Glenn Beck’s ‘Social Justice’ Heresies

Opposition to Glenn Beck’s crusade against social justice has inspired a Twitterstorm, letter-writing campaign, and Christian radio ad from religious groups who believe he’s distorting theology.

But the problem with Beck isn’t just theology or, as Faithful America puts it in its radio ad, his “piecemeal gospel.” Beck’s heresy is not that he’s cherry-picking parts of the Bible to claim that Jesus was an inconsiderate cad or that Matthew 25 was actually written by Joseph Stalin. It’s that he’s using his anti-government heresies to produce a false, ahistorical civics class that distorts his viewers’ understanding of the role of government in serving the needs of its citizens.

Beck is our 21st century red-baiter, our go-to guy to tar any government services as “socialism.” Beck didn’t invent this, and he certainly won’t be the last demagogue to pollute our airwaves. But as the Republican Party and the conservative movement have fallen off the cliff—claiming on the one hand that government represents the rotting soul of Karl Marx, and on the other that God ordained them to run it instead—Beck suits them just fine. If you can lump all those liberal, “fake” Christians in with the European-style socialists and America-hating progressives, it further solidifies the libertarian-Tea Party-Christian-worldview-ahistorical-revisionist wing of American politics.

The Glenn Beck-GOP mutual admiration society nothwithstanding, some of his conservative Christian friends were worried that he may have portrayed them in an uncaring light. And that’s where Beck’s theology becomes problematic; if, as he hinted in his pre-July 4th special history program, “The State of Religion in America,” the term social justice was co-opted by Marxists, yet conservatives have their own superior version of it, then we’re left with a debate over which Christians are indeed more charitable—not a debate over the role of government in creating a just and fair economy.

Beck as ‘Entertainer’

There’s a bit of a backstory here: Beck apparently was blissfully unaware that late last year, the Heritage Foundation (a well-endowed think tank that has supplied the conservative movement with policy analysis and talking points for the past 37 years) had published a study guide called “Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives In Need.” Produced with some input from Marvin Olasky, the editor of World magazine credited with coining George W. Bush’s campaign slogan “compassionate conservatism,” the study guide is intended to instill the idea that one-on-one evangelism—not government—will solve social problems like poverty. At the core of social and economic success is the “traditional” family, the church, and a government that does little more than ensure “an overall environment of safety, order, freedom, and peace.”

This view lies at the heart of why anti-government conservatives and the Christian right make common cause: the conservatives are happy to slash the government to pieces and the Christian right is happy to replace it with evangelism and Christian charity—God, after all, only gave government a limited sphere of authority, and the church a whole lot more.

That’s the piece Beck doesn’t appear to get: that conservatives want to portray themselves as caring about the poor—even if their claimed commitment to eradicating poverty is undermined by an insistence that government and policy have no role to play, except, as Olasky advocates, in giving people tax credits to donate to the charity of their choice. Olasky told me recently, “Beck is a popular entertainer, or let me put it another way: he’s a popular educator. He really does serve as a teacher in an entertaining way, and sometimes you have to adjust the teaching to the knowledge of the students, and so he provides some good basic education, but it’s also good to go a little deeper.”

That was a charitable way of characterizing Beck’s ahistoricism—and his audience. But Olasky isn’t alone among conservatives in worrying that Beck might be misapprehending and possibly undermining their mission. As other conservatives warned at the Freedom Federation Summit, which took place at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in April, Beck doesn’t get it quite right: social justice is indeed a biblical idea, just not the way that liberals would have it.

At Liberty, Ryan Messmore, Heritage’s lead writer of the social justice guide, framed the conservatives’ conundrum in Reagan-esque terms. “A lot of policies enacted in the name of social justice are hurting the poor more than helping them,” he said, invoking the “cycle of poverty” to indict supposed dependency on government.

The “controversy” the term social justice stirs, said Messmore, “is Marxist redistribution, then other side says that means you don’t care about poor. We have to recognize the term is being used in different ways by different groups. It’s an easy bomb to throw at Glenn Beck that you don’t care about the poor.”

