Friday, May 21, 2010

The Limits of Political Dialogue

Over the past two months Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners has twice called upon Glenn Beck of Fox News to a public dialogue on social justice from a faith perspective. He first confronted Beck's words of support for the controversial Arizona law on suspected illegal immigrants:

America, this is what you have to understand: equal justice, not social justice. Equal justice of the law demands that law-breakers not be rewarded for their illegal activity, that instead they be treated like everyone else...Equal justice means if you live in the U.S. — I’ve got to be here legally. I can’t commit identity theft and fraud and neither should illegal aliens.

Wallis responded first with a letter to Beck (that he obviously did not answer) writing,

Social justice is a personal commitment both to serve the poor and to attack the conditions that lead to poverty...biblical justice also involves changing structures, institutions, systems, and policies, as well as changing hearts to be more generous.

And, second, Wallis called upon Beck to clarify his recent comments about climate change and churches. Beck denounced the trendy move towards greening church buildings:

Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships recently issued its report of recommendations and the Obama administration is about to take faith-based initiatives to a whole new level. The president’s council envisions the government and religion partnering to push the good news of global warming, climate change and green issues. Yes, the religion of environmental and social justice … Your church is either for socialist government or the living of the gospel and you need to know which one they are teaching.

Wallis, a member of Obama's Council on Faith-Based Partnerships, responded that it was the other way around--churches are actually pushing the Obama Administration towards social justice on this issue (or what Beck calls "socialism")--not top down, but bottom up.

If Glenn Beck takes Wallis up on the offer, I'll go to work in my purple speedo. Beck, who made $32 million last year from his radio, website, books and TV show and does not have a college degree, has no incentive to meet with Jim Wallis, who (no doubt) makes a modest salary from his work with Sojourners, a community he helped establish in the early 70s while at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he earned his Masters Degree. Beck, who recently described Wallis as "kind of like Jeremiah Wright on sedatives," is the type of leader who refuses debate with intelligent leaders who think differently than he does. Beck "succeeds" by bluntly harnessing the bully pulpit for his radio and TV audiences. He speaks to the crowd. He is exhibit A for what psychologist and rabbi Edwin Friedman calls "societal regression," a slippery-slope into emotional reactivity and addiction to the herding instinct in order to stave off our epidemic of chronic anxiety. When challenged, he resorts to name-calling to fire up his enmeshed base. Conservative pundit Reihan Salam recently proclaimed, "...he's a kind of national therapist for some of America's craziest people, few of whom are willing to go in for professional help."

Despite being dismissed by some conservative Evangelical leaders like Rick Warren ("Jim Wallis is a spokesman for the Democratic Party. His book reads like the party platform."), Wallis is a poster-boy for the kind of leadership that EasyYolk advocated for in our last post, transcending the liberal-conservative cookie-cutter packages of our political culture. A couple of years ago he wrote,

I would suggest that the Bible is neither “conservative” nor “liberal” as we understand those terms in a political context today... It is traditional or conservative on issues of family values, sexual integrity, and personal responsibility, while being progressive, populist, or even radical on issues like poverty and racial justice.

There are rare times when we should stop pursuing dialogue and we believe that this is one of those moments for Jim Wallis. His work challenging Beck has been helpful because it not only critiques Beck's blasts with intellect and tenderness, but also because he provides readers with a valuable model for a different kind of theo-political engagement on these issues. Every prophet criticizes and energizes. But Beck lives and breathes a dishonest narrative. He has shown plenty of evidence of being a "dialogue-rejecter" and this tells us as much about who is as the very words that come out of his mouth on a nightly basis. It is important to understand what Beck is saying and how he is influencing millions (including many of the growing number of Tea Partiers). Similiar to what the interviews of Rand Paul have unveiled over the past few days, the actual substance of Beck's rantings do need to be exposed. Media Matters is doing a terrific job of just that on a daily basis. The unintended consequence of Wallis' pursuit of Beck is that Wallis is just getting sucked into a culture war situation where leaders only speak to their respective crowds. We desperately need Wallis to have the time and energy focusing on more pressing matters.

--Theological Autopilot


  1. It always helps me to remember (and repeat) that Beck's own extremely accurate self description as a "rodeo clown" basically explains everything.

  2. i didn't get a chance to read all of this, i just skimmed your post, did you say beck challenged wallis to a debate in purple speedos?