Beck and Obama’s radically different theologies

[updated]

It is perhaps a little ironic that Beck is invoking theology so often and especially in order to demonize Obama further. Ironic because conservative and evangelical Christians probably have more in common theologically with Barack Obama than with Glenn Beck. Mainline Protestantism is still a lot more similar to evangelical Christianity than Mormonism – which has an entirely new book of gospels (the Book of Mormon) and which teaches that the lost tribes of Israel came to America and ended up the Native Americans.  Not to mention all the differences in belief in the afterlife.

So it’s an interesting tactic for Beck to criticize Obama’s ‘liberation theology’ and a risky one at that. And no, I don’t mean this to be a referendum on whether or not Mormonism is really Christianity. I don’t really care, to be quite honest.

But the difference between Baptist and Mormon theology is far more radical than the difference between Baptist and Lutheran or Catholic and Presbyterian theology. Notice, in this comparison chart, the right hand column is “Christianity” and is basically all those areas where mainline Christians – whether Protestant or Catholic or Evangelical – agree. They may disagree on implications, on tolerance of various social practices, on accepted rituals or ways to go about practicing, preaching and so forth, but they agree on the basics.  Mormons do not agree on those basics, much as Unitarians or Arians do not agree on the basics. I’m a big-tent Christian, so I’m perfectly happy to call Mormons, Unitarians, and Gnostics Christians and be done with it – but that doesn’t change the theological divide one iota.

Nor am I sure that Beck is a very good representative of Mormonism or whether his faith is as paper-thin as his political sincerity. But his slams against Obama’s faith are a little odd and could only really be taken on face value by a group of people who largely suspects Obama is in fact Muslim – Muslims, after all, represent the Other far better than Mormons.

Both Islam and Mormonism leap off the older Judeo-Christian heritage, adding new scriptures (the Koran, the Book of Mormon), new beliefs, and many reinterpretations into the mix – and both consider themselves the fulfillment of these older traditions (much as Christianity considered itself the fulfillment of Judaism). Islam teaches that Jesus was a prophet, whereas Mormonism still teaches that he was the son of God. But in other ways – in the singularity of God, for instance – Islam and Christianity are actually more similar than Mormonism and non-Mormon Christianity. Obviously on a cultural level Mormons and mainline Christians are far more homogenous, but in terms of theology – which is where Beck took this conversation – Obama is probably a lot closer to evangelical Christians than Beck.

Also, full disclosure, I have family that is Mormon and they’re good people. I have nothing at all against Mormons even though I view their theology as radically different from my own. But I do have something against Glenn Beck and his belief that “social justice” is evil. And there are plenty of non-Mormon Christians who share that distorted understanding of what faith should be about. Though for the life of me I cannot understand how someone could read the teachings of Jesus Christ and still believe that social justice is wrong. As far as I know, most Mormons believe in social justice as well. But most conservatives, at least in the Age of Oba, apparently do not.

Update.

For those of you who are saying that somehow this whole social justice thing is about the law – well, that’s really neither here nor there. It’s beside the point in regards to this post at least. Beck told people to leave their church if it promoted social justice.  What on earth does that have to do with the law?

Also, Ross Douthat muses about Beck’s Mormonism and the yawning chasm between it and evangelical Christianity, here:

Latter Day Saints and evangelical Christians arguably share enough affinities to belong in the same “cultural family,” as Weigel puts it. But you’re more likely to find them in competition, from the streets of American suburbia to the mission fields of the developing world to the caucuses of Iowa during the great Mike Huckabee-Mitt Romney throwdown. It’s a case of theological differences trumping cultural commonalities: The two faiths occupy opposite sides of a theological chasm that makes the gulf between Catholics and Protestants look narrow by comparison, and many evangelicals bristle with hostility for what they regard as Mormonism’s cultish pseudo-Christianity.

To the extent that this theological chasm can be bridged, though, the obvious place to fling out a rope bridge is the question of America’s providential purpose, since both Mormonism and evangelicalism (especially in their more populist manifestations) often incline toward highly-theologized readings of American history, the founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, etc. And tellingly, that’s exactly what Beck has been doing: From his boosterism for the batty Cleon Skousen’s Mormon-inflected interpretation of the American experiment, “The 5,000-Year Leap,” down to the blend of civic religion and nondenominational Christianity on display at the Lincoln Memorial this weekend (complete, as Noah Kristula-Green notes, with distinctively Mormon nods to Native Americans), he’s been tacitly inviting his evangelical fans to get over their anxieties about Mormonism, and find common ground with the Latter Day Saints in their shared appreciation of the Father, Son and Holy Constitution.

