American far-right television personality Glenn Beck has spent the last few weeks in the unfamiliar role of backtracking from earlier espoused positions. Beck’s provocative and confrontational views on Fox News, internet sites and syndicated radio stations have made him a hero to conservatives especially since Obama came to power. He commands audiences of 2.3 million to his 5pm cable show making him as the New York Times said “one of the most powerful media voices for the nation’s conservative populist anger.”
However he took a step too far for his base earlier this month. On 2 March Beck told listeners of his radio show they should "run as fast as [they] can" from any church that preached "social or economic justice" because those were code words for Communism and Nazism.
As Amy Sullivan wrote in Time, Beck probably thought he was tweaking a few crunchy religious liberals who didn't listen to the show anyway. But he was little prepared for the reaction he did get. As Sullivan puts it, “instead he managed to outrage Christians in most mainline Protestant denominations, African-American congregations, Hispanic churches, and Catholics--who first heard the term ‘social justice’ in papal encyclicals and have a little something in their tradition called Catholic social teaching."
Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners a network of progressive Christians is calling for a boycott of Beck’s Fox News program. He said Beck perverted Jesus' message when he urged Christians last week to leave churches that preach social and economic justice. Wallis says 20,000 people have responded to the boycott. "He wants us to leave our churches, but we should leave him," Wallis said. "When your political philosophy is to consistently favor the rich over the poor, you don't want to hear about economic justice."
Peg Chamberlin, President of the National Council of Churches of Christ, was one of many religious leaders outraged by Beck’s views. Writing in Huffpo she said it was nothing short of a call for his listeners to disregard central tenets of their faith because they do not conform to his political ideology. “He is advocating that they abandon the full Gospel message in favour of a hollow idol, and he is doing so for worldly gain,” wrote Chamberlin. “His statements cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.”
There is little danger of that happening and it is par for the course for someone to challenge any utterance of Beck’s. But this time it is hurting as the challenges are coming from his own side of politics. Mormon scholars in Beck's church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in interviews he seemed ignorant of just how central social justice teaching was to Mormonism. Philip Barlow, the Arrington Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, said “A lot of Latter-day Saints would think that Beck was asking them to leave their own church.”
However Sarah Pulliam Bailey warns against getting carried away by the size of the reaction against Beck. Writing at Getreligion.org, she calls it a “sweeping generalisation” and said many conservative Christians were comfortable with Beck’s remarks. She said media were making out there was a wide chorus of criticism “when in reality (drumroll please) Jim Wallis is calling for a boycott,” she said. “I can’t help but wonder if we’d ever see a headline like “Christian Leader Calls for Rachel Maddow Boycott.”
Yet very few have come forward to defend Beck. Perhaps unsurprisingly one of the few voices of support was from fellow extremist Jerry Falwell Jnr, an evangelical leader in the mould of his controversial father. Falwell said those pastors who preach economic and social justice were “trying to twist the gospel to say the gospel supported socialism. Falwell said Jesus taught that people should give to the poor and support widows, but he never said that we should elect a government that would take money from a neighbour's hand and give it to the poor. "If we all did as Jesus did when he helped the poor, we wouldn't need the government," Falwell said.
But social justice is a tenet of mainstream faiths and has been promoted by many respected religious scholars. When this was pointed out to Beck, he issued a “clarification” on 12 March. He began by conflating social justice with big government and then launched an attack on his critics “They always change and confuse the language. Political correctness comes from the progressive movement,” he said. “There's a lot of people who say ‘social justice’ and some people don't mean Marxism. But others do, and you need to know, which is it?” But it was obvious the criticism hurt. As Amy Sullivan said Glenn Beck has certainly discovered the dangers of publicly practicing theology without a licence.