On his religion segment, Beck did take up Olasky’s suggestion to “go deeper”—though it was deeper into into la-la land. This is Beck after all, so his religious history resembles what would result if Billy James Hargis and Joseph McCarthy collaborated on a picture book for preschoolers on the history of the soup kitchen. Beck’s cast of characters for that program ranged from the usual suspects (David Barton, the religious right’s chief historical revisionist) to an Ivy Leaguer (Princeton’s Robert George, mastermind of the Manhattan Declaration) to a Republican candidate for Congress (the Rev. Stephen Broden, who gave a “benediction” at Rep. Michele Bachmann’s “Code Red” anti-health care rally).

Broden claimed that “the social justice movement is built upon or predicated on the idea of liberation theology.” (They are, in fact, two separate religious movements.) “Liberation theology has its origin or source in socialism, communism, and Marxism,” he continued. (Not true; as assistant professor at Harvard Divinity School and RD contributing editor Jonathan Walton explains, liberation theology “began the very second that African-Americans landed on the shores of America on slave ships, and tried to reconcile their new position as hijacked bodies with the traditional gods of Africa.”) This all from a pastor who uses prayer to claim that health care reform is “against the law of nature and nature’s God” and “against the Judeo-Christian ethic that this nation was built upon.”

Barton, speaking with his characteristic disregard for facts, asserted that the “social gospel movement had two primary guys, the Reverend Harry Ward and the Reverend Reinhold Niebuhr. Those two guys headed two organizations. Reverend Harry Ward was the executive for the ACLU and Reverend Niebuhr was the guy who founded the Americans for Democratic Action, which is the Progressive Socialist Party of today.”

Socialists, the ACLU: basically Glenn Beck’s enemies list. Harry Ward was in fact the chair of the ACLU, though he had nothing to do with the social gospel movement. (He was a communist though, which is probably why Barton threw him in there.) And Niebuhr, whose ideological evolution is very complex—from socialist to foreign policy ‘realist’ whose influence extends rightward to John McCain and David Brooks—did found the Union for Democratic Action from which Americans for Democratic Action was formed, though neither has anything to do with the Progressive Socialist Party of today—primarily because the Progressive Socialist Party doesn’t exist (unless his purview now extends to Lebanese politics).

It’s impossible to discuss the history of the social justice movement without bringing in the father of the social gospel, the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. But while Beck and Barton ignore Rauschenbusch, Beck does bring up Father Coughlin—to whom Beck owes a debt for his invention of hate radio—because Coughlin, at one time a supporter of the New Deal, changed course and supported fascism and authoritarianism. In the hall of mirrors that houses Beck’s history that means that social justice=fascism.

Conservatives face a serious challenge from Beck, however: as the panelists at the social justice session at the Freedom Federation Summit admitted, millenial evangelicals are interested in helping the poor, and not as interested in combatting gay marriage. But if they believe from Beck that Jesus’ exhortations to help the poor are actually godless communism, where does that leave them?

That’s why conservatives want Beck to acknowledge that, as Lou Engle put it, “Jesus is justice.” For Engle, the government is evil (he’s asserted that “prostitution in America is fueled out of the foster care system”) and that “this is where the church becomes the outrageous lover”; meaning, in Engle’s parlance, that churches should adopt children in order to supplant the government-run foster care system, which does nothing but promote prostitution, while the church provides love. If megachurches “adopted children,” he insisted, “we would be the answer and we would get moral authority in this nation.”

The anti-government worldview of the Liberty audience was exemplified by the question: “how do Christians do social justice without abdicating authority to the civil magistrate?” Translation from Christian Reconstructionist-speak: God granted the government limited authority and we don’t want to slip up and give it any more. (Messmore termed it a “good question” about “[how] we as Christians engage with government, without abdicating authority God has given the church exclusively.”)

Religious liberals who protest Beck’s theological heresies would do well to recognize the dangers of his other heresies as well. It’s not enough to defend the Bible from Glenn Beck; liberals will also need to defend the role of government in creating a social safety net and a regulatory structure that protects and enhances the economic lives of its citizens. While Beck has his conservative critics, they do agree on one thing: government is evil. Unless religious liberals defend the role of government, they provide an opening for Beck and his crew to redefine social justice to mean conservative Christianity is our government by proxy.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email