NYT: All of Christendom condemns Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck’s comments about social justice last week made the blog rounds earlier this week, and the reaction has been somewhat predictable. Some ignore it; some eat it up; others are ready to condemn it. Here’s what started it all:

I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! …

If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, “Excuse me are you down with this whole social justice thing?” If it’s my church, I’m alerting the church authorities: “Excuse me, what’s this social justice thing?” And if they say, “yeah, we’re all in that social justice thing”–I’m in the wrong place.

Later on his TV show (left), Beck held up cards, one with a hammer and sickle and other with a swastika, and on each banner, he said, read the words ‘social justice.’

The New York Times article “Outraged by Glenn Beck’s Salvo, Christians Fire Back” makes the sweeping generalization that Christians are firing back at Glenn Beck when in reality (drumroll please) Jim Wallis is calling for a boycott. I can’t help but wonder if we’d ever see a headline like “Christian Leader Calls for Rachel Maddow Boycott.” I doubt it, but then again, a story like that wouldn’t be that shocking. Likewise, this article’s angle is predictable and falls flat. Take a look:

This week the remarks prompted outrage from several Christian bloggers. The Rev. Jim Wallis, who leads the liberal Christian antipoverty group Sojourners, in Washington, called on Christians to leave Glenn Beck.

“What he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show,” Mr. Wallis wrote on his blog, God’s Politics. “His show should now be in the same category as Howard Stern.”

Reporter Laurie Goodstein mentions “several Christian bloggers” but only mentions Wallis in her story. Is it still shocking that people are “outraged” and denouncing other people in blogs (can’t anyone set one up on a whim)? Jim Wallis is noteworthy and he probably reflects how a lot of Christians feel about Beck’s comments. But social justice is what Jim Wallis is about, how he makes his living. It would’ve been more compelling to me if the reporter had also found someone less likely to come out against Beck. Tobin Grant writes at Christianity Today about conservative Christians who are comfortable with the term.

Beck’s comments came on the heels of a new six-part video small-group study, “Seek Social Justice,” put out by the Heritage Foundation, a flagship conservative organization. The video series features Chuck Colson of BreakPoint, Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Sean Litton of the International Justice Mission, and other evangelical leaders speaking on the meaning and importance of social justice.

There’s a group of people worth asking about Beck’s comments. Here’s more from the Times:

In attacking churches that espouse social justice, Mr. Beck is taking on most mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, black and Hispanic congregations in the country–not to mention plenty of evangelical churches and even his own, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I’m not sure why she writes that most Protestant, Roman Catholic, black and Hispanic congregations espouse social justice while just “plenty” of evangelical churches espouse it. Of course, since there’s no cohesive leadership in evangelicalism like there is in Catholicism, for instance, there won’t be a general consensus on the term “social justice.” By separating evangelicals from the rest, she at least acknowledges that not everybody prefers the term “social justice,” but she never informs readers why some might hesitate to use the phrase.

The Times article gives a little bit of helpful background, but I would’ve liked to see a bit more on how the term has evolved over the years. Perhaps the story could have included someone’s definition of social justice. It seems like Beck assumes it means redistribution through government but Christians might assume a different application of the term.

Religion scholars say the term “social justice” was probably coined in the 1800s, codified in encyclicals by successive popes and adopted widely by Protestant churches in the 1900s. The concept is that Christians should not merely give to the poor, but also work to correct unjust conditions that keep people poor. Many Christians consider it a recurring theme in Scripture.

Mr. Beck himself is a convert to Mormonism, a faith that identifies itself as part of the Christian family, but is nevertheless rejected by many Christians.

The reporter should explain the end of that sentence suggesting Mormonism is “rejected by many Christians.” Remember when Focus on the Family pulled an interview over Beck’s faith? I would be curious to see if the same listeners will take their cues on church membership from Beck.

The story ends with a quote from a Mormon professor who suggests that Mormonism is all about social justice. That’s good perspective, but no one disagrees in the Mormon world?

It appears the reporter has made no effort to contact Beck for a response to the outrage he’s caused. I suppose you could argue he had his initial chance, but Sojourners wrote that Beck responded to Wallis yesterday morning (and we’ve already established that Goodstein reads the Sojourners blog).

