I don’t want to pay attention to Glenn Beck right now–I’ve got more pressing things on my mind at the moment–but Ross Douthat’s analysis demands closer consideration.

To be specific, I think the lesson he draws from Beck’s weekend rally about the role of moral authority in the political order is almost right:

To loop back around to Glenn Beck’s rally on Saturday, I think that the peculiar moral power that Zurowik recognized in the day’s festivities — mawkish and maudlin and tacky as they often were —  is entirely contingent on their unexpected disconnection from partisanship, and from the polarizing, disappointing work of politics. And to the extent that Beck himself grasps that point, then he’s grasped the only insight that could extend his current moment in the sun: Namely, that if you want to build and sustain moral authority in our culture, you shouldn’t emulate Barack Obama — you should emulate Oprah Winfrey.

“Moral authority” has the sort of ambiguity to it that makes it easy to recognize when we see it, but hard to specify precisely what we mean by it.

But more often than not, the people who we call “moral authorities” in our culture aren’t actually authoritative for us at all, but rather are simply embodiments of the sort of morality that we already believe in.  They are projections of the moral system we prefer, not people with the sort of character to which we aspire.

In that sense, they are not authorities at all, and certainly not moral authorities.  We are confronted with the moral authorities precisely when we recognize some way of life, some moral insight, or some decision that not merely contradicts our moral intuitions, but makes us suspect that they are wrongly ordered.  A genuine moral authority is one who forces us to revise, or at least strongly question, our own moral systems.

That is precisely what Glenn Beck does not do.  Douthat is right to question whether moral authority can survive our political climate.  But we should also wonder whether it can exist in our cultural climate at all.  In that sense, Douthat’s earlier analysis that Beck’s event was “identity politics without the politics” is closer to the mark.  Beck has no genuine moral authority. He is only saying to the faithful precisely what they want to hear, reconfirming their deepest intuitions about the world, and challenging them to do precisely nothing that they weren’t going to do already.

That seems to play particularly well with evangelicals because the message that we should rededicate ourselves to God is one that evangelicals are particularly good at hearing–for our neighbors. They are the ones who seem to stand in real (and perpetual) need of such a rededication, and we seem only too happy to remind folks of it as often as we can.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

16 Comments

  1. Unwinding the Riddle of Glenn Beck’s Moral Authority: http://bit.ly/an8IPs

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

    Reply

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matthew Anderson, Ben Power. Ben Power said: RT @mattleeanderson: Unwinding the Riddle of Glenn Beck's Moral Authority: http://bit.ly/an8IPs […]

    Reply

  3. Excellent point. Sometimes people push the opposite of what they do or mean. Beck’s appeal is that he provides the illusion of yielding to moral authority to people who aren’t particularly interested in yielding to moral authority. Beck’s message to people who are typically white, older, Republican leaning types is that Moral Authority(tm) confirms that the right thing to be is basically a white, older, Republican leaning type. Whatdoyaknow! Moral authority is down with me and I’m down with moral authority.

    It is interesting to read how a few pundits have picked up on the fact that Beck’s Mormonism seems to cause few problems for his many fans, despite the fact that evangelical Christianity has serious theological differences with Mormonism. But this makes all the sense in the world if one views Beck’s role as less than moral authority and more of a comforting Oprah type. An issue I have, though, is that generally Oprah is able to comfort people without trashing anyone. I find ‘comfort’ that is built on degrading ‘enemies’ to be of dubious moral value.

    Since Beck clearly lacks moral authority who has it in our pop culture? I can’t honestly tell you. Perhaps our pop culture doesn’t really have room for people who carry real moral authority? Perhaps it just doesn’t translate well throug the medium of TV, web sites and radio call in shows.

    Reply

  4. Thanks, Boonton.

    “Since Beck clearly lacks moral authority who has it in our pop culture? I can’t honestly tell you. Perhaps our pop culture doesn’t really have room for people who carry real moral authority? Perhaps it just doesn’t translate well throug the medium of TV, web sites and radio call in shows.”

