A few weeks ago when I was speaking to my parents in the US on the phone, my mother told me I had received something in the post from ‘socialists.’
‘Really?’ I asked. ‘Are you sure it’s not from a Sociological Association?’ She replied, ‘No. And they were saying bad things about Glenn Beck.’ That’s when the penny dropped: the letter must be from Sojourners, the American Christian group whose leader – Rev. Jim Wallis – has borne the brunt of some fervent criticism by Beck.
In the US, of course, ‘socialism’ can be a term of derision and European social democracy is viewed with some suspicion.
So if someone receives a letter in the post from Sojourners and immediately labels it ‘socialist,’ it appears that Beck’s message is doing a pretty good job getting through.
Beck tells his viewers that people who call themselves ‘progressives’ are really ‘socialists’ and, it seems, that those who disagree with his interpretation of faith and politics are out to destroy truth, justice and the American Way.
Back in April, I blogged about Beck’s employer, Fox News, and its funding of a research and internet campaign against Christian pastors like Wallis.
Beck was at it again this past week after Sojourners, concerned at what they see as a lack of civility in public political debate in the US, launched a ‘Truth and Civility Election Watch.’ The next day on his show, Beck said that Wallis was ‘dangerous’ and was leading America to ‘mass death.’ In his words,
That’s why Jim Wallis is so dangerous. All the preachers that surround the president, they are progressives and they are big government progressives. When you combine church and state, and you take a — you take a big government and you combine it with the church, to get people to do the things that the state wants you to do, it always ends in mass death.
Last Thursday, I asked you to take up the challenge and say, "I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler." When the next day Glenn Beck told his audience that I was "dangerous," mischaracterized what I believe, and then took that mischaracterization and said that it "always leads to mass death," my first desire was not to be civil. When his next step was to leap to the Nazi corruption of churches in Germany, and to suggest that I and "progressive Christians" were like the Nazis, I got angry.
‘I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler’ is a slogan I first heard on Jon Stewart’s comedy news programme, the Daily Show.
In part a response to Beck’s ‘Restoring Honor’ rally in Washington on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, and the enthusiasm whipped up at various ‘Tea Parties,’ the Daily Show crew is hosting a ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ in Washington on October 30, 2010.
Stewart and Colbert’s counter-rallies are being promoted with characteristic humour, but the intent is quite serious. One method of delegitimizing someone who you perceive to have too much power is to entice people to laugh at him.
At the same time, Beck’s comments are particularly insulting because one of the groups that resisted Nazism in Germany was the confessing church. There is a good argument to be made that prominent confessing church pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer would share many of the convictions of today’s ‘social justice’ Christians.
In his book on Bonhoeffer, Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times, (T&T Clark, 2008) religion scholar Jeffrey C. Pugh argues both implicitly and explicitly that it is the type of religion and politics that someone like Beck promotes – a ‘Christian America’ that is allied to a particular political party and favours foreign military interventions – that should be viewed with suspicion. Pugh writes (p. 128-9),
For those who are inclined to make Bonhoeffer’s actions normative then they should be prepared to follow Bonhoeffer to the Golgatha he walked. … This necessitates painful and difficult questions for those who use Bonhoeffer as an example for action in the beginning of what promises to be a long and generational struggle in contemporary times, ‘the war on terror.’ It is called a war because those who have the most interest in keeping it going need the rhetoric of war to marshal persons to give their lives. But on all sides the underlying issues are not dealt with at all, thus ensuring that attack will be met with attack, and blood revenge, if we cannot bring ourselves to act in different ways, will become the driving force for the foreseeable future. …
I exist within the current, but quickly fading, empire of America (there will be others after us) and as far as I can tell there is little to no Christian witness that would indicate we are prepared to enter into the absence of God that Bonhoeffer experienced later in his life. To take this step would necessitate looking without self-deception at the behaviour of deceitfulness and lies that has corrupted political life in America. It would mean telling the truth about what colonial behaviour looks like to a culture that not only refuses to hear it, but works overtime at denying that there is a truth in anything other than America never has its own interests at heart when it acts. We only desire to help others achieve the blessings of liberty.
Pugh doesn’t say or imply that political opponents should normally be viewed with the same suspicion as totalitarian regimes. But the fact that both sides in this American ‘debate’ identify with the ‘good guys’ of history, such as Martin Luther King Jr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, concerns me.
This can, or already has, slipped all-to-easily into a politics of ‘us and them’ rather than a politics of the common good.