Glenn Beck, Heretic?

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With all due respect to my colleagues, this focus on religion and God isn’t anything new from Glenn Beck. His most recent foray has been a sustained attack this year on churches that preach “social justice,” arguing just a month ago that “Social justice isn’t in the Bible.” Beck had to alter his message slightly for this weekend’s event, both because it’s easier to rally people for God than against social justice, but also because it would be kind of awkward to spend the day hating on social justice when that was pretty much at the core of Martin Luther King Jr.’s theology.

Beck’s attacks on social justice have not gone over well with the millions of American Christians–including most Catholics–who consider social justice to be a key part of their religious tradition. But even the broader message of religious revival that Beck preached on Saturday is getting him in trouble with Christians across the theological spectrum. The most stinging criticism has come from Russell Moore, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who warns Christians not to fall for “vacuous talk about undefined ‘revival’ and ‘turning America back to God’ that was less about anything uniquely Christian than about, at best, a generically theistic civil religion and, at worst, some partisan political movement.”

Moore’s rebuke has been approvingly reprinted everywhere from the conservative journal First Things to Relevant magazine, a publication for young evangelicals. It speaks to the distrust of Christian conservatives who feel they have been taken for granted by the GOP and largely forgotten by the Tea Party movement. And in his references to “the scandalous scene at the Lincoln Memorial,” Moore’s critique is not terribly different from those Christian conservatives who complained during the 2008 campaign that Obama was presenting himself as a secular Messiah. The signs “IN BECK WE TRUST” carried by rally attendees still kept God out of the picture–they just replaced Him with Beck.

While some Christian conservatives are primarily upset by the too-obvious attempt to join together religious and political conservatives in a Religious Right 2.0, others chafe at a religious revival led by a Mormon. It’s no secret that many evangelicals don’t consider members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints to be Christians, and the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein reports today that Christian radio has been lighting up with debates about Beck’s Mormonism:

“I’m a little nervous about that kind of talk,” said Janet Mefferd, a nationally syndicated Christian talk show host who said most callers Monday wanted to talk about Beck. “I know he means well and loves this country, but he doesn’t know enough about theology to know what kind of effect he’s having. Christians are hearing something different than what he thinks he’s saying.”

That kind of suspicion is also interfering with Beck’s attempts to shift from his “apolitical” rally to a day-after attack on Obama’s religious faith. After all, when Beck says of Obama “People aren’t recognizing his version of Christianity” or characterizes Obama’s theological views as “a perversion of the Gospel,” he’s using the exact same phrases many Christian conservatives do to describe Mormonism.

It’s worth noting that Beck’s criticism of Obama’s faith is based not on any of the president’s own comments about his theological beliefs but instead on the views of the former pastor of the church Obama left two and a half years ago. It’s hard to divine Obama’s views on liberation theology based on the church he used to attend, just as it would be hard to conclude that George W. Bush is a theological liberal just because the church he most frequently attended in Washington during his eight years in office was St. John’s Episcopal.