Glenn Beck, Jim Wallis, and “Social Justice”

 Last week, Glenn Beck said something stupid.

I tried to find the transcript of his March 2, 2010, show on his website, but I couldn’t. So, here’s the relevant quote, thanks to the good folks at GetReligion:

I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. 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! …

If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, “Excuse me are you down with this whole social justice thing?” If it’s my church, I’m alerting the church authorities: “Excuse me, what’s this social justice thing?” And if they say, “yeah, we’re all in that social justice thing”—I’m in the wrong place.

Over at the New York Times, Laurie Goodstein reported on the brouhaha over Beck’s words among Christians. Headline: “Outraged by Glenn Beck’s Salvo, Christians Fire Back.” As evidence of Christian outrage, Goodstein cited one evangelical, Jim Wallis, and one Mormon, Philip Barlow. I guess in the hallowed halls of the Times, a liberal evangelical and a Mormon professor constitute widespread Christian outrage.

Over at First Things, Joe Carter wrote:

I think if anyone else had made the remark it would have been hard to dismiss the anti-Catholic undertones. But Beck is a special case: He is too prone to say any dumb thing that pops into his head and too ignorant about history and religion to truly understand the implications of his statement. This doesn’t excuse him, of course, but it certainly is reason not to be too shocked when a self-professed “rodeo clown” advises people to leave their churches over Catholic “code words” like social justice.

In other words, if Beck were a tad smarter, he’d be an anti-Catholic bigot. I suppose this is what passes for a hermeneutics of charity over at First Things these days.

At Theophiliacs, my friend Shawn Wamsley’s day went straight to heck when he heard Jim Wallis talk about the controversy. I know the feeling, Shawn. It happens to me every time I listen to Jim Wallis talk too.

Speaking of Jim Wallis, he wrote the following response to Beck on his blog:

Glenn Beck says Christians should leave churches that use the word “social justice.” He says social justice is a code word for communism and Nazism.

But since the Catholic Church, the Black Churches, the Mainline Protestant churches, and more and more Evangelical and Pentecostal churches including Hispanic and Asian-American congregations all consider social justice central to biblical faith, Glenn Beck is telling all those Christians to leave their churches.  Of course, Christians may disagree about what social justice means in our current political context — and that conversation is an important one — but the Bible is clear: from the Mosaic law of Jubilee, to the Hebrew prophets, to Jesus Christ, social justice is an integral part of God’s plan for humanity.

Beck says Christians should leave their social justice churches, so I say Christians should leave Glenn Beck. I don’t know if Beck is just strange, just trying to be controversial, or just trying to make money. But in any case, what he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show. His show should now be in the same category as Howard Stern. Stern practices pornography and Beck denies the central teachings of Jesus and the Bible.  So Christians should stop watching the Glenn Beck show and pray for him and Howard Stern.

Wallis even came up with a clever write-in campaign:

Dear Mr. Beck,

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.

I hereby “report” myself to you, and promise to report myself to the appropriate church authorities. I hope you’ll be hearing from them as well.

Here’s my take on this controversy:

First, who cares! Glenn Beck is a Mormon. I would no more take advice from him on what Christians should believe, or which churches they should attend, than I would from that notorious atheist Christopher Hitchens.

Second, Beck’s definition of social justice is unbelievably narrow and intellectually cramped. Essentially, he interprets social justice as Communism or Nazism. On his television show, he held up the Hammer & Sickle alongside the Swastika and said both flew under the banner of “social justice.” Even if Commies and Nazis talked about “social justice,” that doesn’t mean social justice is a Communist or Nazi concept. What Beck fails to do is to give fair treatment to how Catholic and evangelical Christians use the phrase social justice. Hint: They’re not totalitarians, and shame on Beck for suggesting that anyone who talks about social justice is heading down that road!

Even that notoriously left-wing outfit, the Heritage Foundation—just kidding, folks—has a six-part video series: Seek Social Justice. People featured in the series are a veritable who’s who of conservative evangelicals and Catholics. If even they’re using the term…

Which brings me to Jim Wallis. Truth be told, I don’t like Glenn Beck’s politics. I don’t like Wallis’s either. And one of the reasons why is evident in Wallis’s response to Beck.

Go back to the blog post from Wallis I quoted above. Its second sentence says, “He [Beck] says social justice is a code word for communism and Nazism.” In other words, Wallis knew from the git-go that Beck was using a tendentious definition of social justice. Rather than correcting Beck’s tendency, however, he deftly changes the topic, creates a straw man of Beck’s position, then beats up on that for a while. Glenn Beck doesn’t hate poor people. He believes charity is an individual responsibility, not a government wealth-redistribution program. And he believes that government redistribution, if undertaken in the name of the gospel, is a perversion of the gospel.

