The Republic of T.

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Glenn Beck: Conservatism’s Snake Oil Salesman, Pt. 1

(Or “CPAC: Sideshow and Snake Oil, Pt. 2”)

snake oil salesman

The circus sideshow that was CPAC folded its tent and left Washington weeks ago. However, its apparent ringmaster and chief snake oil salesman still sweats, struts, and sobs across the “stage” of conservative media — that medicine show never stops rolling and never stops hawking its “solutions” to Americans who are in desperate need of something to ease their economic aches and pains, and heal their political maladies.

And like the medicine shows of old, Glenn Beck — and others like him — peddle magical “miracle cures” that either poison directly by filling the body politic with toxic bile, or indirectly by distracting us from actual solutions, and aren’t intended to “cure what ails us” so much as to make us think that we feel better even as the illness progresses. Case in point is Beck’s latest attack on the very idea of social justice.

Last week, the conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck called on Christians to leave their churches if they hear preaching about social or economic justice, saying they were code words for Communism and Nazism.

In attacking churches that espouse social justice, Mr. Beck is taking on most mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, black and Hispanic congregations in the country – not to mention plenty of evangelical churches and even his own, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mr. Beck said on his radio show on March 2, “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.”

“Am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! If I am going to Jeremiah Wright’s church,” he said, referring to President Obama’s former pastor in Chicago. “If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop.”

Perhaps it was inspired by churches and religious leaders having the temerity to stand up to him and confront his rhetoric this past December — having been offended by his use of Christian imagery and Christianity itself to promote a message they believed “outside Biblical narrative.” Still, Beck cleverly attacked what might be considered a political “buzzword” without defining it, except by employing other broadly-used and ill-defined buzzwords. So, it might help to start with what Beck neglected to provide.

“A More Humane World”

What exactly does social justice mean, anyway?

Social justice is the application of the concept of justice on a social scale.

The term “social justice” was coined by the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli in the 1840s. The idea was elaborated by the moral theologian John A. Ryan, who initiated the concept of a living wage. Father Coughlin used the term in his publications in the 1930s and 40s, and the concept was further expanded upon by John Rawls’ writing in the 1990s. It is a part of Catholic social teaching and is one of the Four Pillars of the Green Party upheld by the worldwide green parties. Some tenets of social justice have been adopted by those on the left of the political spectrum.

Social justice is also a concept that some use to describe the movement towards a socially just world. In this context, social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality and involves a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution, policies aimed toward achieving that which developmental economists refer to as more equality of opportunity and equality of outcome than may currently exist in some societies or are available to some classes in a given society.

It other area’s of its site, NETWORK goes on to define ‘

That’s a definition from Wikipedia. But one that hits closer to home, and closer to Beck’s target, comes from NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby:

NETWORK envisions and works for a more humane world, one of justice and care for the common good. We act in solidarity with justice activists throughout the global community.

Our work is firmly rooted in our Catholic social justice tradition, which encompasses Scripture, Catholic Social Teaching and the lives of Jesus and people of faith who have followed the Gospel call to act for justice. We believe that faith has a public dimension. As the Church teaches us, “Every citizen… has the responsibility to work to secure justice and human rights through an organized social response.” Economic Justice for All , #120

In a democracy, the first step down the road of forming a just society is voting with a well-formed conscience. But that’s not the only step; this journey does not end at the ballot box.

The next — just as critical — part of the journey is to stay involved in the process, to work with our elected officials in order to hold them accountable. Policies and laws that support the common good should be maintained and strengthened. Policies and laws that tear at the fabric of our common good should be remediated or eliminated altogether. These actions are going to be hard for elected officials to accomplish in the face of pressure from special interest groups. That’s why elected officials need the continued support and involvement of Catholic voters throughout their terms in order to give them the political strength required to get the job done.

Network then goes on to us direct quotes from scripture and documents from the U.S. Catholic Bishops (I particularly like the use of Exodus 23:9 to support comprehensive immigration reform) to support its mission, which includes a laundry list of issues likely to set Beck off (again).

  • Just and fair treatment for immigrants
  • Affordable housing
  • Healthcare for all
  • Retirement security
  • Food security
  • Wage equity
  • Peace in Iraq through economic development
  • Fair and just global trade and responsible investment
  • Fair and just taxation
  • Investment in human needs domestically and globally

What’s more surprising — and likely infuriating — to Beck, a former Catholic, is that in its “Platform For the Common Good” (PDF) NETWORK puts social justice work into two categories: “Government Action Needed” and “Individual/Community Action Needed.” In other words, it recognizes that social injustices need to be addressed both by community/individual action and the government action.