    I agree with you that it’s hard to find someone to point to who has it. I have been reflecting some about why that is, and I suspect media plays a part. But I suspect it goes deeper than that.

    Maybe I’ll write a follow-up someday on the problem, because I do think it is a problem.

    –Matt

    Reply

  5. Perhaps the problem is that a moral authority is problematic in this day and age to begin with. We know today that some priests that seemed saintly were, at the same time, child molestors. We can quickly find the counter argument to almost any serious theological or philosophical stance via Google and Wikipedia. It’s hard to imagine yielding to a person as an authority solely on the grounds that he seems like a better person than us.

    Maybe, though, what is missing is moral leadership. We may disagree with a leader, may even know the leader is wrong about something but we know he is to be taken seriously. In this light there really is no debate about Beck. He has nothing serious to say about morality other than a fuzzy kind of feel-good rhetoric (yea believe in God and we should help wounded war vets). We know beyond that almost all his moral pronouncements are either banal or tailored to fit his political talking points. Hence we know he has nothing serious to offer us about morality. But as you point out his fans aren’t looking for serious moral thinkers. They are looking for someone to tell them that they got it right, there’s no hard work that people like they have to do.

    Where then do you look for moral leaders? I would say they are out there if you’re willing to accept that they may not always be moral and may not always be right. But you’re highly unlikely to find them among the pundit class or the political class.

    Reply

  6. I must be the only one left who has never seen Glenn Beck’s show. I have no knowledge of him except that he is a conservative political commentator of some type, and controversial. I didn’t hear about the rally until the day it happened. So it would have been a little better if this article had given any reason whatsoever why he has “no moral authority”, or what you thought his major point was by the rally and what you thought about it.

    But it may be more fruitful to pick at your version of what moral authority is anyway. I think it is highly dubious to imply that only those who oppose the culture on a given point have moral authority. One must be willing to do it to be moral at all, but more often than not moral authority does actually derive from sustaining what people already know but expressing it in a way that affirms, strengthens, and sustains it.

    Seems like you’ve expressed disapproval of Beck without giving substance and knowing that you’d please the crowd of slightly embarrassed more-sophisticated-than-thou Evangelicals. Hey wait a second … I’m opposing a populism in this sense and I just got me some moral authority in those terms! Bwah ha ha haaa!

    Douthat makes some trenchant points, but on how some people we see as having great moral authority wouldn’t in these terms at the time (MLK was an adulterer, RFK as a politician with limited scruples, etc.), which means the definition we are using of MA is wrong, correct? Or to they suddenly gain MA after being dead a few years? But he goes from a trenchant observation like this to the idea that moral authority in the case of Beck’s rally “is entirely contingent on their unexpected disconnection from partisanship, and from the polarizing, disappointing work of politics.” Huh? Doesn’t he make the same mistake as the RFK acolytes (who he implies rightly that would be uncomfortable with how RFK actually lived out his politics) by assuming no partisan could have it? Maybe we aren’t comfortable with what moral authority really is? Is it even possible to be non-partisan except in the concealing mists of history?

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to accept the original view (isn’t it?) that MA derives from people accepting the rightness of a belief? Did Beck express any right beliefs? Did they resonate with people and thereby affirm and sustain what was right? If so wouldn’t he have some level of moral authority on the beliefs in question?

    Reply

  7. Mark,

    Generally when I write about events, etc. I presume some prior knowledge. There’s lots of places on the internet where folks can get the facts or descriptions of events, but I try hard not to be redundant.

    But I didn’t “express disapproval” of Beck. I simply said that what he is doing is different than how Douthat’s last article on it describes it. Also, blogging is a bit like a dialogue. I don’t feel obliged to rehash all the analysis that other people give…which you are happy to search out if you want.

    And I assure you I am not trying to pander to the “crowd of slightly embarrassed more-sophisticated-than-thou Evangelicals.” If you doubt otherwise, I suggest you search my archives for 30 seconds.

