September 2, 2010
Using religion to advance political goals is probably as old as religion itself. Its claims to absolute truth and certainty, and its highly emotional character, excite political extremism far better than politics itself. We all know that by now.
That is why it was no surprise that Glenn Beck, the incendiary talk-show host, took his Tea Party followers to the other dimension with his "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial last weekend.
"It has nothing to do with politics," he shouted to the crowd. "It has everything to do with God."
Sure. With himself and Sarah Palin on the stand, it was pretty easy to see through that one. And staging it in the very place and on the very date of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech 47 years earlier made the event positively creepy. On his radio show he said he hadn't known about the coincidence of dates beforehand; it was "divine providence" that guided his hand on the calendar.
It was providence too, presumably, that anointed him, of all people, as the restorer of Dr. King's dream, which, he said, "has been so corrupted." It is he and his followers that are "the people of the civil rights movement. We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights, justice, equal justice. Not special justice, not social justice. We are the inheritors and protectors of the civil rights movement. They are perverting it."
Beck's attempt to co-opt the civil rights movement with charges of "reverse racism" — remember, he once called President Obama a "racist" with "a deep-seated hatred of white people" — is only topped by his attempt to co-opt Christianity.
After the rally, in an interview on "Fox News Sunday," he called President Obama "a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor-and-victim." On his own show the previous week, he had stated that liberation theology is "all about victims and victimized, oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation. I don't know what that is, other than it's not Muslim, it's not Christian. It's a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it."
"People," he concluded on the Fox News program, "aren't recognizing his version of Christianity."
But Jesus might.
Take the Gospel of Luke, for example. Often called "the Gospel of the Poor," it is all about oppressors and the oppressed.
Right from the beginning of this Gospel, you know what social class Jesus comes from. Unlike in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus is born in a house and is visited by magi bearing precious gifts, in Luke he is born in a smelly stable, and first to do him honor is a group of humble shepherds — the underclass.
When he begins his public life, he announces his mission: "to bring glad tidings to the poor," "to let the oppressed go free." Time and again in his sermons and parables, he expands on that theme. In Luke's version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says bluntly: "Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours"; and in contrast: "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." In one parable, Lazarus the poor man is received at the bosom of Abraham while the rich man, who would not give him so much as a scrap from his table, burns in hell. In another, the despised tax-collector's prayers justify him, while the lofty pharisee's do not.
Even before Jesus' birth, his mother had already summed up his life and work: God "has thrown down the mighty from their thrones but lifted up the lowly."
For Jesus in Luke, the new social order he proclaimed was not pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die; it was arriving right now: "The Kingdom of God is among you." Jesus was the first liberation theologian.
Obama is hardly a liberation theologian, even by Beck's simplistic definition. He may favor rescinding tax-cuts for the rich, but his emphasis is on the middle class, and his policies and pronouncements rarely address the plight of the poor. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were more "liberationist" than Obama is.
Beck preaches a theology of personal salvation without a social dimension — which is odd in itself, since he is a convert to Mormonism, as "collectivist" a religion as you'll find. And in implying that "individual salvation" is what most Christians believe, he ignores a denomination as large as the Catholic Church, with its highly-developed body of official teaching advocating his despised "social justice."
The Tea Party philosophy — Don't tread on me, tread on them — presumes a Horatio Alger libertarianism that, had Jesus embraced it, would have catapulted him from the barn to the boardroom in 33 short years. But no. Jesus was born poor and died poor, in solidarity with the poor.
Too bad Jesus wasn't a featured speaker at the "Restoring Honor" rally. You wonder what he'd have to say.