And while Beck is now attempting to walk back from his previous remarks — telling his viewers that social justice “in which you empower yourself to go out and help the poor” is alright — he’s likely to trip over the tenets of both his former and current faiths. Mark Silk, a religious blogger, points out that even the Mormon church preaches the very kind of social justice that Beck (a Mormon convert) is telling people to “run away” from.

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.

In other words, churches and religious institutions already engage in and encourage congregants to work for social justice in their individual activities. My own mother, a devout Baptist, has been active in her church’s food bank for years — even running it for a period of time, as well as her church’s mentoring program for young women and young mothers, etc.

A great many churches have such ministries as a part of their work. But what organizations like NETWORK recognize, and Beck’s own church recognizes, is that there are matters of social justice that individual action or even community action cannot address effectively due to their limited scope and the scheer size of the problem. NETWORK’s “Platform for the Common Good” include some examples:

  • Better regulate corporations and financial institutions; institute financial reform and transparency
  • Enhance workers’ rights to join unions without fear of harassment and to negotiate first contracts within a reasonable time period
  • Work to lessen income disparities and to reform tax policies that favor the wealthy and corporate interests
  • Fund after-school programs, jobs for youth, and continuing education (GED, ESL) for adults
  • Ensure that convenient, safe public transportation is available in all communities
  • Address employment needs of groups with high unemployment
  • End discrimination in all institutional forms

Either Beck and his ilk don’t believe that the above need to be addressed, or that there is no injustice in the conditions they are intended to address. Perhaps there is simply no injustice in Glenn Beck’s world, because nothing is an injustice. But at least some of Beck’s co-religionists believe there is.

The difference between Beck’s world, and the one that religious organizations that preach and practice social justice is as basic as the difference between right and left.

Neither Left Nor Right

The idea of social justice is the exclusive property of the left or the right, but another definition of social justice highlights a distinction between the two approaches to social justice — and ultimately underscores how Beck abandons both.

A general definition of social justice is hard to arrive at and even harder to implement. In essence, social justice is concerned with equal justice, not just in the courts, but in all aspects of society. This concept demands that people have equal rights and opportunities; everyone, from the poorest person on the margins of society to the wealthiest deserves an even playing field.

…The far left would argue that there are certain basic needs that must be offered to all. These include things like truly equal education and safety in all schools and programs that would help all children have the financial opportunity to attend college. Far left groups, often termed socialist even if they differ from true definitions of socialism, further argue that a just society cannot be had unless everyone has access to food, safe shelter and medical care. The way to achieve this is through taxation and government implementation of programs that will guarantee these things for all people.

The right political stance equally endorses a just society, but may criticize those who make poor choices and feel that while equal opportunity should exist, a government should not legislate for this. In fact it is argued that social justice is diminished when governments create programs to deal with it, especially when these programs call for greater taxation. Instead, those who have more money should be encouraged to be philanthropic, not by paying higher taxes, which is arguably unjust.

The distinction here is that on the right there is no way to ensure that action will be taken. For example, one may cut taxes and “hope for the best” — that charitable donations will increase and thus the need for social justice will be addressed without government action — but there is little that can be done if the increased income is, say, invested in derivatives or socked away in tax shelters instead. In other words, it only works if the everyone believes that we have some degree of responsibility to and for each other. It does not, however, jibe with the exalted pursuit of self-interest above all else.

On the left, government may act without having to wait for a individuals to take action in sufficient numbers to remedy the problems that need addressing — if indeed sufficient numbers of individuals ever do, that is. Government may also be more impartial and less discriminating in terms of who receives help, evaluating people on basis of need, whereas the right has recently displayed a nearly paralyzing concern that the “wrong people” might be helped, resulting in fewer people receiving needed help over all. (The debate over “moral hazards” and the mortgage relief debacle are one example.) In fact, on the right, it is a greater injustice for the government to take action, since it must do so with tax revenue.

On one hand, where there are issues of social justice that are beyond the scope of individual and community action, the government may act. On the other, where there are issues of social justice that are beyond the scope of individual and community action, they government may not act. And in Glenn Beck’s works, where there are issues of social justice that are beyond the scope of individual action, neither the government nor the community may act.

The difference is that between a world with the possibility of community and a world without community.

That’s the snake oil Glenn Beck and others like him are selling to an America suffering all the symptoms of financial crisis — blight, foreclosure, homelessness, hunger, joblessness.

That’s the poison that Beck and others are selling: that none of us is responsible to or for anyone else, and that we’ll get out of this crisis without having to be.   

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