I apologize for bringing up the issue of Glenn Beck once again. As I expected, the comments surrounding him garner different, more vitriolic attitudes than I think is typical here at Mere-O.

Below is a video I found helpful from Doug Wilson, perennial theological gadfly, waxing eloquent on how Beck’s success indicts evangelicalism for its lack of social engagement. This video is three minutes worth your time.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

8 Comments

  1. Wilson isn’t talking about evangelicals generally, but rather about his people, the Reformed with a capital “R.” There are scads of baptists and miscellaneous other evangelicals who are doing exactly what Wilson wants, but they don’t buy into Kuyperian political philosophy. The closest guy I can think of is James Skillen, who has worked on some political stuff but is mostly an idea guy.

    I think Beck is worrisome precisely because there is no vacuum of ideas on the Christian Right. The populist embrace of Beck’s movement signals a shift away from Bible-oriented ideas and toward a “civil religion” without much Christ in it, as Wilson said. If Wilson expects the Beck movement to be receptive to traditional Reformed ideas like proportional representation or sphere sovereignty, I think he is flat wrong.

    Reply

  2. Wilson raises good points, but I’m skeptical of his overall view. And here is where I say why have an abstract discussion when you can have a real one? Why speculate on counterfactuals when we’ve got facts to look at?

    My questions for Wilson are:

    -For those expressing concerns about “civil religion without much Christ”, how do you see … say Abraham Lincoln and his actions and the effect on the nation of his character and leadership? How you rate him as an a president, and why? (I’m asking for nothing above the way you’d rate Reagan, Clinton, or Bush as I’m sure each of us could do in a 2-3 sentences.) Do you think Lincoln was a Christian, and whether you think he was or not (or don’t know) how do you understand his public statements about God and culture, and do you approve of them? How so and how not?

    -Rather than discuss an alleged advantage if we had Christian adherents to Reformed theology leading us in whatever way he’d like, why not discuss the actual decline of Reformed theology between the 1st and 2nd great awakenings and discuss the effect it had on the nation and culture relevant to his points?

    Reply

  3. I think civil religion can have good practical temporary effects, but potentially very damaging spiritual and eternal effects. To move an individual or group’s focus off of the gospel of Jesus Christ to a gospel of civic morality and responsibility is to potentially damn them even though they may be nicer to each other for a little while.

    Reply

  4. >> To move an individual or group’s focus off of the gospel of Jesus Christ to a gospel of civic morality and responsibility is to potentially damn them even though they may be nicer to each other for a little while.

    Though the term “civil religion” can have varying meanings, I can’t imagine why it would rob someone of their non-civil religion, or replace it. Think of civil religion and Christianity as a Venn Diagram with some parts that overlap. How could it be otherwise?

    I think of “civic religion” as the moral and spiritual foundation essential for a society. Do you believe there is always a moral and spiritual foundation for any society, good, bad, or otherwise.

    Reply

  5. I think that your Venn Diagram allusion is an interesting one. Of course there is a certain overlap between the qualities and values of a good Christian and a good citizen. The problem with Glenn Beck, and I agree with Wilson here, is that his half of the Venn Diagram (worshiping America) is swallowing up the other half (worshiping Christ). Beck is attempting to harness people’s longing for a society built on the traditional morals and values of our past (real or imagined) and turning it towards his own particular political agenda. In the end he is filling up a vacuum of leadership with a seductive mix of “patriotism” and “old-time” religion. The problem is that neither his religion nor his politics offers anything of substance.

    Reply

  6. I hear you but frankly the questions for Wilson I wrote were really for everyone and far more interesting than my Venn Diagram analogy. I don’t mean to be harsh, and this isn’t directed at anyone in particular, but I think it is awfully strange to decry civil religion or Beck or Palin in the abstract, as I’ve already said. We have a long, long history on all these types of activities. U. S. history is filled with examples of Becks and Palins and some unusual twists and turns of civil religion. All societies have a civil religion (the question is only the degree to which it is good or bad), but the U. S. is highly unique in this regard as a laboratory and all people want to do is stand outside the lab and gaze at the stars and draw out of their own imaginations on these matters.

    It’s a real shame. There is no accountability. We can say whatever we want in the abstract. Who even knows what conception of civil religion we’re even using or what real figures we have in mind as exemplars, if any? Who knows what our context is when we won’t advance a position from concrete examples? To do that would reveal assumptions, biases, and judgements that would reveal ourselves and open us to further discussion and critique. Instead we have the unctuous opinions of cautious cynics.

    I’m with Berry and Hauerwas in saying “abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found”. The point of even philosophy is action -otherwise none of it would matter.

