Glen Beck and the Evangelical Flywheel

            Glenn Beck’s twin weekend events – “Divine Destiny” & “Restoring Honor” have taken the evangelical / political connection to another level. The flywheel effect is in full force and the ideas or motivation from these events will take on a life, energy and consequences that none of us can foresee. More on that later.

It is important to note that the massive events and buzz from last weekend are the result of a movement that has been slowly churning and gaining momentum for decades.  Of course, the basic ideas merging fervent patriotism and evangelical faith have always been alive somewhere in the evangelical church. But the latest cycle emerged in 1979 with the founding of the Moral Majority.  On his program, “The Old-Time Gospel Hour” Jerry Falwell began to preach messages dealing with public policy issues.  The worship services often featured patriotic music or interviews and it was not unusual for a program to have commercial breaks to encourage the signing of petitions to send to Congress.  Jerry sold flag pins overlaid with a cross.

As the culture shifted, coarsened and seemed to careen out of control through the 80’s, dozens of churches embraced this combination of patriotism and faith.  And increasingly, that edged over into overt political involvement such as voter registration drives, support of specific candidates (usually tied to the pro-life issue) and lobbying efforts.

With the advent of the Reagan Revolution, evangelicals were both recognized and leveraged as a political power, not just in the South, but in the entire nation. The Christian Coalition developed chapters in every state, bringing together Christians who did not normally associate (even in their own communities) and fostering connections around political / social issues.  Around this time, evangelical discussions began to include specific domestic economic policies and foreign policy perspectives. Evangelical “spokesmen” began appearing on the Sunday morning news shows. 

It was becoming possible to be publicly identified as an evangelical by conviction and not once mention Jesus or the gospel.

It was also during these years that I had an experience at a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention that made clear where this was all headed. During one of the sessions, a singing group from one of our colleges led in what was identified as a season of worship.  They sang a riveting song about the cross and the power of the gospel, and were given polite applause.  Without missing a beat, they moved into ‘I’m Proud to be an American” by Lee Greenwood.  Without a word of direction and without the colors being presented, the crowd reverently stood, en masse. I couldn’t believe my eyes.  No standing for the gospel, but reflexive standing for a sappy patriotic song.  I love my country, but I did not stand at that moment and felt the glares as if I had committed some heresy. (Of course, that was nothing compared to the reactions when I told my experience at my Bible Belt church a few weeks later. Honest, but a big mistake.)

Evident and unashamed passion for the nation was steadily surpassing evident and unashamed passion for the gospel.

Through the 90’s and early 2000’s the nation continued on a difficult and troubling course, both morally and spiritually.  Since there were growing calls for Christians to but out of politics all together, many ministries began to make it a priority to teach on the Christian roots of our nation’s Founding Fathers and documents. That  is a necessary for the preservation of heritage in the face of revisionist historians.

But an even stronger impulse of evangelicals was to respond with more political involvement, more pressure, more petitions, more lobbying, more electioneering for the “right” candidates, and more hand-wringing. The involvement was largely for the Republican Party (led by FOE – “friend of evangelicals” George W. Bush) and the hand-wringing was over the Democratic Party (demonstrated by FOB’s—“friends of Bill” Clinton.).  Along with that came the rise of the unspoken assumptions that committed followers of Jesus would be conservative and Republican and that Democrats were all atheists, pagans, or liberal, backslidden Christians.  (Thus totally missing the point of the nature of the gospel and saving faith)

This period  also saw the emergence of a new rallying theme—“family values”.  Family values scorecards were distributed in churches on Sunday mornings and candidates trumpeted their family values credentials and voting records to insure they would gain evangelical support. Family values were wed to evangelical politics and policy discussions, fostered in no small part by Dr. James Dobson’s using the reach of his Focus on the Family media empire to fund and support that direction.

Now, family values issues / politics grabbed the hearts, minds, affections, passions, priorities, energies and life-defining strength among evangelicals.  No topic, including the gospel and the eternal destiny of souls among unreached peoples, generates as much heat or enthusiasm in discussion, fund-raising or action.  The Bible has a word for something with that kind of power: an idol. (yes, I really said that)

Over the past decade, the rise of talk radio, blogging and social media has caused an increasing cross-pollination of movements, ideas, personalities and churches of all denominations.  The primary means of determining cooperation has been a common political goal (think Proposition 8 in California), a common candidate (think McCain-Palin), a common view of an issue (economics, foreign policy, health care, immigration, etc) along with a common patriotic passion.