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53 thoughts on “Beck and Obama’s radically different theologies

    • @Mike Farmer,

      I did considerable research on “collective salvation.” Long story short – the term collective salvation is not related to liberation theology or any Obama religious belief.

      Searching the Internet did not result in any information linking collective salvation to Liberation Theology, until Glenn Beck and others started using the term in relationship to Pres. Obama and Liberation Theology. The majority of the pre-Obama references were to Catholic churches. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberation_theology

      There were slight (no detail) references to “Buddhism, Eastern mysticism religions.”

      I researched Obama’s use of the word collective salvation. The anti-Obama individuals, which included Glen Beck, used one sentence out of a paragraph. The results were taking the words “collective salvation” out of context. Obama used the words in a non-religious context as a motivation for helping other to improve “America.” The following is from a commencement speech at Wesleyan University:

      “It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story.”

      In the same commencement speech Obama interchanged the word with “collective service:”

      “Surely, if his service and his story can forever shape America’s story, then our collective service can shape the destiny of this generation.”

      Merriam-Webster dictionary has three meanings for salvation. Only one meaning relates to religion.

      In another commencement speech, Obama used the words: collective dream, collective responsibilities, and collective labor. Each time, it was used in regard to making America better.

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  1. “Obama is probably a lot closer to evangelical Christians than Beck.”
    Far be from me to seek the snark, but I don’t see anything of a Christian form that pertains to Barry’s religious beliefs. Barry’s a secularist, a Leftist ideologist of one sort or another. Everything else is political theatre. And, while he’s an outstanding politician, the president is unable to hide this from the unwashed.

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      • @Robert Cheeks, To edit or not to edit, that is the question, whether tis nobler to take back space against a sea of mispelled words, run on sentences and poorly written arguments, or blah, blah blah. Anyway, as an agnostic who leans toward atheism I find President Obama’s religion a non starter. What counts is what he does. Question, can one be a leftist and a Christian?

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        • @dexter45, Dex, dude, I have this fight with my ‘leftist’-Christian friends…er, the ones I still have, and they are running rather thin. Given that the commie-dem party, yea in the year of our Lord, ’72, pounded the abortion plank into ye commie party platform, forever leaving me as a viable political entity. So it is, and so it shall be, that ye so-called “Leftist-Christians” are non sequiturs, the dog ain’t huntin’, it ain’t so, and absolutely not.

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        • @dexter45, My suspicion is that since Jesus said sell all you have and give it to the poor he would be a far leftist. Of course Constantine could not stand this so he modified the traditions to suit him. (Recall that for over 100 years the roman emperors ran the church and turned it the way they wanted it to turn. If you actually read the gospels, christ is for the poor and has no use for the rich, saying its easier for a rich man to pass thru the eye of a needle than get to heaven. Of course no church would follow the pure doctrine, because it means the church itself has no worldly goods and the clergy can’t fix their edifice complex.
          The catholic church finesses the issue by saying that tradition overcomes the plain words of Jesus, always had and always will.

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          • @Lyle,

            That is so deeply resonant theologically. Two truncated scripture citations of which the meaning has, incidentally, been debated for 2 millenia. Some Wiki hoo re: Constantine. Some random snottery re: the clergy.

            Concluded with ignorance and stone bigotry.

            I imagine your grasp of gravity is as impressive.

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            • @tao9, Where in the gospels are the rich called good? Christ came for the poor, the rich were in charge at the temple and spoke greek. That was the elite at the time. One can make a case for liberation theology from the gospel, but then one can make any case from scripture because the devil even quotes scripture to his own purpose.
              Its just to me that Constantine was the worst thing that ever happend to the christian movement, reducing its vibrant diversity. If he had stopped with the edict of Milan he would be ok, but then he gave the clergy tax exemptions and the like, so the church became an element of the state, and eventually in the west for a while the state.
              Yes there are passages where christ helps the elite (see the centurion) but its because of a direct request. In general because christ came to set brother against brother, the elite found him a dangerous influence so they got rid of him.

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  2. “But I do have something against Glenn Beck and his belief that “social justice” is evil.”

    I think it’s less that he believes social justice is evil and more that he has the sneaking suspicion people are using the guise of social justice as an excuse to behave nefariously.

