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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Jesus At the Tea Party

As you may have heard, Glenn Beck has gotten himself into some serious hot water by suggesting that people (or more specificially, Christians) leave their churches or even their denominations behind if they harbor any talk about “social justice” or “economic justice,” terms he identifies as “code” for communist- and Nazi-sponsored totalitarian designs. As usually interpreted, Beck’s line sounds like a fairly common kulturkampf tactic by conservatives who are engaging in civil war against alleged “modernism” within the Roman Catholic Church, or who have been urging Protestants for years to abandon “liberal” mainline churches for various fundamentalist gatherings.
But if you listen to what Beck actually said yesterday, in another rant on the subject, he’s saying something about Christianity that’s a lot more radical than the usual back-to-the-1950s stuff about religion focusing on personal morality rather than caring for the poor. Calling “social justice” a “perversion of the Gospel,” Rev. Glenn explains it this way:

Nowhere does Jesus say, “Hey, if someone asks for your shirt, give the government a coat, and then have the government give him a pair of slacks.” You want to help out, you help out.

Now you often hear religious conservatives argue that state social welfare programs undermine the charitable instinct or the private organizations that help the poor. But Beck seems to be suggesting that any government efforts–indeed, any collective efforts–to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and so forth, are “perversions of the Gospel.” Beck’s Jesus is a strict libertarian.
Beck’s original remarks were treated by some as a thinly veiled attack on the Catholic Church, since, as the conservative religious journal First Things quickly pointed out, the very term “social justice” was invented by a nineteenth-century Jesuit theologian interpreting St. Thomas Aquinas. “Social justice” isn’t just a trendy contemporary slogan, and it certainly wasn’t pioneered by communists or Nazis: it was the central theme of the great Social Encyclicals of various Popes, most notably Leo XIII, whose 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, is considered especially normative.
More basically, the idea that Christianity is opposed to state action in pursuit of the common welfare is highly alien to both Catholic and Protestant traditions. Most religious observers would contend that “social justice” as practiced by communists and Nazis is a “perversion” of Christianity, and hardly any would confuse government-sponsored health and welfare programs with totalitarianism. Even amongst the hard-core Christian Right, most spokesmen save their Nazi analogies for attacks on legalized abortion.
As it happens, Beck is a Mormon, which isn’t exactly a libertarian creed, either. But he’s really endangering his status on the American Right by claiming that Jesus would today be out there with the Tea Party folk fulminating about the “looting” of taxpayers to help the poor.

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