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Jim Wallis’ un-Christian response to Glenn Beck

As much as I hated Glenn Beck’s call on Christians to flee churches that emphasize “social justice” — which is to say, just about every church there is — I’m still disappointed in the response of lefty Christian Jim Wallis:

“What he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show,” Mr. Wallis wrote on his blog, God’s Politics. “His show should now be in the same category as Howard Stern.”*

I’m disappointed because Wallis’ response could’ve shown Glenn Beck what’s “Christian” about a “social justice Christian.” That is, it could’ve responded in a way that emulated Jesus’ exhortation to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And maybe Wallis is doing so. But his response comes across as a piece of churlish, cheap moralizing in the vein of Bill Donohue or Donald Wildmon. It seems more interested in scoring political points than in doing God’s work in the world. It’s just uglier and less graceful — in the full meaning of that word – than you’d hope for.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m out of the church, so maybe I shouldn’t be offering theological advice to those who’ve remained. And I certainly believe Glenn Beck is an ass who needs a rhetorical slap in the face, oh, daily. But I maintain a respect for faith, even if I can’t share it. And I hate to see it cheapened by the sordid pettiness of our all-too-human politics.

* I had to rely on the New York Times account of Wallis’ words. For whatever reason, Wallis’ blog post isn’t opening up on my computer. If I find I’m erring in my response to Wallis’ words, I’ll correct the record.

Does Glenn Beck think Mennonites are Nazis? (Or: Of liberal churches and freedom of religion)

The Mennonites I grew up among had a consistent “pro-life” ethic that didn’t place them easily in the service of either major political party: Most of the folks I knew were very much against abortion — but they were also anti-war, anti-death penalty and for helping the poor. A number of them didn’t like to pay taxes, but not for any Ayn Rand-inspired reason; they just didn’t want their money used to pay for America’s wars. A lot of the church’s missions abroad have been done under the umbrella of the Mennonite Central Committee, which has — sometimes controversially within the churches — focused more on helping people and less on evangelizing.

Over the years, there was a phrase I heard used to describe this overall approach to the world: “Social justice.” And until this week, I had no idea that it meant that the Mennonites are secretly in league with the Nazis. Thank goodness we have Glenn Beck to set us straight.

On his daily radio and television shows last week, Fox News personality Glenn Beck set out to convince his audience that “social justice,” the term many Christian churches use to describe their efforts to address poverty and human rights, is a “code word” for communism and Nazism. Beck urged Christians to discuss the term with their priests and to leave their churches if leaders would not reconsider their emphasis on social justice.

“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!”

Later, Beck held up cards, one with a hammer and sickle and other with a swastika. “Communists are on the left, and the Nazis are on the right. That’s what people say. But they both subscribe to one philosophy, and they flew one banner. . . . But on each banner, read the words, here in America: ’social justice.’ They talked about economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and surprisingly, democracy.”

I’ll let Mennonites and other Christians decide if they really want to take theological advice from Beck, a Mormon whose adopted theology many mainstream Christians consider heretical, at best. I’m certainly not going to try to argue theology with the likes of Beck. And in any case, I doubt many adherents of churches that espouse “social justice” are taking their cues from Fox News, anyway.

Suffice it to say, though, I doubt that the answer to “WWJD?” would ever be to “Go Galt.”

What’s more disconcerting, though, is Beck’s framing device. He’s not merely asserting that left-leaning churches are wrong — that’s his right, though I think he’s mistaken. He’s suggesting that Americans, broadly, are about to see their freedom of religion come under assault. What’s his basis for this? He doesn’t have one, as far as I can tell. Is there some Bible-censoring program underway that I don’t know about?

Probably not.

And that’s what bugs me about Beck. It’s not that he has spectacularly wrongheaded opinions – it’s that he proceeds from spectacularly incorrect facts. And that he disseminates those spectacularly wrong facts from one of the highest-profile slots on television. It’s a real disservice to his audience, and to the country that has to put up with a debate influenced by so many of his acolytes.

Some of my conservative friends tell me they think Glenn Beck is full of crap. Obviously he is. But he’s influencing a large swatch of the conservative movement. And he’s doing so in a way that wrongly sows panic and fear among his audience, not thoughtfulness and vigorous debate. Glenn Beck, not churches who believe that pursuing “social justice” is the calling of Christ, is the real danger to our country.

