Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck led what turned out to be a largely religious rally, calling on the assembled crowds to bring America back to God. The event took place on the forty-seventh anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legendary “I Have A Dream” speech, leading to sharp criticisms of Beck for dishonoring Dr. King’s memory, and the memory of that day. And indeed, as many have already pointed out, the racial dynamics of Beck’s mostly-white rally and the much smaller but heavily African-American protest rally, led by Al Sharpton, seemed to provide a potent illustration of how far the country has yet to come.
Religion has slipped its way into recent media discourses, mostly because of the Park51 Center controversy and the revelation that disturbing number of Americans believe Barack Obama to be a Muslim. But many of these discourses have centered on the othering of American Muslims, which is why I was surprised to see a new twist in Beck’s discussion of Obama’s religion. Beck’s new line is that while Obama may not be a Muslim, he is certainly a bad Christian. Specifically, Beck charged that Obama adhered to “liberation theology,” a Catholic movement aligned with Marxism that originated in Latin America in the 1950′s and ’60s.
This morning, debriefing the rally on Fox News, Beck half-heartedly retracted an accusation of racism hurled at Obama last summer, saying that he had a “big fat mouth sometimes” (he may tie Dr. Laura for best non-apology of the year), but added that he made the comment because he “didn’t understand Obama’s theology.”
Obama, Beck said, subscribed to liberation theology, which he described as centered on “oppressor and victim.” This is not, Beck claimed, a theology which many Christians follow, because it is, in his words, the “direct opposite of what the gospel is talking about. It’s Marxism disguised as religion.” Beck took this complex theological discussion a little further, saying that while Obama believed that “your salvation is directly tied to collective salvation,” while Beck (and all good Christians) believed that “Jesus came for personal salvation.” Beck said “people aren’t recognizing [Obama's] version of Christianity.”
Liberation theology is not a new subject for Beck, who devoted an entire episode last July to attacking the idea that Jesus was a victim. “Social justice,” Beck said, “isn’t in the Bible…Jesus was a conqueror. Jesus conquered death.”
Beck’s deep misunderstanding of both liberation theology and much of Christianity itself are obvious in these remarks, and illustrate the extent to which Beck is willing to harness religious rhetoric for political aims. I don’t know whether Obama subscribes to liberation theology, but if he does, it’s in theory rather than in practice, because the movement itself has very little political influence today. His beliefs correspond to a basic tenet of Christianity: the obligation of the Christian to care for others. This is repeated throughout the New Testament, from Matthew 25:40 (“Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me [Christ]“) to Paul’s epistle to the Romans, where he writes, “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” This doesn’t seem to jive with Beck’s assertion that because Christians believe that they are saved through God’s grace, this translates into an exclusively personal vision of salvation.
In an interview on Religious Dispatches, Union Theological Seminary president Serene Jones addressed Glenn Beck’s bizarre formation of grace, saying,
“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.”
Obama’s interpretation of Christianity is not radical – and it is in fact Glenn Beck who is deeply out of sync with fundamental Christian ideals. When asked, on Fox News, how he would respond to critics of his wealth, Beck responded “the money doesn’t matter.” It’s hard to believe that Beck hasn’t read the gospel of Matthew, where Christ says to a young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor” (Matt. 19:21), but from his comments, it seems that he’s never bothered to read or wrestle with the scriptures that he seems so eager for Americans to embrace.
Perhaps it would be best for Beck simply to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote, “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” Is Beck’s God the one that we want America to turn toward? And is Beck’s Christianity one that Christ would recognize?
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
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