Friday, April 02, 2010

Glen Beck vs. Jim Wallis

Last week, I came across Glenn Beck on Fox television denouncing people supposedly intent on overthrowing our government and way of life, i.e. President Obama and his supporters, with a group of photos of supposedly sinister characters displayed behind him as he spoke. To my surprise, one of the individuals displayed was Jim Wallis. I subsequently learned through web surfing that Beck had devoted an entire week to denouncing Wallis, who he described as the spiritual adviser to President Obama.

Beck's attacks on Wallis do not merit a detailed analysis or point-by-point refutation. How can one take him seriously when he says, for example, he had never heard of Dorothy Day before but then goes on to describe her as a Marxist, because she said she once was a Marxist? In fact Day radically changed her views after a religious conversion in the 1920s and became a devout Catholic. With Peter Maurin she founded the Catholic Worker movement. She was a nonviolent and spiritual activist, in some ways, much more threatening to the popularity of the far left than the right-wingers who during her time were trying to suppress even the civil rights movement, as well as basic labor rights which we now take for granted.

The reference to Dorothy Day came in the context of noting a conversation between her and Wallis in which Wallis said he once was a Marxist. I doubt Wallis was ever truly Marxist in his views, but what Beck is missing is the concept of repentance and people growing out of former beliefs. Was not the apostle Paul once the leading persecutor of Christians? In fact, Wallis came of age in the late 1960s as a seminary student, but from a conservative religious background as an evangelical Christian. In the early 1970s he joined with some like minded people to form a community and publish a magazine, first known as Post-American, later Sojourners. By the mid-1970s they had moved to Washington D.C. where they lived in a poor urban community and, like the Catholic Worker movement, agitated for a more equitable society and against U.S. military policies, particularly in Vietnam and Latin America.

At the time I became aware of them in the early 1970s, they gave me some hope, not because I agreed with all their positions, but because they represented an alternative to the tendency within American evangelical Christianity to incorporate a right-wing political ideology within their overall religious worldview.

I had grown up in a liberal Methodist church, and I value many of the things I learned, but I had friends and relatives who described themselves as "born-again" Christians and I could see their faith was very strong and real to them. So at the age of 21, I became a "born-again" Christian too. It was a dramatic change for me and I recall attending a Billy Graham rally where he urged new converts to find a "Bible-believing" church. Over the next several years I attended various churches that were more in tune with my new orientation, and also became involved with a Christian fellowship on campus. But it was frustrating that the churches I attended, as well as the radio broadcasts I heard, seemed to take for granted that to be a good Christian one must essentially be a conservative Republican.

Glen Beck comes on with the style of a charismatic television preacher, although he is himself a convert to Mormonism, after being brought up as a Catholic. In theory, this would make him a heretic, or even an apostate from a conservative Christian perspective, as Mormonism is considered a heresy from this viewpoint. Wallis, on the other hand, does not seem to have questioned any of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. But in the polarized times we live in, politics seems to trump all, and Beck's style of personal attack -- for example, accusing any Christian who advocates social justice or progressive politics of being on the same level as a Nazi or Communist -- seems to go down well with the conservative "tea party" folks to whom he is appealing.

This is not meant as a whole-hearted defense of Wallis and the Sojourners community he leads. When I read their Sojourners magazine back in the 1970s, there were some things that bothered me, primarily that it came across in a very self-righteous style. Also, I recall the magazine, while calling on the U.S. to provide aid and normalize relations with the post-75 government of Vietnam, seemed to overlook the serious repression that was taking place in the country at the time.

That said, I would not place Wallis in the same category as some of the other radicals or former radicals that have come under scrutiny in recent years. Rather, he would seem more like a typical member of the baby boomer generation, or that portion which protested the Vietnam war and agitated for social justice on economic and civil rights issues.

It was because Wallis called on Christians not to watch or listen to Glen Beck that he came under attack from Beck. In this respect, I disagree with Wallis, people should not close off their minds to the views of others with whom they strongly disagree. But Beck acted worse, displaying himself as a petty and vindictive character by responding with a week of personal attacks against Wallis.

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