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  3. ***Obama is probably a lot closer to evangelical Christians than Beck.***

    I would say that are both far apart from us evangelicals, though for different reasons. Mormonism isn’t compatible with orthodox Christianity. But Obama’s view of Christ, sin, hell, and many other core doctrines are probably just as incompatible.

    For example, when Obama has talked about Jesus he doesn’t seem to be claiming him as fully divine, i.e., the second person in the Trinity. Perhaps I missed his clarification, but when his stated views on Jesus that I’ve seen imply that he was only a “wise man.”

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    • @Joe Carter, From what I’ve read of Obama’s remarks, this is accurate. He seems to be a liberal Christian with some liberation theology flavors. My problem would not be to say that Obama is in some weak sense “more Christian” than Beck, I don’t know how to do that calculus. It’s above my pay grade. My problem is that an evangelical would look at two people outside of orthodoxy and choose the one who happens to hold similar political views. Christianity is more than politics, and to give Beck a voice like he tried to use Saturday is harmful to the Church. Especially with how nationalistic it was.

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    • @Joe Carter,

      Obama has said that Jesus is the only way to salvation for him. It is unrealistic to expect anyone running for an elected position or the President to say that anyone not believing in Jesus will go to hell. They represent all citizens – not just Christians.

      Bush said in an interview that he thought Muslims go to heaven. The media and others should not ask the question.

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  4. If there is one thing the world really needs is people criticizing other peoples religious beliefs. Its not like looking down on other peoples beliefs has ever turned out badly or anything. And why would anybody even care to ask what beck thinks about Obama’s beliefs without any actual proof that he knows and understands them? Most of what passes for judgement of Obama’s beliefs is slander based on dislike of him.

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  5. I’ve been thinking about this for a while.

    The evolution of Religion and doctrines and whathaveyou are infinitely fascinating to me.

    Judaism, through Paul, evolved into Christianity (with the help of a host of characters) but most Jews don’t see Christianity as a true descendant of Judaism properly understood. Most Christians, of course, do. I don’t have the competence to say which take is the right one.

    The Catholic Church frowns upon Protestants taking Communion to the point where, on Christmas and Easter, the Priest has to give a little speech about “the Tragedy of Schism” where he says (paraphrased) only confessed Catholics should be walking up to the table… and Protestants know that you don’t have to confess to a priest, you don’t even *NEED* a priest to translate for you (let alone a Pope), and you can have a relationship between yourself and God and the Bible and that’s all you need. Protestants see themselves as an obvious evolution of the Christian faith. Catholics, on the other hand, see this as schism.

    It’s hard for me to say which has the upper hand, here.

    Which brings us to Mormonism. Mormonism isn’t an obvious evolution of Protestantism (I’d give that award to Unitarianism). It’s like a throwback to an older religion. The Protestants are wrong, the Catholics are wrong, let’s go back to the source (and the new sources! Yay!) and forget all of this excess baggage.

    And, of course, it looks to folks who aren’t members of the church like the Mormons just made up a whole bunch of crap out of whole cloth.

    I, sadly, don’t have enough distance to say that I can’t judge who’s right or who’s wrong in that debate.

    Anyway, the fact that Mormonism went reactionary rather than “progressive” makes Mormonism look really different from Unitarianism… which went progressive much like the protestants did from the Catholics, the Catholics from the Orthodox, and the Christians from the Jews.

    Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

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  6. Frankly, we know very little of either President Obama’s or Glenn Beck’s personal convictions. Men in office — especially high office — tend to speak in such grand generalities as to make their public pronouncements of any value whatsoever. Some generalize to obfuscate, others generalize to be inclusive. It’s pretty hard to know which until well after the fact.

    Glenn Beck, on the other hand, is most decidedly a political opportunist — willing to say just about anything to further his own, private, profitable agenda. If his pronouncements on faith and religion are the least bit genuine, they condemn him.

    As a Mormon, I’d say he doesn’t reflect Mormon thought in the least — except the convolution of Mormon thought that has fulminated in the conservative backwaters of the rural West. Mormons outside of “Deseret” — and many, many inside (like myself) — find his brand of priestcraft wholly foreign and entirely distasteful.

    Beck’s “I Have a Scheme” speech will live in infamy — but not before doing much damage, to our society, to civic discourse, and to the church he calls his own.