    “Did Beck express any right beliefs? Did they resonate with people and thereby affirm and sustain what was right? If so wouldn’t he have some level of moral authority on the beliefs in question?”

    It depends upon what we mean by moral authority, I think. It’s not clear to me that simply saying right beliefs to people who resonate with them makes one a moral authority or gives one moral authority.

    Best,

    matt

    Reply

  8. >> But I didn’t “express disapproval” of Beck. I simply said that what he is doing is different than how Douthat’s last article on it describes it.

    It isn’t redundant or difficult to say straightforwardly what you think of a person, and it takes more effort to not do so most times in my opinion. And I find it hard to believe that saying someone has “no genuine moral authority” does not express disapproval. But whatever.

    >> It depends upon what we mean by moral authority, I think. It’s not clear to me that simply saying right beliefs to people who resonate with them makes one a moral authority or gives one moral authority.

    But you stated baldly that Beck doesn’t have any moral authority, and now you seem agnostic on what it is. Moral authority may not be as complex as you are making it out to be. Like legal or political authority, maybe it comes in degrees. Like legal and political authority it is a power to move, but it is entirely non-coercive. Why not think it has to do with persuasive influence? On that view it would be far, far easier to determine the degree to which someone has moral authority on a given issue than say whether they are a good person or beautiful. On this view moral authority is not nearly as complex as determining what is beautiful, whether an action is just or not, or any number of other things. I don’t see much reason to think it is as deep as what morality itself is. Why could it not be a social phenomenon?

    In an analogous manner, justice is a complex and difficult subject but finding out the degree to which people accept a particular law to be legitimate or not isn’t that hard. You just empirically observe whether people respect it or not. Some laws are very little respected even among otherwise strictly law-abiding folks. What does that tell you about the perceived legitimacy of the law? Why could not moral authority be such a thing? When someone who had a good deal of moral authority is found out to be a liar and a cheat that authority is greatly diminished. They had a lot and they lost it. Why couldn’t it be a social phenomena such as this? Why must we wring our hands and intone that we’re not sure what except when we see it like beauty and pornography and such?

    People that we think ought to have a high degree of moral authority on an issue may not have it because of public misconception. But a person we think worthy of it that doesn’t enjoy it does not have it nonetheless. You could say “he has great moral authority with me” or “he has great moral authority only to x-group” but it wouldn’t be accurate to say that he has great moral authority generally if his persuasive abilities on a given issue are generally low because of how he is perceived, right or wrong. Likewise, you can think that if people knew what you knew about a person that they would regard that person as having far less moral authority (or none) than they do, but it wouldn’t be true to say they don’t have moral authority now.

    I think all the handwringing and uncertainty that it is so fashionable to express about “moral authority” is just another symptom of the loss of moral knowledge. I just don’t see why we should follow the cultural elites into this swamp. Having moral authority depends on having moral knowledge. Now *moral knowledge* is highly complex and moral judgements aren’t so easily desrcribed as I’ve attempted off the cuff here with the term “moral authority”, but surely it must be true that failure to understand how one acquires moral authority is a byproduct of the loss of moral knowledge itself that Willard speaks eloquently about. And my off the cuff attempt may have some flaws (or a lot) but at least it takes into account reality of people’s actual moral judgements. Though you may not want to disapprove of Beck you seem willing to believe that the crowd that came to Washington last week came because of some narcissitic impulse of self-affirmation, rather than affirmation of some principle they felt strongly about that was being forgotten, and that they could have been exercising a strong counter-cultural tendencies themselves.