According to Wallis, “social justice [is] central to biblical faith.” And “social justice is an integral part of God’s plan for humanity.” If you substitute “helping the poor through voluntary charity” for “social justice,” you have an accurate statement of Beck’s position, as far as I can tell. But simply for refusing to use the term “social justice,” Wallis lumps Beck in with Howard Stern, that “pornographer,” and asks everyone to “pray” for Beck.

How to put this delicately? Wallis’s response is intellectually dishonest, not to mention sleazy. With one pious hand folded in prayer, he manages to slanderously stab a guy in the back with his other hand. Beck is as bad as Howard Stern? Really?

I love how Wallis insinuates untoward motives for Beck’s statement: “I don’t know if Beck is just strange, just trying to be controversial, or just trying to make money.” But, of course, Wallis’s motives are pure as the driven snow. He’s not a progressive activist, or anything. He’s not got any books to sell or media appearances to make, or anything untoward like that. (See how easy it is to insinuate ill motives?)

I’ll wrap this puppy up. Glenn Beck, you’re wrong about social justice because you’ve too narrowly defined it and ignored the way Catholics and evangelicals talk about it and put it into practice. Jim Wallis, you’re wrong about Glenn Beck because instead of correcting him where he went wrong, you’ve perpetuated the “dispute about words” he started.

(What do I mean by “dispute about words?” Consider this statement by Wallis: “Of course, Christians may disagree about what social justice means in our current political context — and that conversation is an important one — but the Bible is clear: from the Mosaic law of Jubilee, to the Hebrew prophets, to Jesus Christ, social justice is an integral part of God’s plan for humanity.” In other words, everyone agrees that social justice is important, but no one knows what it means.)

I’m boycotting both of these guys, and I urge you to do the same.

22 thoughts on “Glenn Beck, Jim Wallis, and “Social Justice”

  1. George,
    Aside from the fact that in your mind he too narrowly defined the term “social justice”, what exactly do you not like about Glenn Beck’s politics?


  2. Derek:

    It’s not just “in my mind.” Glenn Beck too narrowly defined the term, “social justice.” If Charles Colson, Al Mohler, and other conservatives can use the term, then it doesn’t mean what Glenn Beck thinks it means.

    His modus operandi in the social-justice brouhaha is what bothers me about his politics. He latches onto an aspect of a concept(“social justice,” “Marxism,” etc.), universalizes that aspect over competing aspects, finds the worst historical precedent to confirm his definition, then rails again people who use the term contrariwise to his own.

    That’s intellectual dishonesty of a pretty high order.

    And that’s not the kind of politics I want to be associated with.


    P.S. You never responded to my long comment on Dallas Willard’s “inclusivism.” I hope I didn’t turn you off to the discussion.

    1. Lighten up, George. Beck is just making a point and a good one at that. Most points sound as if they are universalized even if they aren’t intended to be. I get it and I think you do too. I understand you came down harder on the other side, but to sanctimoniously call for Beck’s boycott is unfair in my opinion. Clearly, liberals use the term “social justice” as a kind of semantic shield, when there is in fact typically a left-wing agenda behind it. Case in point: who becomes apopleptic after Beck’s remarks were aired? Left-wing idealogue, Jim Wallis!

      1. You see, George, this would be the kind of mental gymnastics that I fear conservatives everywhere will be making – this is why my morning was shot. Not because I love Wallis so well, but because there are those that want to believe Beck’s brand of politics are somehow aligned with the Evangelical worldview, when (as you have stated) there are far more Evangelical organizations that side with social justice – though everyone may have a different idea about how to define what that means.

  3. Yes, I had some thoughts on your Willard post. Let me try to summarize them and get back to you. I really appreciate your willingness to engage with me.

  4. How about the gymnastics it took to translate my post into reading that I wanted to believe that Beck’s politics are somehow aligned with the Evangelical worldview?

    1. Derek,

      You are right, sir (or would I also be inferring too much from your name?). There were some presumptions implicit in my statement. I presumed /1/ that you were an Evangelical Christian, /2/ that you don’t seem to have any problem with a good deal of what Glenn Beck says, because you agree on some level, and /3/ that you don’t have a problem reconciling what you believe are Glenn Beck’s politics (at least the ones you like) and your Evangelical Christianity. Which of these was I incorrect about? I will gladly recant and apologize.

      1. You know what I see when I read your condescending notes and post-modern website, Shawn? Pride with a capital P.

        You guys are proud that you are so much more enlightened than Evangelicals. You’re proud that you now realize that the Assemblies of God “left” you. You’re proud that you smoke pipes and drink beer. You guys are so cool.

