On July 13, 2010, Glenn Beck made liberation theology—and especially Black Theology—the subject of his televised program. The real subject of his complaint was twofold: liberation theology is “a perversion of God” that mistakes Marxism for the plain meaning of the Gospels, which, for Beck, are self-evidently about individual salvation, and liberation theology does away with the language of merit, convincing the down-and-out that they are victims deserving of a handout instead of hard work. The inconsistencies of this message, along with Beck’s misreading and simplification of the various complex traditions of Christian liberation theology have not gone unnoticed in rebuttals and reprisals.
Writing in Religious Dispatches, Sarah Posner summarizes the tenets of various religious movements to counter Beck’s faulty biblical interpretation, but also suggests that what is at stake is not simply a misreading of a theological tradition, nor even a misrepresentation of mainstream Christian interpretation. Rather, Posner suggests that the real problem is that Beck is “using his anti-government heresies to produce a false, ahistorical civics class that distorts his viewers’ understanding of the role of government in serving the needs of its citizens.”
Beck is our 21st century red-baiter, our go-to guy to tar any government services as “socialism.” Beck didn’t invent this, and he certainly won’t be the last demagogue to pollute our airwaves. But as the Republican Party and the conservative movement have fallen off the cliff—claiming on the one hand that government represents the rotting soul of Karl Marx, and on the other that God ordained them to run it instead—Beck suits them just fine. If you can lump all those liberal, “fake” Christians in with the European-style socialists and America-hating progressives, it further solidifies the libertarian-Tea Party-Christian-worldview-ahistorical-revisionist wing of American politics.
Elijah Prewitt-Davis picks up on Posner’s point, writing from the perspective of a seminary student at Union Theological Seminary, home of James Cone, one of the Black Liberationists whom Beck attacks by name. Prewitt-Davis interviews Serene Jones, Union’s president, trying to come to terms with what might be behind Beck’s appeal, instead of merely dismissing his inconsistencies.
Throughout the show, Beck continually claims that this has nothing to do with race. Is it safe to assume that he means what he says, and that his fear stems from a more generalized xenophobia and fear of the other?
Perhaps you could call it xenophobia. But I read it more as an appeal to some of our most vulnerable and troubling instincts as human beings. When the world seems uncertain and unsteady, we want to stabilize it by figuring out who we can hate so that our world becomes stabilized by making us the good guy. He plays to that sentiment. This is where the racism, sexism, and fascism come in. They appeal to all of those unconscious fears that we have and they run the spectrum. Racism is always just a general subcategory of playing on that fear.
Prewitt-Davis goes on to thank Beck for reminding students at Union of the importance of the liberation traditions they still study:
Perhaps what surprised the students and professors of Union Theological Seminary the most was that, at least in the eyes of Glenn Beck, liberation theology is still a potent and vital force in American culture. By dedicating an entire show to James Cone and liberation theology, he is actually undermining his own position by giving public voice to a theology that in so many ways has receded from the headlines as an important influence. This exposure might draw us all to reflection, not just to reaction. If Beck can serve as any sort of signifier, then liberation theology is still important and clearly has a future. Unlike Beck, I look forward to the day that a young immigrant worker picks up a copy of God of the Oppressed and realizes her humanity through it.
Perhaps recognizing that a serious debate will come to little else than more free publicity for Beck, Serene Jones turns to satire in an open letter to Beck in the Huffington Post:
Dear Mr. Beck,
Serene Jones here. I’m President of Union Theological Seminary in New York, home of James Cone, the scholar featured on your liberation theology program this week.
I write with exciting news. Bibles are en route to you, even as we speak! Kindly let me explain. On your show, you said that social justice is not in the bible, anywhere. Oh my, Mr. Beck. At first we were so confused. We couldn’t figure out how you could possibly miss this important theme. And then it hit us: maybe you don’t have a bible to read. Let me assure you, this is nothing to be ashamed of. Many people live bible-less lives. But we want to help out. And so, as I write this, our students are collecting bibles from across the nation, packing them in boxes, and sending them to your offices. Grandmothers, uncles, children, co-workers — indeed, bible-readers from all walks of life have eagerly contributed. They should be arriving early next week, hopefully just in time for your next show. Read them with zeal!
Oh, I almost forgot: we’ve marked a few of the social justice passages, just in case you can’t find them.
Jones goes on to encourage Beck to enroll at Union, where after some remedial study he might be ready for Master’s level theological reflection.
Although they lack the same media budget and savvy that support Beck’s public platform, Union students have joined the satire game as well, publishing a YouTube video expressing their concern for Beck’s biblical illiteracy and offering to pray for his salvation.