When Glenn Beck told listeners of his radio show on March 2 that they should “run as fast as you can” from any church that preached “social or economic justice” because those were code words for Communism and Nazism, he probably thought he was tweaking a few crunchy religious liberals who didn’t listen to the show anyway. Instead he managed to outrage Christians in most mainline Protestant denominations, African-American congregations, Hispanic churches, and Catholics–who first heard the term “social justice” in papal encyclicals and have a little something in their tradition called “Catholic social teaching.” (Not to mention the teaching of a certain fellow from Nazareth who was always blathering on about justice…)
He also managed to bring the National Council of Churches–once a powerful umbrella organization for Christian churches–out from hibernation, in the form of a withering response from leader Peg Chemberlin. Progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis, taking a page from his conservative counterparts, is calling for Christians to boycott Beck’s shows. And Beck has given the folks who come up with slogans every week for church signs plenty of material to work with.After initially doubling-down on his statements, Beck is now trying to walk them back somewhat, making a distinction between religious injunctions for individuals to help the poor and the broader notion that society has an obligation to care for the “least of these.” But as religious scholar and blogger Mark Silk points out, that’s not what Beck’s own tradition–the Latter-Day Saints–believes:
“Not to belabor the point, but the Judeo-Christian tradition from which Beck’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints springs expects the poor to be provided for as a matter of public law. And indeed, in the days when the LDS Church ran its corner of North America as a theocracy, that’s just what it did.”
And Philip Barlow, a professor of Mormon history at Utah State University, told the New York Times that, “One way to read the Book of Mormon is that it’s a vast tract on social justice,” adding, “A lot of Latter-Day Saints would think that Beck was asking them to leave their own church.”
The term “Social Gospel” has been considered a dirty phrase by conservatives for a while now. But if that’s what Beck meant, he has quickly learned the consequences of sloppy language. And in any event, he has certainly discovered the dangers of publicly practicing theology without a license.