        No worries. Personally, it doesn’t bother me. Just wanted to let you know that I’m not picking up on the love of Christ, just arrogance.

  5. Good post, George. I have one factoid to add: in about 24 hours, Glen Beck recieved over 17,000 pieces of correspondence denouncing his comments, this was largely organized by Wallis, and the Sojourner’s network. It pales in comparision to those good-old focus on the family campaigns of yesteryear, but it’s still nothing to sneeze at.

    But, you’re right, this isn’t something to get too worked up over; it’s actually a useful illustration of the fact that Glen Beck is probably the only person in the entire broadcasting world who knows less about Catholic (or even Evangelical) theology and ethics than Pat Robertson.


  6. Derek,

    Does that mean we aren’t talking anymore? I really felt like we had some chemistry going.

    I made a response to George’s post (which, was written, in part, for my benefit) and your comment. You were very clear (and snide I might add) in correcting what you felt like were inadequacies in my comment. I very humbly offered to receive your correction and apologize for anything I may have assumed incorrectly.

    Now you tell me that I am “Proud with a capital P”? Huh?

    Forgive me, but I take issue with at least three things you have going here. /1/ you accuse me of taking logical liberties and refuse to offer a better way when I respectfully ask you to correct my error, /2/ Your “discussion” with me has amounted to an ad hominem argument, and /3/ you accuse me of lacking the love of (or perhaps for?) Christ – tell me, where are you providing the elements of genteel Christian conversation and living that you are demanding of me?

    Or is this just more of the obscurantist, vitriolic parochialism that has driven so many young ministers out of the A/G?

  7. Derek:

    I have to agree with Shawn on this one. Your 10:43 p.m. comment is both off-topic and ad hominem.

    Derek AND Shawn:

    Look, there’s a very interesting debate that we could be having about several issues:

    (1) What is social justice, and how closely does it track with biblical Christianity?

    (2) How well, or how badly, does the politics of Glenn Back reflect biblical priorities? Or even: how well, or how badly, does the politics of Jim Wallis reflect biblical priorities?

    (3) More broadly, are American evangelicals captive to political ideologies, of the Right or of the Left, that do not reflect biblical priorities and thus distort our gospel witness in North America and the world?

    (4) Even more broadly, what is the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility, between church and state, and even between God and country?

    Unfortunately, we’re not having those debates yet.

    The point of my post on Beck/Wallis was simply that well-known (Mormon) conservative (of sorts) and a well-known evangelical liberal are not acting in a helpful manner when it comes to the issue of “social justice.”

    If Christians, such as we are, can’t disagree civilly, then what hope is there for American political discourse? Or are we hoping that the pagans will act better than we do?


  8. Hi George —

    Nice to see lively discussion.

    First, I think it’s timely to include Charles Spurgeon in this discussion … the Morning and Evening devotional for March 17th includes a reference to “Remember the Poor” – Galatians 2:10. I think it speaks to this debate from the vantage point of another era.

    I haven’t lived in the U.S. for 12 years now; I’ve lived in Sweden — I just lost half your readership I think ; ) I’ve also grown up as an MK (Kenya, the Balkan states), I have an International Relations degree from USC, and have been teaching university level English since ’98. And I say all this in an attempt to point out that trying to pin down my political identity in terms of American views on left and right is difficult.

    I think the problem in some of this discussion is that we are viewing Jesus in terms of being an American, or a politician, or a statist. Isn’t he our provision for obtaining citizenship in another kingdom — the kingdom of Heaven?

    And, as citizens of another domain, isn’t it our job to be salt and light while we are here? Aren’t we ambassadors of another kingdom, giving all of ourselves — what we “have” is only on loan as a tool in our work for Christ, or?

    There is no justice, social or otherwise, until we come into His kingdom. But as people restrained by the limits of being on earth, we are to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). If that means I give everything I have, and that is what the Lord requires of me, that is what I do. But, I think this is personal — what the Lord requires of me and what He requires of another is personal and different, or? I have to say with David, I will not give the Lord something which has not cost me anything. (2 Sam 24:24)

    But, we should remember the poor and bear in mind the countless references (OT and NT) that the Word makes to our action in terms of reducing suffering. When did we see you in hungry, in prison or sick … when you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me … I don’t want to hear that.

    So, whether we live in the U.S. or in Sweden or elsewhere, our politics should be those of the kingdom and our motive should be to hear “well done, thou good and faithful servant”. That’s my view …

  9. I have volunteered my entire life for the homeless, abused children, my relatives who had Alteizers( quit school and took care of my Aunt free for three years). I am a Glenn Beck fan because he is a TRUE American. He is very charitable and as a matter of fact all pastors and priests to his show get free tickets. As a Catholic woman I find it very sad that the idea of social justice is soo distorted to say we must FORCE people to be charible.You are being USED by Wallis and the Democratic party for their agenda. We get our rights from GOD. Oh, sorry now we must get all our rights from Obama, Pelosi, Reid and the IRS thanks to the new healthcare bill!