    “abstraction” lacks three determining criteria:

    1) precise designation of an object
    2) accountability on behalf of the speaker
    3) conventionality —the ability of the speaker’s community to recognize the first two criteria. In opposition to the tendency to abstraction, Berry offers an ethic of responsible speech that grounds one’s words in one’s immediate community.

    http://www.valpo.edu/cresset/2007/2007_Advent_bookreviewClyburn.pdf

    Reply

  7. I don’t think you’re being harsh but why not, instead of lecturing, give some concrete examples of your own? How would you define civil religion? Who have been some ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practitioners of civil religion?

    I know that this is a very long-running debate that has ebbed and flowed over the course of American history. I also know that the term ‘civil religion’ means different things to different people. Bellah made this argument back in the 1960’s.

    I see two broad types of civil religion that have existed (I’m going to be vague, both because I need to go to work in fifteen minutes and I am not as well-read in American history as I would like to be). The first type is the civil religion that attempts to take religious discourse, terminology and themes to provide a contextual meaning to contemporary political events that will resonate with everyone – a unifying sort of civil religion if you will. Abraham Lincoln is a good example of this. His speeches used terminology, ideas and imagery that would have been by-and-large familiar to his audience. These speeches, such as the Gettysburg Address, were meant to act as a unifying agent, reminding both sides of the conflict of the shared heritage and faith that most of them had.

    The second type of civil religion is that which divides. This is when the same imagery is used in such a way as to alienate the “other.” This is the civil religion that was used by Father Coughlan (sp?) and the same type that included “One nation under God” in our pledge of allegiance during the Cold War. This civil religion was meant to reinforce the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality that unites a section of society to rally to a particular cause.

    The problem with Beck/Palin is that I believe they fall into the second category. By using “evangelese” language they are striking a chord with a certain segment of society to whom such terminology and imagery are familiar while at the same time alienating those to whom such discourse is strange and unfamiliar. Tied in with Beck’s other messages from his various media programming I can’t help but believe that he is simply trying to reinforce the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality that tries to get people to believe that President Obama is a secret socialist. The same goes for Palin with her ‘Real America’ ideas.

    I believe that this language and these ideas are meant to seal off people rather than to unite them in discussion and discourse. If your opponents don’t recognize ‘God’s values,’ then they must not be ‘Real Americans’ and thus do not warrant a hearing in the public square.

    Sorry, I’d like to elaborate but I have to run. I look forward to hearing your response.

    Reply

  8. >> The first type is the civil religion that attempts to take religious discourse, terminology and themes to provide a contextual meaning to contemporary political events that will resonate with everyone – a unifying sort of civil religion if you will. Abraham Lincoln is a good example of this. His speeches used terminology, ideas and imagery that would have been by-and-large familiar to his audience. These speeches, such as the Gettysburg Address, were meant to act as a unifying agent, reminding both sides of the conflict of the shared heritage and faith that most of them had. … The second type of civil religion is that which divides.

    Now that is a black and white view of civil religion, and Lincoln, but it doesn’t stand up. Lincoln was the most divisive president in American history -by definition of course. The Southern states seceded immediately after his election, and because of it. The Northern public was extremely negative about him during the war, and he and most were sure he would not be re-elected and most historians acknowledge that is was only military success that saved his bacon at the 11nth hour. He was not popular at all and very divisive. U. S. Grant was far more popular than Lincoln in his day, though you’d never know that now since “Lost Cause” and neo-Confederate school textbooks written by Southern partisan historians but distributed even to Yankee schoolkids (is history written by the winners?) after 1890 indoctrinated much of the nation to what everyone would know to be ” Gone with the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation” popular versions of the war and Reconstruction. Even today on the Right the Libertarians know Lincoln as the worst president, and on parts of the left not much better for different reasons but they both draw on explicit “Lost Cause” terminology and ideas.

    Southern schoolchildren sang extremely demeaning and dirty little ditties about Lincoln such that Shelby Foote could still recite by them heart in the 70’s as you or I would Humpty-Dumpty. Seems to me you are committing the same error that you claim Beck is when by “longing for a society built on the traditional morals and values of our past (real or imagined) and turning it towards his own particular political agenda.”

    I think you have co-opted a martyred and sainted Lincoln to your cause, but the real one if he were to rise from the grave today you’d have much the same doubts about those you are so dismissive of now.

    BTW, Palin apologized for the remark about “real America”, just as Obama apologized for his “bitter .. cling to guns and religion” comment. Gaffes matter if they can be said to characterize a person, and otherwise not so repeating this over and over is not really helpful to explain what you don’t like about her views.

    I’m out of time too.

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *