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Why Evangelical Christians Cannot Win: Beck, Patrol, and Civil Religion

September 20th, 2010 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

When Andrée Seu wrote that Glenn Beck is a "new creation in Christ," despite the fact that he is a "Mormon and all that," conservative evangelicals responded in an uproar that led to hasty apologies and rebuttals from World Magazine.

I might leave well-enough alone, as I belligerently try to ignore Beck as much as I possibly can.  He's either an idiot or a genius, but either way I am not masochist enough to watch him frequently.

(Am I sorry for offending both Mere-O readers that take the man seriously?  No.)

But as they so often have done, Patrol Magazine offered an insightful and contrarian take on the evangelical response to Seu's piece, which I think merits a brief response.

We would have been heartened to see a robust reaction to Seu's ongoing adulation of Beck on WORLD's website, or to Christians' embrace of Beck in general, but this display instead demonstrated conservative evangelicals at their worst. Rather than articulate the most urgent reason Beck is a figure from whom Christians should keep their distance—his political demagoguery—these bloggers and writers engaged in a petty debate about Beck's personal salvation. Their objection is not that Beck feeds citizen unrest with trumped-up, conspiratorial bedtime stories of socialism and liberation theology (and makes obscene profits doing so), but that he might have prayed the Mormon equivalent of the Sinner's Prayer instead of their own.

Count me in agreement that we should reject the sordid aspects of Beck's platform in addition to his errant theology.  But the notion that the repudiation of Beck's Mormonism was "conservative evangelicals at their worst" is a surprisingly strong claim.

To start, their editorial responds to Kevin DeYoung and Justin Taylor, both of whom only occasionally write about politics. The demand that they approach Beck politically simply misunderstands what they are about as thinkers.  Even more surprisingly, it amounts to asking two trained theologians to weigh in on the merits of Beck's political case, which Patrol (rightly?) claims amounts to " cherry-picked historycarefully edited footage, incoherent philosophical synthesis, and dishonest attacks on the President."  If DeYoung and Taylor can't be excused for focusing their attention on the theological dimensions of Beck's platform, and leave the political to those who are more qualified, then none of us should say much of anything at all.*

And yet it is precisely the theological that Patrol wants to push aside, as it amounts to nothing more than "a petty debate about Beck's personal salvation" and a Christianism that is rife with "rigid certainty, dripping condescension, charts and graphs of who is in and who is out."  There is something approaching the privatization of Christian belief here.  Justin Taylor's post pointed to a number of resources about the public  nature of Christianity's truth-claims, and didn't mention Beck's own personal beliefs until the end, and only then as an example of the different levels of belief.  In that sense, the debate isn't about whether Glenn Beck himself is "in or out."   Rather, the question is whether the church can draw any sort of line at all, and if so, where?

As Taylor points out later, and as David Sessions graciously mentions, the heart of the debate is the Americolatry that is at the heart of civil religion.  After all, it is civil religion precisely because it is a debased patriotism that confuses the reality of the state with the claims of Christ's Lordship.

Rejecting civil religion is all the rage these days, and for lots of good reasons.  But once it's gone, what do we replace it with?

Readers know my own preferred answer to the question.  (It's a project, I think, that would keep the best elements of classical political liberalism.)  But Patrol will have none of that.  Not only do they reject civil religion, but they have simultaneously rejected "Christianism," which I take to mean the desire to let Christianity govern our politics as much as our spirituality.

The end result of their rejection is precisely what their editorial points toward:  the marginalization of theology and its role in our public discourse, a marginalization that inevitably neuters the public witness of the church by  demanding that it conform to secular standards of discourse, standards which are overtly hostile to it.  The only thing that can match the power of the state is the church, but it's precisely when the church wishes to be the church and offer a properly theological response to a public figure that Patrol demands they stay silent.

In that sense, evangelicals cannot win with Patrol.  Theirs is a political witness which must conform to secularism and the civil religion that is at the heart of it, without actually adopting civil religion.  David Sessions says in a later post, "Binding up U.S. politics with religion is bound to corrupt faith regardless of whether a Mormon or an evangelical Christian is doing it."  Except that's not quite right.  It's precisely because evangelicals haven't held on to the reality of the Gospel that they have fallen prey to civil religion, and drawing lines around the Gospel is at the heart of helping evangelicals avoid the secularization that seems to be implicit in Patrol's critique.

I'll close where Patrol does:  "Now more than ever, it is paramount that people of faith work to diffuse enmity, to meet fear with firm grace—especially in the public square. Glenn Beck's words and actions exemplify the antithesis of that duty. And as ridiculous as it is for Christians to be debating his salvation on the internet, it is even more alarming that they are listening to him at all."

Patrol is unequivocally right that people of faith need to diffuse enmity.  But pointing out our theological differences with Mormonism is at the heart of reminding evangelicals of the reality and shape of the grace by which we do that.  Otherwise, grace is an empty concept that means nothing more than the secular, liberal niceties that are at the heart of making civil religion go round, rather than the public demonstration of the reality of God's existence and character which he demonstrated to the world in his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

*By way of an aside, Patrol misses Taylor's positive words for Al Mohler's take-down of Beck's idiosyncratic views about the "social gospel," a point that suggests his problem with Beck runs deeper than simply his personal salvation.*

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.