I’m no fan of President Obama’s clumsy attempts to play media critic.
The Obama administration’s wrangling with Fox News last year was as wrongheaded as it was counterproductive. A smart president does not dismiss an entire national network, even if it is biased. Indeed, as I argued at the time, leaders are supposed to stir it up with their critics — not refuse to accept interview invitations.
Obama is not always wrong when he talks about Fox personalities, however.
Asked the other day by CBS News’ Harry Smith about talk-radio and talk-TV assaults on him during the health-care reform debate, the president termed Glenn Beck’s on-air ranting "troublesome."
To the extent that "troublesome" is a synonym for "bizarre," it is hard to argue with the assessment of the man who has spent the weeks leading up to Easter attempting to rebrand Christianity as a rich-man’s religion.
Christians will, in the spirit of the season, forgive Glenn Beck’s war on Easter — or, to be more precise, on the basic tenets of the religion that, with Easter, celebrates the foundation of its faith — just as, I’m sure, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly must forgive everyone he accuses each year of waging a war on Christmas.
After all, when someone is as wrong as Beck, it is cruel to pick on them. And, make no mistake, Beck is wrong about the social gospel preached by the Nazarene whose followers celebrate his resurrection on Easter.
In the weeks leading up to the central religious feast in the Christian liturgical year, Beck has used his Fox News platform to call on Christians to leave their churches if they hear mention of the phrase "social justice," which he suggests is a code phrase for socialism — or worse.
"I beg you look for the words social justice or economic justice on your church Web site," shouts Beck. "If you find it, run as fast as you can."
"Everything we see pushed down the throats of the American people right now–TARP, the stimulus, health care, immigration reform, bailouts, cap-and-trade–they all have one thing in common: Their PR campaigns contain two words: ‘social justice,’" claims Beck.
Beck is bugged that priests and pastors have been suggesting that a child raised by a carpenter from Galilee might have sided with the poor, or that a child born in a manger because there was no room at the inn might have nurtured some concern for strangers in a strange land.
How bugged? He mentions these preachers in the same jittery breath as Nazis, Communists and, horrors, progressives.
Unfortunately for Beck, two-thousand years of religious history and teaching have led a good many Christians to presume that the Nazarene really was passionate about economic and social justice. They can’t seem to get that whole chasing the moneychangers from the temple incident out of their heads.
To be honest, this is not just a Christianity thing.
All of the world’s great religions preach social-justice messages — and, invariably, they find inspiration for those messages in the teachings of their more enlightened prophets. While Beck may prefer a faith that says it is easier for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, the TV host is having a hard time remaking Christianity to meet his demands. (Although not, it should be noted, as hard a time as he had with his previous rebranding project: a surreal attempt to transform Tom Paine into a conservative icon.)
Beck’s current initiative has run up against the likes of the Rev. Jim Wallis, whose work with the group Sojourners has been hailed by Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals.
Wallis, who knows a thing or two about the Bible, explains that: Social justice is not, as Beck suggests, a perversion of the gospel. Rather, it is "at the heart of the gospel."
"When Glenn Beck is asking Christians to leave their churches, the Catholic Church, the black churches, Hispanic, evangelical, to leave all our churches, I’m saying it’s time for Christians to leave the Glenn Beck show," argues Wallis. "This offends Christians. This is salt, something at the heart of their faith. It’s something many of us have spent our lives trying to do, to practice."
Wallis is hardly an outlier.
The Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin, a Moravian clergywoman who serves as president of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA, describes Beck’s line as "a ridiculous statement."
Suggesting that the conservative commentator suffers from "a misunderstanding, at least, of what the Bible says." Chemberlin suggets that, "Justice is a concept throughout the scriptures. It’s one that should be and must be organized around any congregation."
She finds Beck’s ranting "disturbing" because "he is speaking on behalf of his political views and trying to take out of the biblical text the things that are going to oppose his political views. This is primarily a political motivation." And, she adds, it is at odds with "2,000-year-old gospel."
Beck, never one of accept that he might be wrong, has attacked those who have challenged him — especially Wallis, who Beck accuses of preaching "forced redistribution of wealth, which is a fancy name for Marxism."
Wallis, who has counseled presidents from both sides of the political aisle, recognizes a teaching moment when he sees one.
Sojourners has launched a "Tell Glenn Beck I’m a Social-Justice Christian" campaign, urging churchgoers to send the TV personality emails reading:
I’m a Christian who believes in the biblical call to social justice.
I stand in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus that demonstrate God’s will for justice in every aspect of our individual, social, and economic lives.
The campaign has been so successful that Wallis has actually found reason to celebrate.
The preacher observes that:
Glenn Beck’s attacks on deeply held Christian principles of social justice have ironically brought newfound attention, focus, and discussion about what it truly means to be a "social justice Christian." As wrong and often vitriolic as his caricatures, insults, and attacks on such core gospel teachings and biblical tenets have been, they have provided what is often called a "teachable moment" and perhaps a mobilizing moment as well. The Beck attack on Christian social justice has given us an opportunity to teach what true gospel principles are and offers us an opportunity to reach out to even more people who are being attracted by the biblical call to social justice — which is the mission statement of Sojourners."
Now, says Wallis, he and other activists are considering an expansion of the response.
"We are now discerning whether this is the right time to move beyond the discussions and, as Congressman John Lewis says, ‘put some feet on our prayers’ and launch A Million Christians for Social Justice," Wallis writes. "Sure, we’d be responding to Glenn Beck, but we believe we’d really be responding to our own calling to stand up for the poor and vulnerable and to stand against the conditions, institutions, and polices that further poverty. It could be a moment to speak out and to serve. The attacks of poverty on vulnerable families and children, the attacks of hunger on entire communities, the attacks of economic inequities on hardworking people, the attacks of war on civilians who get caught in the crossfire, are all much harsher attacks than anything Beck can hurl at us. These are the attacks we must address. These are the attacks we are called to fight."
If the televised crusade against social and economic justice inspires a new movement to do right by the poor and immigrants this spring, we will know who has won the war on Easter. And it won’t be Glenn Beck.