A couple of days ago, Glenn Beck said this on his TV show:
I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ’social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!
Now, the blogosphere is on fire from the left to the right as people fall over themselves to denounce Glenn Beck. I ought to say up front: his was a pretty stupid thing to say. And I love Glenn Beck for saying it. Before I take on Beck’s detractors we need to start with the fact that is at the root of the controversy:
Meaning is a slippery thing.
Take words like “liberal” and “freedom.” Two or three centuries ago freedom meant something like “the right to make your own decision and live with the consequences.” Today it can mean anything from “the freedom to make your own decision and avoid the consequences” (think abortion as birth control) to “the entitlement to get what you want” (think about the “right” to housing or health care or employment). Back then a “liberal” was someone who believed in the individual right to be free from government tyranny. Today a “liberal” is someone who believes in freedom through government tyranny. In terms of practical politics, the old meaning of “liberal” and the new meaning are polar opposites.
The reason that the definitions changed is that people who wanted to argue for big government in the land of the free had to find a way to make their un-American ideas palatable. They used words like “liberal” and “freedom” as a sugar coating around the bitter pill of intrusive government meddling in our day-to-day lives, and in so doing turned the definition of the word inside out.
Pink Floyd had a little bit to say about that:
So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell,
Blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
Interestingly enough, so did Isaiah:
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!…
Which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!
Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the LORD, and their works are in the dark, and they say, Who seeth us? and who knoweth us?
Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay: for shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not? or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, He had no understanding?
Think it’s a little strange to quote a psychedelic 1970s band and a prophet of God? I’ll use whatever gets the point across. And this is the point: no armed enemy can take our freedom from us. We fought and bled for it once, and again and again since then. If you try to take from us the liberties our fathers and mothers sacrificed so much for, we will never relinquish. But if you successfully convince this people that light is dark, up is down, and bitter is sweet than we will trade in our heroes for ghosts without a shot being fired.
That’s what happened to the word “liberal.” That’s what happened to the word “freedom.” That’s what has happened to the word “rights.” And it’s what happened to the phrase “social justice.”
Now I didn’t know this, and I suspect Glenn Beck didn’t either, but the term “social justice” has a long history in the Catholic Church going back at least a century and a half and relying on writings that are far, far older. There are also defensible versions of the term outside the Catholic Church, including the writings of 20th century philosophy John Rawls, who taught that the basics of social justice included:
- Freedom of thought;
- Liberty of conscience as it affects social relationships on the grounds of religion, philosophy, and morality;
- Political liberties (e.g. representative democratic institutions, freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly);
- Freedom of association;
- Freedoms necessary for the liberty and integrity of the person (viz: freedom from slavery, freedom of movement and a reasonable degree of freedom to choose one’s occupation); and
- Rights and liberties covered by the rule of law.
See anything in there to disagree with? Me neither. This version of “social justice” is like the original version of “liberal.” It’s an essential part of American cultural-political identity. Glenn Beck doesn’t have a problem with Rawl’s version of “social justice” any more than he has a problem with Madison’s version of “liberalism.” Glenn Beck was ignorant of this version of the term, but anyone who listens to Glenn Beck knows what he meant.
The term “social justice” has been a buzzword of everyone from the Leninists to the Nazis, and American progressives use it as well. The rhetoric of “social justice” is used as a fundamental rationale for increasing government power to seize private property and redistribute it. To enforce affirmative action quotas. To restrict freedom of thought and freedom of speech by punishing politically incorrect viewpoints.
Glenn Beck likes old-school liberals and old-school social justice. Glenn Beck doesn’t like modern liberals (a.k.a. progressives) or modern social justice.
This seems pretty simple to understand, but no one out there seems to grasp it. From First Things (a fantastic Catholic paper) comes the not-at-all sensationalist headline “Glenn Beck Thinks Catholics Should Leave Their Church.” Really?
Could Beck’s claim be construed as “anti-Catholic?” Yes and no. I think if anyone else had made the remark it would have been hard to dismiss the anti-Catholic undertones. But Beck is a special case: He is too prone to say any dumb thing that pops into his head and too ignorant about history and religion to truly understand the implications of his statement. This doesn’t excuse him, of course, but it certainly is reason not to be too shocked when a self-professed “rodeo clown” advises people to leave their churches over Catholic “code words” like social justice.
Still, I’m curious to see how Beck’s loyal defenders will excuse his latest outrageous remarks. If we’re not supposed to take him seriously when he says stuff like this, when exactly are we to take him seriously?
There is no small amount of irony in Joe Carter’s characterization of Beck as “ignorant.” Guess Glenn Beck was too dumb to know social justice is a Catholic concept, right? Sorry, Joe, but that door swings both ways, and it makes you to ignorant to realize that social justice is also a progressive political concept. Making an ignorant statement is bad enough, but making an ignorant statement right after you attack someone else for the same kind of ignorance? Now that’s rich. I think another Biblical verse may fit here. Something about a mote in someone’s eye. And a beam in your own.
But if you think that was bad (and it was bad), try the ever-rational Huffington Post:
Glenn Beck says Christians should leave churches that use the word “social justice.” He says social justice is a code word for communism and Nazism.
Beck says Christians should leave their social justice churches, so I say Christians should leave Glenn Beck. I don’t know if Beck is just strange, just trying to be controversial, or just trying to make money. But in any case, what he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show. His show should now be in the same category as Howard Stern. Stern practices pornography and Beck denies the central teachings of Jesus and the Bible. So Christians should stop watching the Glenn Beck show and pray for him and Howard Stern.
I’m not sure whether to categorize this as more hypocrisy or sheer idiocy, but he doesn’t get the benefit of mere ignorance the way Joe Carter does. Look, in order for Glenn Beck to “attack the very heart of our Christian faith” he would have to be attacking the Christian faith’s version of social justice. But–as Jim Wallis points out in the very first line of his own post–Beck clearly doesn’t believe this. So Willis’s statement is literally impossible. It’s beyond putting words in a person’s mouth, because first you have to ignore the words that they actually said and then put in words that are directly opposite of what you just heard.
The intent of Willis’s article is clear: “Christians should no longer watch his show.” Willis doesn’t care about what Beck said, or what he meant, or what is true. He only cares that he has an opportunity to score some points, rack up some hits, and take someone he doesn’t like down a notch.
And now we’re back to that whole “meaning is slippery” concept. If you care about the truth then you have to make a good faith effort to try and get the meaning right. At a bare minimum you want to make sure that people understand what you mean when you use a word. It’s inconvenient and a little irritating for modern liberals and classical liberals to both use the word “liberal”, but as long as everyone is up-front about what they think the word means no one is being dishonest.
The dishonesty enters the equation when someone decides that they can win a little short-term advantage by deliberately misusing the meaning of a word. Whether that’s progressives co-opting the word “liberal” because it sounds American or HuffPo bloggers stuffing meaning into Glenn Beck’s words that simply isn’t there, the result is the same: someone is lying. (And it’s not Glenn Beck.)
I’m tired of this fake outrage whenever someone thinks they can make a buck by misunderstanding someone else on purpose. When soccer players fall on the ground and pretend that someone has broken both their legs off, it’s irritating and a little pathetic. When Lindsay Lohan sues over the “milkaholic” commercial, it’s ridiculous and very pathetic. But when self-avowed Christians try to cash in on someone’s honest mistake, it goes beyond pathetic. Hint: it’s number 9 on the list.