Goodstein also wrote a post for the Caucus Blog, the Times‘s politics blog. I realize that blogs are often based on work that’s already out there so I hesitate to critique them too carefully, but it reads like the longer version of the story that ended up in print. In addition to Wallis, Goodstein uses quotes from the Rev. James Martin at the Huffington Post and Joe Carter at First Things. This is all fine and good for a blog post, but I would expect a reporter to make a few more phone calls for a more solid story if she thinks outrage has been truly been prompted. I don’t think it would have been difficult to get reaction from evangelicals — black and white — who use the term social justice who may not agree with either Wallis or Beck.

I’m not sure why the Times deemed Glenn Beck’s ability to outrage people “news that’s fit to print,” but it had a potential hook, I suppose. The story could have delved into a larger question of whether groups choose to use the term “social justice” or not, what kinds of connotations it brings and what concerns they might have. The story could have also explored how, say, Catholics and evangelicals might agree on the idea of social justice but may disagree on how to pursue it.

I raise these issues because Goodstein is a respected reporter whom many religion writers emulate, and one whom we often praise. When she writes an article, people pay attention because she often writes well-reported, thoughtful pieces that raises many ideas and issues. More power to religion reporters writing on provocative issues, but I’ll be looking for deeper angles next time around.

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  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    After trashing one comment, I suppose it’s a good time to remind folks to stick to journalism, not Beck’s comments.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    I’ve said and I’ll say it again. Please stick to journalism, mainstream coverage, how the article could’ve improved, other reporting ideas to consider. Please do not discuss whether you think Beck’s comments were inappropriate or not.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    There are a lot of conservative Christians who agree with Glenn Beck’s stance on what the term “social justice” means and signifies in today’s leftist-liberal culture.

    The fact that the media doesn’t report this, or doesn’t know about this, is to be expected.

  • zman

    CNN’s web site headline is referring to Wallace as an evangelical leader so maybe she feels she covered that base.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    I’ve deleted at least 10 comments that have nothing to do with media coverage. Take note.

    zman, thanks for pointing that out. The main story on CNN right now is this one: http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/03/12/beck.boycott/index.html?hpt=C1
    I assume the little iReport label means a CNN reporter didn’t write the story. I’m glad it included more reaction sand the writer attempted to contact Beck. He also attempts to make some distinctions about how people have considered social justice differently. Overall, I’d say the CNN iReport by John Blake was better than the NYT article.

  • Liz Busby

    As a Mormon, I find the Mormon side of the story very interesting. Interesting that none of the newspapers caught onto what the Mormon blog Times & Seasons (http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2010/03/if-glenn-beck-followed-his-own-instructions-hed-be-an-ex-mormon/) seized upon: the LDS church website has numerous positive references to “social justice” and “economic justice,” so one should be expecting Beck to leave any day now. That said, I think most Mormons, especially the most conservative variety found in Utah, would agree that the LDS Church has little to do with “social justice” as most define it–that is, entitlement to a living by virtue of being alive.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Beck’s problem is that the media rarely digs deeply into groups that may be exploiting terms like “social justice” as a cover for extremist radical politics of various types. Many of those who agree with Beck are those aware (even if the media isn’t) of many of the con games going on in this area degrading respect for the phrase “social justice.” In fact, in recent years the Catholic Church has had a lot of trouble regarding its annual “social justice” collection to help out various anti-poverty, etc. type groups (I think Acorn was one of them) only to find out money was being used to promote totally unChristian or unCatholic (or even crooked) activities. This problem has been covered in some Catholic publications, but little has made it into the mainstream news media
    that I read.

  • Jacob

    Sure folks shouldn’t be getting their religion from political cable channels, no doubt. But these days of religious informercials we know many get their views from broadcasting media.
    Where’s the outrage here that should be defending religion from media attacks. We have to wonder about a blog covering religion in the media if it won’t allow discussion about the real outrage about conservative media condemning the roots of the Christian religion. Worse yet it seems the only posts left here seem to supportive of Beck and FOX News to go ahead to attack Christianity. All Americans, and any Christian, appropriately should be attacking hate mongering against religion in the media.

  • Tracy Hall Jr

    In the entertainment industry, any publicity is good publicity. I’m sure Beck is enjoying it all. I confess that I’m a bit embarrassed by my co-religionist and wish he were more articulate and less bombastic, but I do think the press has misunderstood him.