The “Atheist Agenda” and Bibles-for-porn trade

Well, this is certainly obnoxious:

A student group at the University of Texas-San Antonio that goes by the name Atheist Agenda sparked heated debate this week when they carried out a “Smut for Smut” program. During the program, students can trade in Bibles and other religious materials and receive high-grade porn from the group. “The idea is to highlight that the Bible is as full of bad ideas and bad depictions of those ideas (’a woman is worth half a man’) as pornography,” Boing Boing noted. Students protested the program by praying and reading their Bibles. The student group told a local news stationthat they planned to donate all of the religious texts they received to libraries.

I’m sure all the student atheists giggled when they thought up this idea, but maybe they should’ve asked themselves a question: Who, exactly, is going to be convinced of anything by this stunt?

I mean, I’m an agnostic and I think the Bible — particularly good ol’ Saint Paul — tends to treat women pretty badly. And I think the “Smut for Smut” program is spectacularly stupid. It’s only going to offend Christians; I can’t imagine a single person will be “converted” to atheism. Folks who might count themselves as natural allies of the “free-thinking” students will probably want to distance themselves. I know I do.

All the “Atheist Agenda” kids manage to do, then, is draw some publicity to themselves and make a few people angry. They end up looking like — and maybe being — the arrogant fundamentalists they’re trying to mock. It’s just as ugly on them as it is on religious folks.

How Christian were the founders? Who cares?

The most popular story at NYTimes. com this hour focuses on the never-ending story to define the Founding Fathers in religious terms.

The one thing that underlies the entire program of the nation’s Christian conservative activists is, naturally, religion. But it isn’t merely the case that their Christian orientation shapes their opinions on gay marriage, abortion and government spending. More elementally, they hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders.

The narrow answer to the question, of course is that some of the Founders were Christians and some, like Thomas Jefferson, were deists at best, and thus “Christian” only in the sense that Unitarians are Christians — which is to say, not really Christians at all.

The broader answer to the question of whether the Founders were Christians, though, is this: Who cares?

As a thought experiment, let’s consider asking a similar question: How slavery-loving were the Founders? The answer would be about the same; some were, some weren’t — and it doesn’t really matter all that much today. Truth is: The Founding Fathers thought a lot more about slavery than religion in putting together the Constitution: The clause that designates slaves as three-fifths of a person appears in the fifth paragraph of the document. The entire structure of the legislative branch — the bicameral thing — was designed to let slave-owning states feel comfortable the free states wouldn’t run roughshod over them.  Religion, meanwhile, makes no appearance until the First Amendment; it’s an important amendment, but — coming four years after the main body of the Constitution had been adopted — a bit of a historical afterthought. And rather than enshrine religion, of course, the First Amendment serves to keep the state and the church out of each other’s ways.

In thinking back to the Founders, too, it’s important to remember that they lived in a much less ecumenical age than we. The Catholics of Maryland probably thought the Puritans of Massachusetts were going to Hell — and vice versa. Connecticut and Rhode Island were, in fact, founded by religious splinter groups that found the Massachusetts colonists too stifling. If the Founding Fathers had sought to enshrine Christianity is the state religion, then, they would’ve had to answer a critical question: Whose Christianity? It’s likely the whole project might’ve died in the cradle.

It’s fair to say, then, that the United States exists because the Founders sidestepped the question. So the project to confer a “Christian” history upon the United States then, isn’t merely annoying — it’s also deeply dishonest.

But still: Who cares? The Founding Fathers should be treated with respect and a bit of reverence, I suppose, but we often seem to be in danger of fetishizing them.

We of course live with a government and Constitution that were created by those founders. To the extent that parts of their vision haven’t been repealed — like the whole slavery thing — we Americans have continued to assent to live under those laws. And there’s a lot of good that has come from that. But we also need to figure out a correct balance between the Founders’ vision of America and our own. We are the ones who live here, after all. The vision of the Founders can, should and does inform our present decisions about how to govern ourselves — but it shouldn’t be limited to that. The good Christians who try to shoehorn the Founders into their religious vision are working, really, to trump the rest of us who live in a secular world and are happy to keep it that way. Should they (improbably) prove that the Founders wanted every American to become Presbyterian, it shouldn’t actually matter — because that’s not what we want. The desires of men long dead should only count for so much.

Brit Hume gets really weird even for Fox News, urges Tiger Woods’ conversion to Christianity

We evangelize, you decide:

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Whether he can recover as a person depends on “his faith. He’s said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, “Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.”

