Glenn Beck’s Political Theology

For all of Beck’s hooting and hollering about his “world-changing” event, there wasn’t much real change offered. The very name gave away the game: “Restoring Honor,” evoking repentance and return to a lost Eden, not breaking new ground.

Some of the comments to come out of the rally backed up that perception:

“This country was created by God, our creator. The problem is, the country is becoming Godless….[Beck] said that a lot of people have lost Christ. The country is on the verge of becoming chaotic.”

said one participant. And Sarah Palin made sure everybody knew she still doesn’t believe in that hopey-changey thing:

I must assume that you too, knowing that no, we must not fundamentally transform America as some would want, we must restore America and restore her honor!

In both cases, the message is the same: to hell with going somewhere new. We want to get back to square one. (And the squares sent up loud amens.)

It’s that opposition to change, the fundamental inability (or refusal) to conceive of a world that is meaningfully different than the one we presently exist in, that marks the Tea Party theology, notwithstanding all the far-right religious “celebrities” Beck put on stage over the weekend. Ignore all the bouncing balls, what you need to know about the Tea Party faith is that it’s in an unchanging, overwhelmingly powerful God.

It’s also in an unchanging God who guarantees an unchanging social order. I’ve written before about what results:

That framework inevitably supports the powers-that-be. In his book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann draws a connection between what he calls “the religion of static triumphalism” and “the politics of oppression and exploitation.” He gives Exodus an analysis of power:

    Karl Marx had discerned the connection [mentioned above] when he observed that the criticism of religion is the ultimate criticism and must lead to the criticism of law, economics and politics. The gods of Egypt are the immovable lords of order. They call for, sanction, and legitimate a society of order, which is precisely what Egypt had. In Egypt, as Frankfort has shown, there were no revolutions, no breaks for freedom. There only the necessary political and economic arrangements to provide order, “naturally,” the order of Pharaoh. Thus the religion of static gods is not and could never be disinterested, but inevitably it served the people in charge, presiding over the order and benefitting from the order. And the functioning of that society testified to the rightness of the religion because kings did prosper and bricks did get made.

If you want to know what’s been going on the long, hot and stupid August, look no farther. The God of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck has established a society of order — that imagined America of George Washington and Robert E. Lee hard at prayer and limiting the government to bathtub size — and they’ll be dad-blasted if some uppity negro (I beg your pardon, an uppity secret Muslim) and a bunch of Commies are going to upset the apple cart.

I shouldn’t have to remind people that not all Christians believe this, but I guess I do. Against the stifling immovability of the Lord of Order, Brueggemann posits a “religion of God’s freedom” engaged with “a politics of human justice.” Moses’ work, he argues, was to imagine a new kind of community in which that connection could be lived out. From that imagination came the Exodus.

Another “needless to say” that unfortunately needs to be said is that the Tea Party, as led (kinda) by Glenn Beck, has nothing even resembling this vision. It’s all a reactive urge to drag the nation back into a virtuous past that never really existed. There is literally nothing in the Tea Party thought, such as it is, that can positively imagine an alternative future, let alone an alternative community. It’s all driven by scarcity and anxiety: they shouldn’t do that and we don’t have enough (money, 2nd Amendment rights, Metamucil, fill in the blank) to do what we want. None of this — despite the talk of “rebirth” — generates any kind of new vision or new life. If this is baptism, it is baptism into the dead order, with the players perhaps shuffled but the same old faces and powers in control of the system.

Furthermore: the God of the Tea Party, for all he is invoked, has no power to create meaningful change, because to do so might imply that not all in the social and economic order is as it should be. So the Tea Party God is locked up where all such gods are confined: to the realm of personal piety and conventional platitudes. Cross “Precious Moments” and James Dobson, and you’ve got the cultus of the Tea Party perfectly represented.

Again, that’s not the god I know or many Christians know. I follow the undomesticated LORD, that desert trickster God who is not afraid to shake up society in order to lead slaves into freedom.

It makes a difference. Brueggemann writes:

We are made in the image of some God. And perhaps we have no more important theological investigation than to determine in whose image we have been made. Our sociology is predictably derived from, legitimated by, and reflective of our theology. And if we gather around a static god of order who only guards the interests of the “haves,” oppression cannot be far behind. Conversely, if a God is disclosed who is free to come and go, free from and even against the regime, free to hear and even answer slave cries, free from all proper godness as defined by the empire, then it will bear decisively upon sociology because the freedom of God will surface in the brickyards and manifest itself as justice and compassion.

That’s the God I know and love, one who provokes real change on behalf of those who cannot create it for themselves, one whose love is not threatened by a diverse society, one who wildly and without a doubt free, and calls us to real freedom, which is to live as neighbors, without fear and without exploitation. The minor deity of Glenn Beck’s Tea Party couldn’t imagine his way out of a paper bag, let alone lead his people into a future without it.

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