The gospel is diluted and rarely an issue in these partnerships.  The issue is the thing.

Let me be clear: citizen Christians should be, and have a Biblical obligation to be,  fully vested and involved in our democratic system of government.  We have a right and should participate. Retreat into an isolation chamber is not a faithful option.

However….

This past weekend’s events in Washington, DC signal something new.. and potentially troubling.  In many ways, it closes the loop begun by Falwell and spins us into another sphere.  The two events dealt with two sides:  “Divine Destiny” (that’s the God and faith component) and “Restoring Honor” (which appealed to the patriotic side).

Even the most liberal newspapers described the tent revival and evangelistic feel to the whole event.  People of faith were drawn like a magnet to this moment.  Why? Russ Douthat makes an astute observation that  

“the pageant effortlessly tapped into the… rich vein of identity politics….Now more than ever Americans love leaders who seem to validate their way of life…[this rally was] “a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians—square, earnest, patriotic and religious….[and] floated entirely on patriotism and piety. It blessed an entire way of life.”

Beck took the fiery preacher role in addressing the massive crowd which numbered somewhere north of 300,000 people. Here are the money quotes from his speech:

            “Something beyond imagination is happening. America today begins to turn back to God. For too long, this country has wandered in darkness. Do we no longer believe in the power of the individual? Do we no longer believe in dreams?…..Recognize your place to the creator. Realize that he is our king. He is the one who guides and directs our life and protects us….Look forward. Look West. Look to the heavens. Look to God and make your choice…

That’ sounds generic enough to grab the attention of most people of faith – even if you get confused by the juxtaposition of “power of the individual” and “he is our king”, not to mention the whole “look West” thing. Huh? 

Richard Land, of the SBC Religious Liberty Commission, said Beck sounded like Billy Graham.  That’s just silly, but OK.  But Billy is clearly an evangelical who holds to historic, orthodox definitions of God and the gospel.  Glen Beck is a Mormon.  So, when he urges us to turn back to God (consciously using the language of Joshua– “choose you this day”), the question that must be asked is…

                        “which God?” 

The Mormon definition of God is decidedly different from the Bible’s and from the Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and non-denominational evangelicals I know.

Beck appealed to faith-leaders of all sorts: “go to your churches, your synagogues, your mosques, anyone who is not preaching hate and division, anyone who is not teaching to kill another man….These men and women [clergy on stage with him] don’t agree on fundamentals. They don’t agree on everything that every church teaches….What they do agree on is God is the answer.”

Again, unless you are promoting a syncretistic mish-mash, those leaders hold mutually exclusive theologies, so we ask…which God is the answer?

Then we turned to the theme of redemption:

“For too long, this country has wandered in darkness and we have wandered in darkness in periods from the beginning.  We have had moments of brilliance and moments of darkness. But this country has spent far too long worried about the scars and thinking about the scars and concentrating on the scars. Today we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things we have accomplished and the things we can do tomorrow.  We have a choice today to either let those scars crush us or redeem us.”

When you have identified what’s wrong with the world, there will soon follow a proposal for what will it take to fix it.  “Redeem” is a biblically loaded word that for  evangelical Christians points straight to a bloody cross and a singular Savior named Jesus who is exclusively ”the way…to the Father.” (John 14:6) Biblically, “redeem” points to our innate wickedness and inability to save ourselves, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps or make a better world.  We are individually dark, because sinners by nature “love darkness rather than light” (Jn.3:19) And the light is not national pride or accomplishment.  The light is Jesus. (Jn. 1:4, 9:5)

This is precisely what worries me about this. The flywheel of energy from this rhetoric could spin us right off our mission.  It appears that many of those enthralled by Beck’s call and who claim the name of Christ are not approaching this with gospel=focused thinking.   “Redemption” could be the extension of tax cuts, border patrols, free-market economy supports, taking back the House or Jesus—whichever comes first. They are mixing a dangerous cocktail of Christian faith and political preference that makes the two virtually indistinguishable in too many minds.  Listen to just two participants from last weekend:

            “”Together, we and millions of our fellow citizens are calling America back to its Judeo-Christian values of faith, hard work, individual initiative, the centrality of marriage and family, hope, charity, and relying on God and civic and faith-based organizations rather than government.” (Ralph Reed who led the Christian Coalition and now leads the Faith & Freedom Coalition.)

