Once upon a time the name “Glenn Beck” didn’t mean anything to me. Despite the fact that I am both a Mormon and a political conservative, I have historically had a hard time remembering who exactly Glenn Beck was. Sometimes I would remember that he was a political commentator but not that he was a Mormon, and sometimes I would remember that he was a Mormon but not what he was famous for. This is probably because Glenn Beck is a television personality, and I don’t watch television. I don’t say that in some snobby way like, “Oh, I decided it wasn’t worth the cost of cable just so I could watch Antiques Roadshow and the occasional History channel program.” No, it’s because I find enough on the internets to amuse and debase myself with, so watching television would be a little gratuitous, wouldn’t it? So I have never watched Glenn Beck’s program. But since joining By Common Consent and thereby becoming a fully engaged member of the Mormon blogging community, I have been reminded on a regular basis that a) Glenn Beck is a right-wing nutjob and b) he’s a Mormon, and that’s just embarrassing. And now I can no longer forget who he is. Thanks a lot, Mormon blogosphere!
So now I know that on his March 2 broadcast Glenn Beck told his listeners/viewers that they should leave their churches if those churches preach a thing called “social justice.” According to Beck, “social justice” is code for communism and Nazism. So if you are a red-blooded American who values individual liberty and you hear the words “social justice” uttered at your church, you should start church-shopping right away. (Free markets: they’re not just for health care anymore!) Here’s an excerpt from what was undoubtedly a long-winded speech:
I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!
Now, the biggest reason I never comment on anything Glenn Beck says is that I don’t believe in criticizing people (or defending them) without knowing the context of their remarks, and familiarizing myself with the context of Glenn Beck’s remarks would require me to actually listen to his show, something I have zero interest in doing. However, when you have Glenn Beck urging folks to leave their churches in the interest of maintaining religious freedom, attention must be paid. So I listened to an available audio clip, which, frankly, did not make a heck of a lot more sense to me than the quote above did, but it did include Beck’s assurance that he would be willing to leave his own church if it started preaching this social justice crap. Well, that’s certainly big talk for a Mormon, who is about as likely to hear the words “social justice” over the pulpit as he is a plug for Lucky Strikes. So color me impressed as far as that goes. But ultimately, as a religious conservative, I must denounce Mr. Beck’s remarks.
I’m not going to chastise Glenn Beck for opposing church efforts to help poor people because I know that’s not what he meant to oppose. Glenn Beck is just one of those folks who consider “social justice” to be interchangeable with “socialist government.” Those folks include many on the left, as well as paranoid right-wing nutjobs. Social justice, while it has its roots in moral theology, is not a term that’s often used by religious conservatives because it is so readily associated with left-wing politics, for a good reason. Religious progressives enjoy using the Gospel to promote their political ideals as much as the next person. Secular progressive movements also invoke the concept of social justice. Don’t think that just because I used to get Glenn Beck confused with David Archuleta that I must be ignorant on all political fronts. The fact remains: if your church advocates social justice, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s a Communist plot.
Many people base their progressive politics on Christian teachings about our obligation to the poor. (Jesus said a lot about serving the poor, after all, and he was relatively silent on government regulation.) But there is a difference between a moral ideal itself and a particular political application to serve that ideal. Small-government conservatives don’t believe in conflating the two, and we should be extra-careful about making the distinction between social and political ideals if we’re going to rail against “social justice” as a political euphemism. A smart conservative draws this distinction every time the subject comes up to avoid looking like a completely heartless lunatic.
But that’s not the biggest problem I have with Glenn Beck’s remarks. It’s that he has the chutzpah to tell people that they ought to leave their churches if those churches espouse ideals that scare him. Leaving aside the fact that “social justice” has more than one possible meaning and application, given the diversity of religious traditions that talk about it, let’s just play pretend for a minute. Let’s imagine that some popular talk-show host said that “protecting marriage” was code for “anti-gay bigotry,” and if your church won’t reconsider its emphasis on protecting marriage, you should leave that church. Or, alternatively, that “sanctity of life” was code for “controlling women’s bodies,” and if your church won’t back off on the “sanctity of life” issue, you should leave that church. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can decide for myself if my church supports a creeping totalitarianism and whether or not the good my church does–for me, my family, and my community–outweighs any particular political concerns I might have. That’s my business, and you really must have a lot of nerve to suggest that the concerns of my soul should come second to your political agenda. If I weren’t (allegedly) a Christian, I’d tell you to [jump in a lake].
No one ought to know better than a religious conservative that churches and religious folks have a right—some would say even a responsibility–to advocate policies that are morally in line with their beliefs. Since this is America, not everybody forces their morality down other people’s throats in the same way. When Glenn Beck warns me that my right to exercise my religion and interpret the scriptures as I see fit will “come under the ropes” if social justice is allowed to run amok in the pews, I just don’t know what he’s talking about. I suspect that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. So why is he talking at all? Why is he telling people to run at the merest mention of “social justice” instead of articulating the conservative vision for fulfilling the Biblical mandate to serve the poor and afflicted? If anything, the Book of Mormon is even more insistent on our obligations to the poor, so if Glenn Beck wants to contribute to the Mormons Are Christians cause, he should stop giving the impression that social justice is an ideal for Commies.
I can’t say that I ever lose any sleep over what a Mormon celebrity says or does. I don’t feel embarrassed by Glenn Beck because if someone wants to judge me or my church based on what some jive-talking loudmouth on the TV said or who won American Idol, there’s not a lot I can do about that. I believe that most people’s opinions of Mormons are based on their experiences with Mormons they actually know, which is why I’m more concerned with the lady in my ward who uses the N-word than I am with Glenn Beck. Personally, I find it very easy to ignore him. (Pleasant, too. Certainly more of you should try it.) But I thought the Bloggernacle could use some more diversity in its anti-Glenn Beck posts, so here it is: I’m conservative, I’m a Mormon, and Glenn Beck doesn’t represent me.