy of intelligent analysis is to abdicate the responsibility to understand ourselves that the humanities as a discipline lays upon us. Heck, even for activists (as opposed to scholars), to malign and snarl and taunt the representatives of a cause one finds objectionable is to make the classic mistake of treating the symptom as the disease. Which is why I was not terribly impressed with Jim Wallis’s response to Glenn Beck’s by now blaringly well covered advice to Christians: that they should investigate their faith for the dread and dire words “social justice,” (aka, “Progressivism” (Beck’s definition); aka collectiivsm; aka fascism; aka hurting puppies) and if that mark of the beast should be located, flee for the hills.
Fair enough. It’s been amply demonstrated by now that Beck is largely ignorant of the deep, deep roots that the phrase “social justice” has in the soil of Christian theology. To cite merely one example: In 1891 the landmark papal encyclical Rerum Novarum argued the phrase demanded “some opportune remedy . . . for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.”  But the Catholics did more than merely say it would be nice to relieve the squalor of the poor – they rooted the call to do so in a theology of natural rights; an anthropology which insisted that humanity’s true worth lay not in possessions and earthly success, but in moral virtue gained through the metaphysical encounter with Christ in his Atonement; and the conviction that humanity bound together by the mystical bonds of the Church was a single body rather than a collection of individuals. These ways of defining “social justice” are not historical or legal or economic but theological. They imagine human society as first the kingdom of God, and only secondarily a community based on democracy or capitalism or whatnot. And theology is not Glenn Beck’s native tongue.
To cite another: Martin Luther King, Jr, an underrated theologian, argues in his book Stride Toward Freedom that “no historian or sociologist could understand” the meetings that led to the Montgomery bus boycott. This was because, King argued, “history is guided by spirit, not matter.” The imperatives which guided the civil rights movement were to him not simply political; rather, the political manifestations of the Movement were the outworking of God’s grace in human history. The transformation of America from a segregated to a desegregated society was not a political activity but a religious one, and it happened not because of the political but the religious imagination of the African American community.
Beck’s great failure, then, is his insistence on reading religion through the lens of his politics, or perhaps his confidence that the two are so perfectly blended that the seams are invisible and the language of one blends effortlessly into that of the other. This is the mark of a man too at ease in the world. His demand that Christians whose churches subscribe to “social justice” should abandon their denominations indicates that Glenn Beck’s cosmos seems entirely framed by his conspiratorial politics, and that he may, perhaps, have trouble thinking outside the box.
But this is the sort of gotcha that’s quite easy to play. One could, without much trouble, find Beck’s scarlet letters emblazoned on the dress of virtually every Christian denomination in America (including his own). And of course in a larger sense it’s generally easy to catch Beck dabbling in inconsistency, hyperbole, and all sorts of related fallacies. This is, though, where we come to the second failure of imagination.
Jim Wallis’s response to Beck consists, more or less, of ‘nuh-uh.’ And that’s a fatal slip. He insists that “social, economic, and racial justice are at the heart of the gospel,” which is nice, and may even be true. But that’s a thesis statement, not a conclusion, an argument, not evidence. This is, unfortunately, typical of Wallis, who frequently uses religious words like “Biblical” and “grace” while talking about contemporary politics. He argues quite frequently that Jesus commanded us to care for the poor, so if we are to be Christians, we must therefore pursue the planks of what appears to be a fairly typical Democratic political platform. Wallis favors penalizing big banks, promoting grassroots poverty relief programs, immigration reform to benefit poor immigrants, campaign finance laws and so on. This is fine, as far as it goes. But it does not actually go very far.
Wallis, and other advocates for something called the “religious left” seem to be trapped in much the same paradigm that Beck is – that is, they tend to use religious language within an already existing economic and political paradigm. Their religious imagination is structured by contemporary American politics; religion matters to them to the extent that it translates into political positions. This guy is not only a pretty good example of one who wields religious language as a weapon in ongoing partisan warfare; he cites a lone, paltry, out of context verse in Isaiah to justify his pro-choice policies – showing mad prooftexting skills that any fundamentalist would be proud of. The frequently vacuous Sally Quinn, and more, the entire Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” website which Quinn helps to edit, stand as a shining monument to this failure of imagination. “Religion” for whoever it is that maintains the front page of On Faith, is primarily “Whatever religious people are doing vis-a-vis the controversial political issue of the day.” “Religion” for Sally Quinn means “Whatever religious activity or language I can muster to lend gravitas and impressive-sounding Biblical language to my left-wing politics and vague and sentimental sense of cultural inclusivity.” Witness, for instance, her poorly-thought-out recommendation that the Obamas become Episcopalian in order to better promote Sally Quinn’s cultural politics.
This is catastrophically depressing. The savagely brilliant religious imaginations that Martin Luther King, or Walter Rauschenbusch, or Dorothy Day mobilized behind social reform worked because of their comprehensiveness. They began with a vision of the world in part inspired by but not bound to the contexts they found themselves in. And the social reforms they advocated for were not merely an end in themselves, or to satisfy our basic human impulse toward charity, or to pursue greater egalitarianism as a self-contained good. Rather, their calls for social reform were bound inexorably into the most basic and primal aims of Christianity – to, through the atoning acts of Christ, attain for humanity salvation. Their theologies of social transformation were based upon their imagination of the Kingdom of God. They were radical, then, in the best sense, not merely political. They knew that the world that Christ calls us to is not the world we live in; that the things Christ asks of us cannot be fully embodied in the tools of politics. One does not get that same sense of the incarnation of Christ in the politics of Jim Wallis. And that, because, like those of Beck, they are simply politics.
So, I feel an incessant, nagging suspicion that perhaps Beck’s salvo is a justified one. This is not to endorse his somewhat staggering ignorance, bluster, and paranoia; indeed, Beck suffers acutely from the same problem he diagnoses; he believes God is on his side rather than engaging in that constant struggle that should afflict every Christian – worrying that he is on God’s. It is, though, to point out that as in every age, idolatry may be the most pervasive sin of our own.
 Rerum Novarum, section 3.
 Martin Luther King, Stride toward Freedom: the Montgomery story (New York: Harper, 1958) 64, 92.