“I believe it’s hopeless unless we get back to our roots. And that means our faith, and it means, reorganize our time. We have been so busy earning a living and raising our children that we have let different small groups overpower our opinions. And we’re here to … reclaim what’s wonderful about this country.” (Sue Maliszewski of Phoenix, New York)

Faith, hard work, individual initiative, the centrality of marriage and family, hope, charity, relying on civic and faith-based organizations rather than government, our roots, reorganizing our time reclaiming what is wonderful about our country, the good things in America, the things we have accomplished, the things we can do. All wonderful things.

But brothers and sisters, none of those things are the gospel.  They may be political and social philosophy, even reflect some Biblical values, but they are not the gospel.  And for Christians, the gospel of Jesus Christ is our only message and our primary means of fostering change.

God’s solution for a messed-up world and messed-up government is individuals being transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, one at a time.  The good news is that wicked sinners can encounter the mercy of a perfect Savior who, by His death on the cross takes their death penalty and deflects the righteous wrath of holy God, and by His resurrection from the dead, gives them His life that shapes godly living now and insures life forever.  “The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Rom. 1:16) It is a reconciling power that restores all things –people, families, institutions, etc.– to God’s perfect design. (Rom. 5:10, 2 Cor. 5:17-20, Col. 1:19-25)

 God’s priority is the display of His glory, which He will not share with any others (Is.42:8) and the advance of His Kingdom alone (look here for more on that)— an agenda which He will not allow to be coopted by any movement or nation. The advance of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom and a conservative political movement in the United States are simply not identical.  There may be overlap on moral principle, but they are not the same and to act as if they are is to cheapen and dilute the gospel itself.

I am really not asking Christians to avoid involvement with Beck and his movement.  There will likely be some good to come from it—and not just in the next election cycle. 

I am simply begging those who claim the name of Christ to know the gospel of Jesus Christ better than you know tax policies, the implications of national health care, immigration laws or the judicial intentions of the founding fathers.  But don’t just know it. Be able to talk about the gospel with more positive passion than your negative emotions about our current administration or positive emotions about our great country.  Be able to communicate Jesus’ gospel with crystal clarity. And above all, live out that gospel in everything, at every moment.

The gospel is our only message, because Jesus is all we have to offer anybody.

 If that truth would grab our hearts and gain flywheel momentum in our communities, we could see a movement that would one day result in a crowd around Jesus’ throne that would dwarf the crowd around the reflecting pool last Saturday. That won’t just be excitement for a day; it will be our forever delight.

5 responses

  1. Excellent!!!

  2. You really got me thinking. I watched the event on Facebook Saturday and it was amazing. I have got to agree with you on this. I hope that we stress turning back to God first then other things will follow. Thanks Ruth

  3. Thanks for this well-thought out response. I have been increasingly alarmed at this movement, but have been chastised and even shunned by Christians for questioning it. You articulated many of my questions and concerns, just in a much more educated way. :) I appreciate you!

  4. Hi David,
    Many very good points and yes, Glenn Becks Mormonism and acceptance of other faiths is perplexing to me. I had the pleasure of seeing him at his Christmas show ” the Christmas Sweater” At the end he explained that the purpose of the manger was empty unless it led us to the atonement. I have studied Mormonism and agree that it is not a Christian faith. Beck acknowledges his Mormon faith but rarely mentions it when speaking on matters of faith. But this is not about Beck. God may have used him as he once did a donkey to speak through, no offense to Beck. The founders followed their faith to the point of risking their lives to effect a “political” change. Many are called to do the same today. So yes, we must never place anything above Christ but we may be called to take a radical stand as the Spirit leads us. Beck and I undoubtedly disagree on matters of theology but I believe he is moving in the right direction. My prayer is that he will soon embrace Christ as the only way to the Father. In the mean time I support his call for the nation to return to God ( I know who God is).
    Grace
    Jack

  5. Jack… I think you’re onto something. It may be that Beck may be being wooed by the Spirit towards the truth that is in Christ. “No one comes to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” The fascination with atonement and other subjects may be a very public way of dealing with what’s inside. there is certainly precedent for a God-fearer ( and influencer) being brought to saving faith in Christ. (Cornelius) How cool would that be!

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