Glenn Beck’s ‘God talk’ fails to recognize the need to embrace social justice

Forty-seven years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington. On the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, entertainer and TV host Glenn Beck gave his — what I want to call — “We have a choice” speech.

The “Restoring Honor” rally, as he labeled it, was announced as an apolitical event. Indeed, Beck avoided the polarizing rhetoric for which he is known. He mentioned the “scars” of the past that have marred the honor of America, though he gave few solid examples. He came close by saying that “our children are slaves to debt” or pointing out that “even the poorest among us [are] still among the richest in the world.” (This echoes King’s utterance in 1963: “The Negro [still] lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”)

In his speech, Beck managed to appeal to the nationalistic sentiment of many people (“America is great because America is good”). He used shining examples from this country’s history, referring to the Founding Fathers, several important documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address) and the various monuments at the National Mall.

At the same time, there was a lot of God talk. Beck repeatedly invoked the name of God. His whole focus was on “our need to turn to God.” He often alluded to and quoted from the Bible: “This country has wandered in darkness” (Isaiah 9:2); “The truth shall set you free” (John 8:32); or the values of “faith, hope, and charity” (1 Corinthians 13).

It is this use of religious and pious language that has caught my attention. That’s why I would like to take a look at some of the aspects of Beck’s God talk and offer an alternate view.

Beck assumed the role of an evangelistic preacher. Even though his speech comes across as a sermon, it is, in fact, more of a motivational speech. Many of the phrases directly mention God. But there were other parts of his speech where references to God would have been suitable but were completely missing — such as when he said “you can change the world,” “man can rule himself” and “find out what you truly believe.” A person of faith would render the ultimate credit to God and not to his or her own strength, achievements or abilities.

Of course, as a pastor, it is my desire as well that people turn to God. Beck’s call to people to turn to God might apply to some but not to all. One cannot make people believe in or turn to God. I can share my faith with others, but I cannot impose it on them. I cannot force others to believe. There is such a thing as religious freedom. This means I have to respect that there are people who do not wish to turn to God. Quite often, non-believing people are singled out or blamed when things go awry in this nation or society. However, the problem cannot be resolved that easily — by simply turning to God. It is a peculiar mystery that there are non-believers who are good and moral people and vice versa, Christians and other believers who are not.

Beck did not only tell the audience to “look upward” (to God) but also to “look inward” (charity begins at home). It is a pity that there was no admonition to “look outside” (to our needy neighbors) — a trait most religions have in common. Looking inward only makes us poorer, not richer, makes us only self-absorbed, not other-concerned. America will have to restore her honor not apart from the rest of the world but from within the global community.

The omission of looking outside should not come as a surprise, though. After all, Beck has claimed on other occasions that social justice is “a perversion of the Gospel.” If Beck “looked at Jesus more carefully” — as James Martin S.J. suggests — “he would see someone who already made a choice: for the poor.” And considering Beck’s views on social justice, it is a bit of an irony that Beck has so much praise for Dr. King, who addressed the ills of racial injustice in his days with boldness and clarity. He was, in the words of Jim Wallis, a Christian writer and political activist, “the archetypical social justice Christian and the primary teacher for many of us on the social implications of Biblical faith.”

“Something beyond imagination is happening,” Beck said. “America today begins to turn back to God.” I respect Beck’s right to call upon God. However, there are many other people in this country (and throughout the world) who have already done this, on a daily basis, and they continue to do so. Not just since the rally. There are also those who do not believe but are equally concerned about honor and justice.

— Bjoern Meinhardt is the minister at the Vashon Lutheran Church.

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