Friday, March 12, 2010

Glen Beck: Poster Child for Civil Religion

"Look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. . .they are code words." So said Radio and TV host Glen Beck on his March 11 radio show. Apparently, Mr. Beck has yet to familiarize himself with the actual content of the Gospels. Not only does his comment reflect a naive category confusion between political and theological issues, it betrays a perverted view of the Gospel itself mixed with a bizzare form of civil religion that Beck--and apparently millions of others--have confused with the message of Jesus.

To be sure, Glen Beck has long since established himself as a strong voice of the political right with some stout libertarian leanings thrown in. As such, it should be no surprise to anyone familiar with his show that he would be in opposition to the current administration's push toward a national health care system, or that he would highly favor extreme reforms to our country's current wellfare net. Such are political positions that Mr. Beck is entitled to. The problem comes when one becomes so committed to his or her political ideology that he or she will reinterpret even their faith in order to remain committed to that ideology. There are plenty of professing Christians in our nation more interested in being good Republicans--or good Democrats--than in following Jesus. This week, Glen Beck became their poster-child.

This is what makes "civil religion" so dangerous. Certainly as followers of Jesus, every aspect of our lives--including the political--should be examined and developed in light of the Gospel. As His disciple, how I vote should be as Biblically informed as how I choose a church family. But when my political views begin to define terms like "social justice" rather than the Bible, I've crossed the line into civil religion.

On the political right, such civil religion looks really attractive; at least on the surface. The problem is defined as a lack of prosperity and the Messiah is capitalism. My sacramental duties in this religion are to get a good education, get a good job, earn lots of money, buy a home, and consume all the good things that the economy has produced for me so as to keep the markets on an upward trend. "The American Dream" usurps the Gospel of Jesus Christ in many American homes, which is why so many like Glen Beck fail to understand the central role of social justice in the life of the Christian church.

The political left has its own corollary message. The problem as they see it is a lack of economic equity. The Messiah is a social servies/wellfare system that redistributes the wealth of the country and eventually ushers in in a utopia, and my sacramental duties include contributing my "fair share" so that the nation can evolve together. Social justice on the left is an end in itself.

The Christian faith commends a much higher view of social justice than that propogated by either the right or the left. Jesus commands mercy toward the poor, care for the widow and orphan, respect and care for the elderly. In fact, the Christian church is the reason so many hospitals, institutions of higher learning, orphanages, soup kitchens, crisis pregnancy centers, and homeless shelters exist in this country. To be sure, followers of Christ don't see these ministries as ends in themselves. We have no delusions about ushering in a utopia. We do, however, believe that when we seek to relieve poverty we are foreshadowing a coming Kingdom where no poverty will exist. When we adopt orphans, we are reflecting the Gospel of a God who adopted alien children into His own family and made us joint-heirs with His Son Jesus Christ. When we minister to the homeless, we do so as though we are housing the Lord Himself. Ultimately, we seek social justice because we believe it foreshadows an ultimate justice which is coming. In short, we do what we do to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ with our deeds as well as with our words.

So wherever social justice is perverted or loathed, you can be sure the Gospel is not well-understood.

Frankly, Mr. Beck's own Mormon faith is of no real help here. The works-based Gospel of the Latter-Day Saints, based on a fictional picture of Jesus and the promise of self-promotion to one's own state of deity, actually makes a great religious cousin to the civil religion he seeks to promote. But the Gospel isn't about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Contrary to what many believe today, the phrase "God helps those who help themselves" is nowhere to be found in Holy Scripture.

Instead, the Gospel teaches us that we all--the whole human race, regardless of social status, race, language, or gender--are helpless. Our central problem has nothing to do with how much or little we possess, but instead our utter lack of the holiness required for fellowship with our Creator. We are natural rebels, who have broken the laws of the God who created us. Thus, our Messiah Jesus came to take our sin on Himself and be punished as our substitute, and grant us His own holiness so that we could be in a right relationship with God. With this in view, the damnable nature of the "pull youself up by your own bootstraps" Gospel should be made clear.

Its OK for Christians to agree with Glen Beck. But those who do should take care that they don't end up joining him in his worship of the golden calf called "The American Dream." Followers of Jesus have a higher calling, and such a calling can't be fulfilled when Jesus' commands to seek justice for the poor are supplanted by the worship of mammon.


Unknown said...


Dr. Mike Kear said...

Good stuff, Joel!

Casey D said...

I am not sure that I understand completely. I understand the first few paragraphs, but it's the closing statement that intriuges me the most. Yes it is true that we should not WORSHIP things of a monetary nature, but it does take some financial means to do the "work of the kingdom". So, are you inevitably saying that it is wrong for a person to want to have a better job or be in a better financial position so that that person can do more to advance the kingdom? I mean, even a person in your position should understand that if you don't have the financial backing you cannot do what you do. So I guess I don't understand. Can't there be a balance between the two or is my thought process skewed?

. said...


It is not wrong to want a better job, or to aspire to be in a better financial position. The issue is when money becomes god. The American Dream isn't wrong--UNLESS God is calling me to focus my energies elsewhere, in which case, if I continue to pursue that dream, I'm committing idolatry.

The issue with Beck isn't his view of the free market--I'm with him to a large degree on those issues. But when you begin to define any "social justice" politically--to the extent that you chastise churches for doing that work, you have begun to worship your economic system. That, I believe, is a real danger in the US.

Unknown said...

Thank you! THANK GOD FOR HIS AMAZING GRACE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!