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  7. I don’t believe in god, but I will criticize the idea of “social justice” because I have no idea what the hell it means. Putting it another way, I have heard representatives of renters use the term in court to fight eviction.
    Does “social justice” mitigate property rights?
    If you plan to insert “social justice” into law, I would appreciate a definition.

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      • @gregiank,
        What I am trying to say is that the definition of “social justice” seems to vary. If E.D. Kain, like President Obama, want to insert “social justice” into the law then I would like a concise definition. If we are talking about some Christian idea of “social justice”, then we have a much bigger problem.

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        • @cfpete, huh…who is trying to insert any religious idea into the law? (well aside from many on the religious right)

          My real puzzlement is that Social Justice is a compassionate religious idea about making the world better for people. Somehow beck has turned this into a reason to fear Obama. So Obama is a fascist , socialist, muslim, secular, religious person who beck insists believes in a religious doctrine of making the world more just and better. Its a world salad of non-sense. Madlibs makes more sense.

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  8. E.D. Kain,
    I don’t care about Beck and think he is a clown, but if you think that “social justice” has nothing to do with the law – then you have been living under a rock for the past two years.
    You apparently believe in “social justice.”
    Should I also infer that you believe in “equality of outcome?”

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    • @cfpete, Not to speak for E.D., but I’d guess that he recognizes that “social justice” CAN refer to the law, but is saying that it doesn’t NECESSARILY refer to the law. That “social justice” in religion needn’t be about passing legislation. My grandparents have tithed their incomes for essentially their entire adult lives — would they call it “social justice”? Probably not, but that’s because they’d just call it a tithe and see it as an essential part of their religion. But would, say, the Reform congregation I grew up attending call it “social justice” — probably. After all, tithing is meant to mitigate the effects of economic life on the less fortunate — which is to say, it’s interference in the market for the sake of compassion. But does a belief that one has a religious duty to tithe mean that you are going to demand that the government require everyone to do so? No.

      Among the many problems with Beck’s claims about “social justice” is that it’s essentially meaningless: a conservative church, like my grandparents’, will speak in terms of religious obligation; an orthodox shul might speak in terms of commandment; a Reform congregation is going to talk in terms of social justice/tikkun olam — when referring to the same thing — because they don’t like to talk about commandment; a mainline/liberal church might talk in terms of social justice because they feel it connects with a history of abolitionism, civil rights, women’s suffrage, etc.

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  9. It’s a little disingenuous for anyone who follows the current discourse in politics to pretend they don’t understand how “social justice” is used by progressives to mean forceful use of the State to institute their version of justice, commanding the rest of us to abide by it. It’s intentionally vague to entail any injustice they believe capitalists have perpetrated on women, the gullible public, third word countries, minorities and the earth. It’s supposed to sound moral and just — who can be against social justice? It’s not social justice we should be against but what it stands for in the minds of progressives (and obviously liberals). What bothers me more than the intentions of the progressives, who are fairly open about what they want, is the uncritical support given by liberals who should know better.

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  10. I find it surprising that some devout Catholics follow Beck’s conception of the ideal social order given that his vision is fundamentally incompatible with the social order promoted by the Catholic Church. Their understandings of rights and responsibilities differ to the point where they’re really not even using the words to refer to the same things. Catholics who think in the manner of Glenn Beck do not think as Catholics. All the better for Beck, I suppose, as he wants those who hear the words “social justice” to run for their lives.

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  11. “But I do have something against Glenn Beck and his belief that “social justice” is evil.”

    The antipathy toward the Palin/Beck rally is very unfortunate. By most accounts, it was not politically nor religiously contentious. It seems motivated by the desire to turn Palin, Beck and their supporters into unpersons, which we should be able to agree is a bad move. Even taking the most pejorative plausible stance toward such people, I don’t think that’s warranted.

    As far as the rally itself goes, I don’t know what think about it exactly. But there’s at least one thing we should be able to say for it: there’s quite a substantial space between religious practice and public policy, or at least there used to be. Government has gotten bigger over the years so we tend to forget about it but it’s there nonetheless.

    The Beck rally seems to about reclaiming this space (it’s important to note that this is a much bigger deal than one rally), which for me at least is very promising. It also could turn out very badly, it all depends on what happens from here.

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  12. It seems motivated by the desire to turn Palin, Beck and their supporters into unpersons, which we should be able to agree is a bad move.

    Since the alternative seems to be accepting my own status as an un-person (Atheists shouldn’t be citizens, “If you’re not with us you’re against us”, and all that) I’m not convinced this is the case.

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