Does Glenn Beck Have a Point? (If so, what is it?)

Posted: 12 March 2010 in Faith and Life
Tags: , , , , , ,

By now most people have heard about Glenn Beck telling Christians to flee their churches should they hear the concept of “social justice” being taught or discussed. This somewhat strange rant is available here in case you missed it. I have been reflecting on Beck’s choice to go after this issue and must acknowledge that while I do not regularly follow his programs, I am intrigued by both his style and his eclectic pseudo-populist message. In this case I am wondering if Beck has a point and what that point might be.

Is Beck challenging Christians about their use of the concept of social justice because he believes that their solution to social injustice relies too heavily on the state to solve the problem? In other words, is he asking Christians to develop a more rigorous and transparent definition of what social justice means and the role of government in bringing about justice? If he were doing this Beck would not be different from other conservative writers.

For example, a few days before I heard about Beck’s “call” this article from Cardus arrived in my inbox. The author, Ryan Messmore is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and while I disagree with much of what he says in the article, he does ask some important questions about the role of government in providing for justice. The following excerpt pretty much summarizes his and the Heritage Foundation’s view on the issue:

Advocates promote social justice in the name of helping people. Yet they often designate strategies that are distant and impersonal. The adjective “social” implies that justice involves the numerous bonds, relationships and institutions of an entire society, yet its approach often seems myopic, viewing government as the sole source of effective change.

Indeed, it’s hard to listen to public discourse about social justice and not get the sense that our culture has largely relinquished responsibility for “the least of these my brothers” to state, provincial and federal governments. Many seem to equate caring for the poor with advocating government redistribution of wealth.

Leave aside, for a moment, the issue of redistribution of wealth (the place where I would part ways with Messmore and the Heritage Foundation) and focus on what he has to say about “social”. The questions Messmore raises about the role of broader social forces in promoting justice seems like a good one to me. Indeed, as someone who has worked for years in a variety of civil society agencies promoting “justice”, I do believe there is a legitimate role for government and for civil society actors in solving the many problems of injustice we face in our world. I appreciate that Messmore is at least challenging me to consider what I really believe the government’s role should be in relation to the role of others such as NGOs, religious groups and other community-based groups.

Indeed even Jim Wallis, in his God’s Politics Blog of 10 March 2010 (Tell Glenn Beck: I’m a Social Justice Christian)–a blog in which he asks people to communicate their anger about Beck’s broadside to him–acknowledges that the definition of “social justice”, among Christians at least, could be better clarified:

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.

A local case in point might help describe my concern about this: Late last year the city council in my town decided to limit the number of homeless individuals that a church and church-based ministry could provide in the downtown area (for reasons I won’t get into here). There was a justifiable outcry about this state intrusion into a critical grass roots ministry and various people organized to express their disagreement with the decision and ask the council to overturn it. As I talked to various pastors about what their response might be I urged them not to approach the city with the request that it (the city) do more for the homeless if they were going to limit what churches could do.

My reasoning was that there are things that the state (city in this case) should provide for homeless people but that the church (and other non-profit groups) were able to do things that the state could never do. Among the latter are the services that develop deep relational bonds between homeless individuals and volunteers and staff of non-profits. In other words, these groups are able to engage relationally and discover mutual transformation in the relationship with homeless people so that everyone goes away changed in some positive way. My point to the pastors was that the state is not good at providing this kind of relational service and we should not ask it to play that role. The state may be good at distributing services or goods but it does so–by definition–in an impersonal (and even dehumanizing at times) and bureaucratic way. This is how the state acts and even the good services it provides are, arguably, not all that homeless people need.

So… to ask the question of the legitimate role of the state and of non-state actors in bringing “social justice” is a healthy thing and one that I believe should be part of the ongoing dialogue the church and other non-state actors engage in with state actors. The extent to which conservatives challenge others to consider this they do us a service. I say this even as I disagree with their over-minimalist view of the role of government, their naivete about the ability of markets to correct social problems and their unwillingness to see that distributive justice is as important as social justice.

So… Back to Beck. Is this his point? To challenge Christians to wrestle with the meaning of the concept and ask the hard questions that Wallis acknowledges must be asked and which Messmore asks explicitly? I would say no, that is not Beck’s point at all. If it were, Beck would be calling upon Christians to go back to their pastors, ministers, priests, denominational leaders, etc. and have that discussion. He does not do that. Rather he tells them to get out–to run for the hills.

No, Beck wants no dialogue. His problem is not with the definition of “social justice”. His problem–indeed his rage–is over the word “social”. Beck hates that word. As I have already written, Beck and his ilk have a vision for “society” in which each individual is completely “free” completely autonomous from everyone else. A place where I am (you are) not responsible for anyone else and where the inequalities that exist are the result of some people’s hard work and other people’s sloth. Watch Beck’s speech at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference and you will see what Beck’s point really is. Perhaps this quote from that speech best sums up his point:

We have a different system here. We choose our own destiny. We choose. All men are created equal. All men will not end up equal. But all men are created equal. And in our daily choices, that determines our outcome.

In other words-there are no social forces, no fallen powers, no systemic injustices or collective sin that lead to the inequalities (distributive justice again) that we see. It is all about my choices, your choices and everyone’s individual choices. Everyone is free to choose…

This, I would argue is Glenn Beck’s point and it is one that I suggest we must reject. Beck wants us all to live in Aynrandland–a place that Whitaker Chambers, in his review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, in 1958 understood well. As he wrote:

From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!”

The way of personal autonomy is not the way of freedom–it is the way of communal death. This is what we must tell Glenn Beck. This is what we must discuss in our churches.

Update: I wanted to mention that there are some who have (helpfully I believe) pointed out the negative role that NGOs can play in hindering the search for truly just solutions to the problems poor and oppressed people face.  The argument, articulated most eloquently here by Arundhati Roy, is that NGOs, by providing “social services” rather than social justice, let governments off the hook in terms of government’s responsibility to rectify injustices.   The same point can be found in some of the essays in the collection entitled The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.

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