Well, first of all: I’m certain that Brit Hume has studied Buddhism deeply.

Second of all: Weird as it is to see a newsman urging religious conversion on a news analysis program — and hey, maybe this incident reveals how deeply weird and even distorting to our national dialogue it’s been that we spent much of December obsessing about Tiger Woods — I think, oddly, Brit was trying to be nice, sincere and heartfelt in what he did. I’ve spent my time around evangelical Christians. They never think they’re being intrusive into a private sphere of your life when they urge Jesus on you; they just don’t want you to go to Hell. Which is nice … but still intrusive, despite the intentions.

And in the context of a supposedly secular news analysis program it’s distinctly unhelpful. If you figure that the Christian God is running the entire universe, and you feel free to make that idea the crux of your news commentary, why wouldn’t it become the basis of all the rest of your news analysis? I understand Iran is moving closer to having nuclear weapons — but that’s OK, John, because Jesus will return and take the believers to heaven with him. Publicizing your faith in a news analysis context doesn’t really illuminate anything for your viewers, except alert them to the fact of your faith.

I don’t begrudge Brit Hume his Christian faith, nor his right to proclaim it publicly. Certainly, it’s something that should appeal to much of the Fox News demographic. (Bill Kristol, of the Jewish faith, might feel a smidge uncomfortable participating in a televised revival meeting, but what the hey?) This isn’t so much troubling as it is … deeply weird.

Jesus, the Census and Latino Elected Officials


The National Association of Latino Elected Officials is leading an effort to distribute posters that depict Joseph and a pregnant Mary traveling to Bethlehem, noting Joseph went there to be counted in a Roman census. “This is how Jesus was born,” the poster states. “Joseph and Mary participated in the Census.” Most of the posters are in Spanish and are meant to counter efforts by other Latino groups to boycott the census as a way of pushing lawmakers to change immigration law.

It might behoove the Latino Elected Officials to remember what happened next, according to the Bible: Joseph, Mary and Jesus had to flee to Egypt while King Herod slaughtered all Bethlehem babies under the age of two. The story of Jesus’ early years is one of hardship and danger; not really the best selling point to try and get reluctant people to participate in the Census.

Abortion, gay marriage and American dhimmitude

Ever since 9/11, conservatives of the “clash of the civilizations” stripe have had a favorite word they like to casually toss at appeasing lefties: “Dhimmi.” It’s an Arabic word that applies, basically, to lesser status of non-Muslims in Muslim lands. Any time public officials wrestle with how to accommodate Muslims in America — say, when Muslim cabdrivers say they don’t want to carry passengers toting alcohol — cries of “dhimmitude” go up all along the right, with dreary consistency, an alarm that any accommodation with religious zealots whatsoever will surely result in the fall of Western civilization.

I suspect the same folks who scream “dhimmi” with some regularity, though, will have no real problem with this:

Citing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to civil disobedience, 145 evangelical, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders have signed a declaration saying they will not cooperate with laws that they say could be used to compel their institutions to participate in abortions, or to bless or in any way recognize same-sex couples.

They want to signal to the Obama administration and to Congress that they are still a formidable force that will not compromise on abortion, stem-cell research or gay marriage. They hope to influence current debates over health care reform, the same-sex marriage bill in Washington, D.C., and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Ostensibly, these religious organizations don’t want to be forced to provide abortions, host gay marriages or even provide benefits to same sex partners of their employees. But it seems unlikely that any proposals on these issues would end up with that result. “Conscience clauses” largely prohibit physicians from being forced to provide medical services they find objectionable, and the First Amendment pretty much ensures no Catholic Church will ever be required to perform a marriage ceremony between Adam and Steve. It should be pretty easy to resolve these concerns, right?

Probably not. The churches don’t just want to abstain from what they believe to be immoral practices; they’re trying to influence policy and legislation so the rest of us must also abstain. I don’t really like that, but I suppose that’s their right.

But it’s interesting to me that the same folks who get the vapors when Muslim women want to use a gym separate from men are more or less the exact same folks who will defend to the death the right of a Catholic pharmacist (say) to refuse to dispense birth control pills.*

We’re expected to defer to and accommodate religious sensibilities in the public square, it seems, except when we’re not. We’re all dhimmis now.

*Christopher Hitchens, of course, is the exception to this. He thinks all of you are crazy.