  10. Well May, being the Catholic woman you are it’s unfortunate that you haven’t attended to nearly 150 years worth of papal encyclicals that call for Catholics to participate in “social justice.” Oh, sorry now we must get all our morals from loudmouth media entertainers and not from our churches thanks to Fox ‘News!’

  11. George,

    What an insanely loaded question! I’m not sure that most encyclicals address “governments” but it’s good to have confirmed that you don’t think governments aren’t made of people. Honestly George I don’t even know what you think a State or a Government is. It’s like a void. So I guess considering your commitment to the status quo in government it should show up as the philosophical no-thing, a secular abstract authority consisting in neither person nor representing the will or consent of the people. It cannot be addressed to be moral, indeed it seems like it cannot be addressed at all except to be told to be smaller and to win wars.

    Mater et Magistra at least addresses “governments.” I wouldn’t overlook Pacem in Terris, Laborem Exercens or Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. I’d argue that Centesimus Annus and even the most recent Caritas in Veritate can be interpreted in such a way. Keep in mind I’ve not read all of the encyclicals so there are probably more that could be added.

  12. 64. The public administration must therefore give considerable care and thought to the question of social as well as economic progress, and to the development of essential services in keeping with the expansion of the productive system. Such services include road-building, transportation, communications, drinking-water, housing, medical care, ample facilities for the practice of religion, and aids to recreation. The government must also see to the provision of insurance facilities, to obviate any likelihood of a citizen’s being unable to maintain a decent standard of living in the event of some misfortune, or greatly increased family responsibilities.

    – Pacem in Terris

    Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution

    Ceritas in Veritatem 37

    I found several others as well.

  13. Tony:

    My earlier comment was snarky. I assumed you were blustering and hadn’t actually read the encyclicals. It was an uncharitable assumption and, in any case, turned out to be factually wrong. Thanks for bringing these quotes to my attention, and to May’s.

    At any rate, I apologize for the snark and the assumption.


  14. Tony:

    I wrote, “which [encyclical] teaches that government should force people to be charitable?” From this, you infered a lot of things about my view of government, that it’s “a void,” “the philosophicl no-thing,” and a “secular abstract authority consisting in neither person nor representing the will or consent of the people.”

    That’s a lot of freight for a few words to carry, especially since I was using May’s words. And anyway, I think the word “people” here is idiomatic, meaning something like “citizens,” which is how it’s used in the preamble to the Constitution.

    I also find it odd that you think I’m committed to the status quo. I’d like nothing better than throw the bums out of Congress, repeal any number of laws, take a few cracks at the crony capitalism that Obama is quickly becoming an expert on, and–well, you get the picture. In the debate over the size of government, I’m the radical.

    I also also find it odd that you seem to think I don’t think the government should represent the will or consent of the “people.” (By the way, are you using this word idiomatically or do you also intend some abstract, philosophical division between the people and abstract government?) The majority of the American people oppose the health care legislation our president just signed into law. Are you going to launch into an attack on the undemocratic tendencies of the administration?

    For the record, government consists of people. And that’s precisely why the size and influence of government should be limited. People are fallible and corruptible.

    Consider this scenario. I Senator Judas sponsors legilsation to take money from hard-working Peter and give it to unemployed Paul, and in the process asks Paul to vote for him for re-election, how is the democratic process not both unjust and corrupt?


  15. George,

    Thanks for the apology as I at least never say anything inflammatory. Actually, I too am sorry for my own comments about your supposed “view of government.”

    Most likely I projected a lot on you though sometimes I feel that your resistance to so-called “big government” ends up making “government” sound like some independent body disconnected from citizens or “people.” I interpreted your question about encyclicals addressing “governments” in this way. As I see it it is irrelevant whether a church document is addressed to “people” or “governments” as, since governments act on the authority of the citizens (even if they overstep those bounds) and are themselves constituted by citizens, moral judgements are imperative on both for they are in the end not both but one.

    For whatever it’s worth, I also don’t much like “big government” in the sense of a strong Federal government. Make no mistake, I am not a huge fan of this bill but I take it as a first step the passing of which is significant enough to be a necessary shove to get this party started. I like local governments and local economies and am willing to have strong (big?) local government to achieve this. Though I think Machiavelli at least understood that sometimes the masses (in our contemporary American world, the masses-subject-to-markets) don’t “know what is best for them.” As to how it works out I’m far more ambiguous than I once was. My “Obama” phase died quickly.


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