    Most of the stories I have read on this incident, including Goodstein’s, fail to disclose the writer’s presupposition that whatever is “just” for individual choice must automatically be “just” for the power of the state. Indeed, some of the Mormons quoted who imply that Beck is “out of step” with his own religion have also failed to disclose this assumption.

    But a fundamental LDS doctrine is that of individual moral agency: our scriptures teach that Satan fell because he opposed God’s plan to preserve it. (Pearl of Great Price: Moses 4:1-4)

    So most Latter-day Saints tend to be suspicious of anything that involves any degree of coercion. If reporters could acquire this much religious literacy, there would be fewer articles implying that Mormons follow their leaders like sheep and a better understanding of the political diversity within Mormonism, as exemplified by Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch.

    Anyway, most Mormons would agree that unless a gift is a free-will offering, it is not true charity. I certainly don’t intend to plea, at the last judgment, that part of my taxes went to help the poor – unless my attorney (who has agreed to serve pro bono and happens to be the Judge’s son) suggests that it might help with my insanity defense!

    I haven’t heard any of my co-religionists complain that there are no Mormons on the advisory council to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I suspect that our leaders have made it quietly known that they could not accept such an appointment, and that the Church will not be applying for funding. This has to say something about the Church’s views on individual vs. state charity. Some enterprising reporter might “discover” this fact and inquire why.

    Hthalljr’gmail’com

  • http://www.freshimpactpr.com Scott Spiewak

    From a journalism standpoint with the transition going from hardcopy to digital readers there is only one thing in mind wiht the NY Times running a story from someone on Fox News. They want people to click through and spread the story. Mission accomplished. They achieved their goal.

    My perspective is that reporters are more and more being persuaded to get away from true journalism because their jobs are on the line. Not only that, but with staffs trimmed and news turning so fast time is of the essences. It is alot easier to get ‘several bloggers’ than dig for true hard reporting. They are being pushed to get stories that will spread with the outlets political perspectives being the driving force.

  • TiredOfTheLeft

    Glenn Beck is not speaking out against social justice. He is speaking out against “social justice.” Big difference. Here is a good example: the National Council of Churches and members like the Episcopalians are disguising radical leftist immigration “reform” as a religious imperative. See here. There allies? Those paragons of Christian orthodoxy such as ACORN, CodePink, National Council of LaRaza, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and People for the American Way, among many others, including labor groups, like the AFL-CIO and also CAIR, Council on American Islamic Relations (perhaps the later think it will allow more terrorists in the country).

    Of course the liberal media hates Glen Beck exposing the word games. But does Glen Beck care? His audience is 6 times MSNBC’s Chris Matthew.

  • joye

    Can you explain to me how opposing “social justice”, but NOT opposing social justice, is not “word games”? I’m asking honestly. I really don’t understand what you’re trying to say here. Especially since your conclusion seems to be “He’s popular so he must be right.”

    In any event, the hypocrisy is stunning. Glenn Beck says to go to your church’s website and look for the phrase “social justice”, and if it’s there, to leave.

    Glenn Beck’s own church has “social justice” on its website.

    In my opinion that’s the most glaring omission in that article, failing to note that the LDS website mentions social justice. Some journalist ought to ask Mr. Beck what he plans to do about that. Is he going to follow his own advice?

  • joye

    I should also say that Mr. Beck’s use of language–”priest”, “parish”, “bishop”–clearly points towards Roman Catholicism in the public mind.

    Since Mr. Beck is a former Catholic–something I think also should have been mentioned in articles about his statements–my reaction when I first heard his statements was “So you want everyone to be just like you, and leave Catholicism, huh?”

    Mr. Beck’s former Catholicism is a definite ghost in this story. He’s a Mormon convert, yes–but a convert from what? That’s part of the story, journalists.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Jacob, to be clear, we cover mainstream reports. So we picked up on this story because the NYT did.

    joye, that is a great point, and one that crossed my mind, but you pointed out why it’s an interesting distinction.

    Again, please keep the comments to the journalism coverage, not about whether you agree with Beck or not.

  • Jon in the Nati

    I should also say that Mr. Beck’s use of language—“priest”, “parish”, “bishop”—clearly points towards Roman Catholicism in the public mind.

    The LDS have priests and bishops, too. They just mean different things by those words than the ancient Christian churches.