Hate crimes law now covers gays

And of course it was opposed by many Republicans:

“The inclusion of the controversial language of the hate crimes legislation, which is unrelated to our national defense, is deeply troubling,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

Hate crimes law enacted after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 centered on crimes based on race, color, religion or national origin.

The expansion has long been sought by civil rights and gay rights groups. Conservatives have opposed it, arguing that it creates a special class of victims. They also have been concerned that it could silence clergymen or others opposed to homosexuality on religious or philosophical grounds.

But of course, the new law doesn’t make it illegal to say or think against homosexuality. If that was the way the law worked — because it has long covered crimes against religion — we’d have no end of criminal charges against Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. We don’t.

If you think homosexuality is wrong, in other words, nothing’s going to happen to you — unless you decide to assault a gay person because they’re gay. So you might want to not do that.

There’s a solid argument to be made against hate crimes of any sort: We shouldn’t be singling out any group of people as a “protected class.” I respect that argument. But as a legal and practical matter, we’ve long recognized that there are groups of people who are particularly vulnerable to being victimized and that society has an interest in discouraging acts against those people.

In any case, it’s worth remembering the Republicans controlled Congress and the presidency for much of this decade. If they felt that “hate crimes” legislation is generally bad, they certainly could’ve made an effort to repeal the law. As far as I know, they didn’t. Draw your own conclusions.

Barack Obama hates Jesus

In this day of massive news organization layoffs and cutbacks, it’s good to know Politico has the resources to do this kind of story:

President-elect Barack Obama has yet to attend church services since winning the White House earlier this month, a departure from the example of his two immediate predecessors.

On the three Sundays since his election, Obama has instead used his free time to get in workouts at a Chicago gym.

You know, conservatives are so fond of calling Obama “the messiah,” it’s a wonder they haven’t realized that maybe he doesn’t need to go to church.

Barack Obama is a secret non-Christian

Rod Dreher, a conservative columnist-blogger who I think is often very sensible, has decided that Barack Obama isn’t a Christian:

As a statement of minimal Christian orthodoxy — that is, what it is necessary to believe to be a Christian — the Nicene Creed is as basic as it comes. And yet, in a 2004 interview with Cathleen Falsani, published in full the other day by Steve here on Bnet, Obama apparently professed a heterodox Christology:

FALSANI: Who’s Jesus to you?

(He laughs nervously)


Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he’s also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher.

And he’s also a wonderful teacher. I think it’s important for all of us, of whatever faith, to have teachers in the flesh and also teachers in history.

Unless Obama was being incredibly and uncharacteristically inarticulate, this is heterodox. You cannot be a Christian in any meaningful sense and deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. You just can’t.

Now in some ways this doesn’t matter at all. The president is not the nation’s preacher in chief, and he doesn’t have anything to do with the salvation of your soul. He’s there to manage the government as best he can — and that’s about it. While that’s a pretty far-reaching brief, it still leaves some areas of life untouched. And religion is one of those areas.

But it does matter in other ways. There’s a huge number of Americans for whom this kind of stuff really, really matters. During the 1990s, I knew conservative Christians who justified their opposition to Bill Clinton on quasi-theological grounds. “If he can’t keep his vows to his wife, how can he keep his vows to his country?” was the question I heard. Similarly, I think Dreher’s pronouncement could be laying the foundation for “If he defines his Christianity in a way that isn’t really Christian, what else can’t we trust him about?” sense of permanent unease about President Obama among social conservatives.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that Dreher — smart guy though he is — isn’t the gatekeeper of who is or isn’t a Christian. Alan Jacobs gives this thoughtful reply at the conservative The American Scene:

Is Barack Obama a Christian? Rod has all the links to the various participants in the controversy. My view is this: the President-elect claims to be a Christian, and I take him — I think I have to take him — at his word. Could he be lying? Could he be self-deceived? Could he have a limited or erroneous understanding of what Christianity is? Yes to all three. But then, the same doubts could be directed at anyone who claims to be a Christian, including me.

Good thoughts. I could talk a little more here about how “Christian” is a word with a rather elastic definition — and I could talk more about how George W. Bush’s Christianity doesn’t seem to come under question from social conservatism even though there are good reasons it might. But you know what? Obama’s adherence to the Nicene Creed really does mean nothing about what kind of president he’ll be. It’s a distraction to suggest otherwise.