Between Glen Beck and the growing Islamophobia on the one hand, and the declining influence of institutionalized religion (at least in the form of Protestant denominations) on the other, observing American religion is a fascinating pastime.
According to most of those present at the rally last weekend, what Beck and his supporters did was more religious revival than political statement. A number of people in attendance seemed surprised by the lack of overt references to politics. It was all about “taking back America,” religious piety wrapped up in patriotism. For some, Beck has become the first Mormon televangelist.
For others, Beck represents the devolution of Evangelicalism. The current Dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary sees a decline from the evangelical heavyweights of the 70s to Beck. Russell Moore writes:
It’s taken us a long time to get here, in this plummet from Francis Schaeffer to Glenn Beck. In order to be this gullible, American Christians have had to endure years of vacuous talk about undefined “revival” and “turning America back to God” that was less about anything uniquely Christian than about, at best, a generically theistic civil religion and, at worst, some partisan political movement.
Rather than cultivating a Christian vision of justice and the common good (which would have, by necessity, been nuanced enough to put us sometimes at odds with our political allies), we’ve relied on populist God-and-country sloganeering and outrage-generating talking heads. We’ve tolerated heresy and buffoonery in our leadership, as long as with it there is sufficient political “conservatism” and a sufficient commercial venue to sell our books and products.
He continues by comparing a “liberation theology of the left” with that of the “right,” seeing little good in either. Moore places much of the blame for the Christian right’s theological prostitution on the LDS (Mormons). Of course, other Evangelicals also worry about Beck’s commitment to Christianity. (For them the Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints isn’t a Christian denomination, at best, it’s a “Christian cult.”
As I was reading these essays, I came across another one, perhaps even more disturbing and challenging. In Esquire, Tom Junod writes about a memorial service sponsored by Transocean for the victims of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Writing about that service, he said that the common theme of all of the speakers was that the victims were fine Christian men. But so too were the executives of Transocean who spoke, and who are trying to limit their payouts to the victims’ families. Judon expands:
But there is no doubt about the Transocean whose executives took to the pulpit and declared that what was most important about the men who died was their shared faith: it styled itself as a Christian corporation, and as such it is a fulfillment of the Republican dream that began when Ronald Reagan first took office. Forget church and state; the genius of Reagan and his handlers was to forge a partnership between church and corporation by enlisting each in an ostensibly common cause: freedom. That freedom for a corporation and freedom for a church meant two different things; that freedom for a corporation meant the freedom to do whatever the hell it wanted and that freedom for a church meant freedom to tell people that they couldn’t do whatever the hell they wanted, even or especially with their own bodies: this wouldn’t matter so much anymore. What would matter — and still matters — was that the church and the corporation would be held to have the same values, so that one could always speak for the other. Corporations would be liberated, individuals would be exposed to Christian suasion, and the two irreconcilabes of conservative politics would be united under the big Republican “tent.”
Later in the essay, he writes:
we witness the spectacle of Transocean and BP blaming each other for the death of the Deepwater Horizon, but also the spectacle of a corporate shill like Glenn Beck calling for national Christian renewal in an event blessed by Rupert Murdoch. The partnership brokered by the Republican party thirty years ago between the unfettered church and the unshackled corporation has paid off in an historic American divide between individuals and the institutions they serve; has paid off in an America whose culture of individual virtue exists in complementary equipoise with its culture of institutional corruption; has paid off in an America where the individuals are better than the institutions they serve, and know it. Fox and its minions address that divide by insisting that the real divide is between believers and non-believers; companies like Transocean by having its executives speak of the Lord at an event that ultimately owes its existence to corporate negligence.
Stanley Fish’s comments about the way individuals are blamed when their attacks offend us (see Timothy McVeigh and the recent stabber of a NYC cabby) and whole cultures are blamed when the attack offends us (9/11) provides an interesting comparison with Judon’s discussion of the meaning of freedom for individuals and corporations today.