    “Without moral knowledge there is no moral authority. Hence there is only “Political correctness,” even though it looks and feels ever bit like morality and often assumes a distinctively moral tone and force.” -Dallas Willard

    And here: http://www.ttf.org/index/journal/detail/moral-bewilderment/

    Reply

  9. I was thinking two people I think have great moral authority are fictional. Bill Adama and President Laura Rosalyn from the newer Battlestar Galactica series. Their authority seems obvious to me, the TV viewer, who has God’s eye view of things. It doesn’t seem very obvious to the other people in the series who see imperfect leaders, politicians etc. But I do think the people in the series, if they were real, would recognize the moral character of these two leaders after they were dead or gone. But these two are equally imperfect people. They make some decisions that are amazingly bad, even bigoted. They can be arrogant and blinded by their own obsessions. Yet despite all this we see something in their decisions that is missing from the decisions of a character with less moral authority (such as Baltar). It’s not the merits of the decisions themselves, though.

    Reply

  10. >> I was thinking two people I think have great moral authority are fictional.

    Isn’t locating persons with moral authority in fictional characters, rather than actual people, just the natural consequence of your earlier comment that moral authority today is problematic? If I were picking fictional characters perhaps I would have chosen superman since he even defeated a few actual bad guys. http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/07.02.98/comics-9826.html

    But overall I am fairly well amazed by such skepticism about moral leaders. I think it says more about the observer than the observed. The pastor of a church I attended a few years ago stood on principle with such rare courage at such cost it still amazes me. I’d probably walk over hot coals if he told me to thinking he must have a good reason for asking. And I have a particular hero from the American history that I learn more and more about each year, a person that an accomplished academic historian explained the intense public fascination over the few decades of his public career as an astonishment that such depth and genuiness of character could actually be real-and yet they knew it was. Any American who knew his history well would know who I’m talking about -but precious few do now. And there are others of less heroic but still fairly rare character that we can draw on. Two from my own family I can honestly say had standards I only hope to live up to one day. And though I don’t know them personally, a few politicians I know count for me among those with upstanding moral character.

    My father always told me that his father told him “never trust people who don’t trust people”. Perhaps never a truer word has been said.

    Reply

  11. Your questions about Moral Authorities in this modern age are interesting, and I do suspect cultural changes, worldview changes, have made it more difficult for, say, the majority of Americans to agree on a name or two.

    As a Christian, within the context of my local church and the fellowship of believers I am part of, I can think of a dozen people I consider moral authorities. Mark mentions his pastor. I would hope that all Christians could identify at least one person who acts as a moral authority in their lives.

    But then when you move to the larger pool of American society as a whole, you run up against the problem that Americans are highly individualistic and more and more prone to believe that each individual is his/her own best moral authority. Which, of course, is the foundational creed of the Church of Oprah. If Oprah is a Moral Authority for our age, it’s interesting that she, too, only asks her followers to believe in themselves and follow their own moral lights. Which is what they want to do anyway.

    I think Obama during the campaign became a moral authority to many in America with his call to change America, change Washington politics, find hope in him, etc. His rhetoric resonated, people followed, he got elected. He has probably lost that moral authority now that he has been forced to govern rather than talk.

    But even in that case, he was authoritative because he told people what they were longing to hear anyway.

    Winston Churchill comes to mind as a Moral Authority who delivered an unpopular message to the British people with enough persuasion that they rallied and sacrificed and hoped against hope that he could lead them out of peril. George W Bush right after 9/11 may have had that same moral authority for a time. But in a time of peace, I am hard-pressed to name someone the majority of Americans would respect as a true Moral Authority.

    Reply

  12. >> Winston Churchill comes to mind as a Moral Authority who delivered an unpopular message to the British people with enough persuasion that they rallied and sacrificed and hoped against hope that he could lead them out of peril. George W Bush right after 9/11 may have had that same moral authority for a time.

    Churchill got stomped in the election of 1945, just a few months after VE day. They trusted him and his party to run the war, but not to run the country afterwards. Probably a dumb move since Labor ran on a platform of setting up a tax funded universal National Health Service and the underpinnings of a welfare state.

    Things haven’t changed so much, but people don’t know that because they don’t know their history.

    >> But in a time of peace, I am hard-pressed to name someone the majority of Americans would respect as a true Moral Authority.

