As progressives and academics it is very easy to dismiss the rhetorical mudslinging of performance-based news hosts such as Bill O’Reily and Glenn Beck as irrational and ill-informed. Aware of the game they are playing, we’re reluctant to give them the outraged response that, ipso facto, fuels their agenda. Seeking more erudite modes of engagement, we slouch uncomfortably into our favorite coffee shop couch while, despite our deepest wishes, their game goes on. Sometimes, however, these propagandists strike a nerve so close to home that not responding seems the greatest injustice.
Last Tuesday, Glenn Beck dedicated an entire episode to attacking liberation theology and one of its greatest proponents, James Cone. Linking Cone’s groundbreaking Black Theology and Black Power to the killing of “cracker babies,” Beck sought to show how liberation theology was both a perversion of the message of Christianity and a purveyor of radical evils. In a simplistic bifurcation, Beck contrasted liberation theology to his own view of what he called “traditional Christianity.” He claimed that salvation was a strictly personal affair and that there were no “works” we could do to receive the grace of God. Central to his concern was that liberation theology promoted “collective salvation” and resulted in communism and redistribution of wealth. On his infamous chalkboard he drew lines from James Cone to the Black Panthers, then to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, then Marx, then, you guessed it, President Obama and immigrants. Chalk lines, however, are easily erased.
But as the news and reaction to this show began to spill off the Facebook pages of James Cone’s students into the halls of Union Theological Seminary, it quickly became apparent that erasing these chalk lines and pointing out the obvious—that Glenn Beck took Cone out of context, that he repeatedly contradicts himself, that he knows nothing about the Bible or liberation theology, and so on—was too easy, and even non-productive. While such statements are undoubtedly true, might we avoid his mudslinging and ask ourselves what we can learn from Glenn Beck and his appeal?
This was the question that I was seeking to answer as I sat down with Union’s President Serene Jones and a group of students to discuss the appropriate way to address this attack on our beloved professor of liberation theology.
Given the fact that a response is what he wants and will ultimately lead to no real dialogue, why is it important to respond to Glenn Beck’s attack on liberation theology and James Cone?
The reason why he just can’t get away with doing this with no response whatsoever is that not only is there the argument he is making on television, there is also all the unspoken but evident racist, sexist, and fascist sensibilities that he is playing to in our country. The real challenge is to effectively engage those sentiments and that may mean engaging him directly or taking other directions.
Throughout the show, Beck continually claims that this has nothing to do with race. Is it safe to assume that he means what he says, and that his fear stems from a more generalized xenophobia and fear of the other?
Perhaps you could call it xenophobia. But I read it more as an appeal to some of our most vulnerable and troubling instincts as human beings. When the world seems uncertain and unsteady, we want to stabilize it by figuring out who we can hate so that our world becomes stabilized by making us the good guy. He plays to that sentiment. This is where the racism, sexism, and fascism come in. They appeal to all of those unconscious fears that we have and they run the spectrum. Racism is always just a general subcategory of playing on that fear.
Glenn Beck obviously has a large following, many of which may be the very poor and oppressed that liberation theology seeks to speak to. In what ways might progressive Christianity seek these other directions?
My guess is that the people who are most attracted to the perspective that he outlines are not attracted to it because of its carefully reasoned argument, but because it gives voice to a general sense of frustration and fear. And so how is progressive Christianity able to address that? Only by addressing it in the long run by understanding the sources of peoples’ fears and the social/structural issues that make people feel so vulnerable. Attacking Glenn Beck head on is not the way to reach the fears of his audience—it would probably only fuel their fears. So the bigger picture as a theological educator, a minister, a theologian and a person of faith is that you address the fears that fuel it by being prophets of grace.
It is important that you mention grace, as Beck’s entire show plays on a simple bifurcation between personal and collective faith and salvation. He claims that liberation theology “deals exclusively with external realities” and does not address the issues of personal grace. What role does grace play in liberation theology?
In that show it is ludicrous that on the one hand he is saying that there is no such thing as social justice in the gospel—that we are supposed to take care of people because we simply want to—and that everything happens by virtue of merit. It is a very muscular sense of personal ethics. But then he turns around and says that grace reminds us that ethics does not matter at all. In fact, grace is a very important political concept. Just as grace reminds us as individuals that there is nothing we can do to earn the love of God—that it is simply poured out upon us—so too it reminds us that at a political level, the minute we start constructing political structures that we think are unambiguously right, we are making our own politics into God. Nobody does that more than Glenn Beck.
Glenn Beck calls for context at the beginning of his show. Dr. Cone wrote Black Theology and Black Power in 1969 in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement and Beck’s great fear is that immigrants will latch on to it; do you think there is a parallel?
The answer goes back to the fear of the Other. Immigration puts that squarely before us as a nation. But what Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Cone remind us of is that the ultimate test of any community or identity is how it manages that border between what is known and what is outside. We live in a country that has a long history of sometimes doing that well and sometimes doing that in horrific ways. Glenn Beck plays on the edge of that border all the time. The thing about grace is that it removes the line altogether and gives us a completely different way to think about meaning.
Perhaps what surprised the students and professors of Union Theological Seminary the most was that, at least in the eyes of Glenn Beck, liberation theology is still a potent and vital force in American culture. By dedicating an entire show to James Cone and liberation theology, he is actually undermining his own position by giving public voice to a theology that in so many ways has receded from the headlines as an important influence. This exposure might draw us all to reflection, not just to reaction. If Beck can serve as any sort of signifier, then liberation theology is still important and clearly has a future. Unlike Beck, I look forward to the day that a young immigrant worker picks up a copy of God of the Oppressed and realizes her humanity through it.
James Cone once said in class that if you can write a book that people are still talking about 40 years later, then you might have had something very important to say. At the 41st anniversary of Black Theology and Black Power, we thank you, Glenn Beck, for reminding us of its growing importance.