    When speaking of moral authority it is easy to speak equivocally. By “true Moral Authority” (and what’s with the capitalization?) it seems like you mean an exemplary moral exemplar, which is a very different thing. And I assume it is far broader in scope, and far rarer. One can have moral authority on some issues, and not others. That is the only way that makes sense to speak of MA I think. If you mean “exemplary moral leader” such that moral authority would extend to many or most areas, I’d say those people are always rare. Wouldn’t they have to be? I don’t see how it could be common. Excellence never is.

    As far as the “individualism” charge, I really don’t have too much patience anymore with that term as it is used. Surely it is overused to the point of being meaningless. I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff in cultures that displayed little individualism at all. Frankly, and this won’t set well with perhaps anyone that will read this, I think Christianity has a radically individual component to it.

    Human beings start out selfish, self-absorbed, and prideful. But what that has to do with “individualism” I don’t think has ever been fully explained in a way that makes me think the term adds anything at all to the historic descriptions of man’s condition. It can be good, and it can be bad, which is another way of saying “individualism” isn’t the problem to begin with. It is likely the invention of a social scientist in the recent past and we’re all just repeating it for it’s novelty and sophistication.

    A few years ago I heard a theology professor some of you would know deliver a public address where his thesis was that Augustine was “individualistic” and paved the way for us and made him the fall guy for the whole mess that he ascribed to individualism. As I pondered his lecture in the days that followed I think I realized that this lecture was the “jump the shark” moment for me and the whole “individualism” cottage industry. For whatever faults Augustine may have had I came to think that was a pretty poor lecture and displayed a troubling lack of understanding of the relationship between faith and reason, among other things. These same folks often blather on about “Western ideas” and contrast them with Eastern ones in ways that don’t inspire confidence in their understanding. But hey, people around me ate it up. Seems these days you can associate any bad thing you wish, or nothing definite, as “individualism” and people just assume it must be true since we all know it is bad. It seems like a form of self-flagellation if you ask me. Perhaps a type of a secular version of the doctrine of total depravity.

    Reply

    1. Mark,

      Your lack of patience with the “cottage industry” of individualism is a complaint, not an argument. What I actually said was:

      “Americans are highly individualistic and more and more prone to believe that each individual is his/her own best moral authority”

      We now have Jewish atheists, Jewish Buddhists, Wiccan and Druid Episcopalian Priests… and Oprah, who is the Heinz 57 variety of the cult of spirituality. Americans today pick their spiritual (and hence, moral) beliefs as if they were shopping in Costco. I stand by my observation that we look to ourselves as “our own best moral authority.” I don’t much like it, either, but it appears to me to be the facts on the ground.

      Not sure what your point is about Churchill. If being turned on by a fickle populace disqualifies one from being a moral authority, what do we do with Jesus?

      I used the caps because I was thinking in terms of a moral exemplar, a uniquely influential person who serves as a moral role model such as Beck seems to be, and Oprah, and Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II, others.

      What Dallas Willard is saying (“without moral knowledge there is no moral authority”) is only true in the ultimate sense, from God’s perspective. I would say there can be false moral authorities, who in fact do not have true moral knowledge, and yet they are looked upon as authorities within our culture. I can think of a number of modern-day examples, but the most infamous one might be Adolf Hitler, who surely had no legitimate moral authority and quite defective moral knowledge, and yet was viewed by most of Germany as the ultimate moral authority, enough so that most of the nation eagerly followed him off the cliff.

      Reply

  13. >> Your lack of patience with the “cottage industry” of individualism is a complaint, not an argument.

    My argument was that there was no argument from the folks who insist that individualism is the broad base and root of sinful behavior unless it just means selfishness and self-regard. Someone needs to supply an argument for the anti-indivualist manifesto. Until then I’ll stick with the old language that reflects the old truths. Self-absorption and self-regard are a reflection of the root sin that underlies all -idolotry. I don’t know what individualism is if it isn’t self-absorption or self-regard, and those are manifested just as well in tight-knight groups where individuals see themselves only in terms of group identities.

    >> Americans today pick their spiritual (and hence, moral) beliefs as if they were shopping in Costco … I stand by my observation that we look to ourselves as “our own best moral authority.”

    I am not contesting your observation. I am contesting that what you are describing is synonomous with, can be reduced to, or is provided with any explanation at all by applying the term “individualism” to what you are observing. Why don’t you use a descriptive name for the phenomenon you are describing? How did people actually describe it before the term “individualism” came recently into vogue? Wasn’t this phenomenon present since OT times? “Every man did what was right in his own eyes”? What do we call that? The term individualism now serves as a *substitute* for an explanation or even a description. And what is this “Americans today” business? Is it untrue to say it of “Every Swede today ..” or every “Belgian today …”? No, it’s pretty much the same with them too. So why not put a name to what you are describing? What is the name for when people choose their own beliefs like that? There is one isn’t there? “Individualism” isn’t the name, and explains nothing, and describes something else.

    >> Not sure what your point is about Churchill. If being turned on by a fickle populace disqualifies one from being a moral authority, what do we do with Jesus?

    My point was that people are fickle, and yes Jesus proves the case too. I’m the least cynical one here willing to allow that politicians can and do have moral authority. Not all, but some same as it ever was. My only reason for raising it is that the “oh woe is me” chorus (not you) that people can’t find those with moral authority because the crowds have lost faith in a person is nothing new. People forget that people turn against great men. The deeper point would be that though now a crowd turning away is used as ipso facto evidence that the person is too flawed to have been a moral authority in the first place, rather than that crowds were and are fickle, same as it ever was.

    >> I used the caps because I was thinking in terms of a moral exemplar

    I got that. I just wanted to make sure the shift in meaning was noted.

    >> What Dallas Willard is saying (“without moral knowledge there is no moral authority”) is only true in the ultimate sense, from God’s perspective.

    No, no, a thousand times no. It is just as true from the perspective of any moral agent where the possiblity of moral knowledge is discounted. You can Google up a video of Willard lecturing in Irvine and hear it from him. His book isn’t out yet I don’t think.

    >> would say there can be false moral authorities, who in fact do not have true moral knowledge, and yet they are looked upon as authorities within our culture.

    As it has ever been. This it nothing new in any respect so I don’t understand your point here. This has always been true, and yet only now do people discount moral knowledge and profess skepticism of moral authority so I don’t see what this explains.

    Reply

  14. Not to beat a dead horse, but I wish I’d recalled to mind last night (sleep does wonders doesn’t it?) the Kirk Doctrine, as expressed by James T. Kirk in the Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King”. He passed judgment on a tyrant and when the tyrant’s daughter says “Who are you to judge?” he snaps “Who do I have do be?” Translation: It doesn’t take a perfect or even particularly virtous person to know that certain things are wrong, so pointing out my flaws *in general* won’t help you in claiming I can’t speak with moral authority on a given topic unless you can give the reason why a particular flaw actually does degrades my moral authority on the matter in question. And if it were true that it do you should be able to say why, since in some cases character flaws certainly do matter.

    Kirks answer was exactly right, and it is a sad day when Christians can’t answer the question “who do you have to be?” to hold a public rally to uphold the few principles that I understand that was the purpose of it. As I said, I don’t know Beck and have never seen his show. But those who think he is disqualified should say what it is that disqualifies him on these matters so their judgment on the matter can be evaluated in the light of day, and in doing so they’d be giving an answer to “who do you have to be?”. But I don’t see that, what I see is a bunch of talk about “no moral authorities/exemplars/heros these days” (so Beck couldn’t be either) that makes one wonder if these critics have been taken hold of by some of the confusion about moral knowledge that Dallas Willard writes about. Some seem eager to throw Beck out with the bathwater.

    Reply

Leave a reply

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