Individualism and the Tea Party Movement

While I was riding my exercise bike on Sunday morning I watched Chris Wallace interview Glenn Beck on Fox News.

I thought Wallace did a good job of getting Beck to admit the fundamental differences between Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement and Glenn Beck’s “reclaimed” Civil Rights movement. Despite the fact that the interview was conducted on Fox, I thought Wallace asked the right questions.

What particularly struck me about the interview was Beck’s strong defense of Protestant individualism. At one point in the Wallace interview Beck said:

I would love to have an open conversation (with Barack Obama) about collective salvation…most Christians would look at collective salvation, which is my salvation, my redemption, is incumbent (sic) upon what the collective does, so I can’t be saved unless the collective is saved. Well that is a direct opposite of the what the gospel talks about. Jesus came for personal salvation. It’s why people say ‘you just accept Jesus and your saved.’ That’s not what my church teaches…you need to change your heart as well. OK, that’s what I happen to believe. What does the president believe?…In four different speeches he has told, mainly students, that your salvation is directly tied to the collective salvation. That’s not something that most Christian recognize. I’m not demonizing it–I disagree with it…

Beck is just the latest American public figure to fuse Protestant individualism and the individualism that stems from American libertarianism. The equating of Protestantism and political liberty has been around for a long time in this country, as several historians, from Mark Noll to Nathan Hatch, have shown us.

Over at Religion Dispatches, Alex McNeill reflects a bit more on Beck’s individualism. McNeill spent the day on Saturday talking to people at Beck’s rally. On average he found them to be sensible, friendly, and polite. If there was unifying principle that brought them all together it was this emphasis on individualism.

McNeill writes:

Individualism is beneficial for leaders to peg success or failure of a movement on each person’s virtue rather than the power of the collective to effect change. Individualism is focused on personal attainment, personal happiness, and personal livelihood, and fails to see how each relies on a system that empowers, privileges, or dispossess either the individual or others in the process. As I discovered at the rally, to shift the conversation from “I” to “we” in speaking of a collective liberation was quickly flagged as anti-American and dismissed.

Since when did “we the people” become synonymous with Socialism? How can we convince people that “loving their neighbor” means more than just praying for them, that it means supporting a system that raises each of us up through access to education, health care, jobs, and a livable life? How can we encourage people to stop thinking of themselves as living in subdivisions and start living in neighborhoods? How can we shift from the Jesus of the comfortable to the “sell all your possessions” Jesus?

I don’t think we change the nature of the conversation by berating those with whom we disagree, further sowing the seeds of resentment and faction. We change the nature of the conversation by connecting our own work to the values or faith by which it is motivated. The Christianity I practice requires that I love my neighbor even when it isn’t easy, that I work for “the least of these” even when I want to quit, that I give my two coins even if they are the last two I have, and that Jesus died not only for my sins but also those of the tax collector, the Samaritan woman, and the Pharisee.

I cannot, in good conscience, profess to be a Christian and not see the world as composed of a “we” rather than just “me.” It is also, because I am a Christian that I cannot dismiss the Tea Party outright as I hear their cry of suffering. Many people at the rally spoke to me about losing their jobs, nearly losing their homes, and losing their spirit. That suffering is real, despite whatever else may be said. The Tea Party offered hope, if nothing else, and a direction for anger at individuals rather than towards a system of disempowerment. All I know is, as I surveyed the crowd, I couldn’t help but think about what could happen if all these people suddenly transformed their anger into a movement bent not on equality, but justice.

2 thoughts on “Individualism and the Tea Party Movement

  1. No problem, Tom. I enjoy your comments. If I don't get a chance to comment in depth please don't take that as a sign that I am not reading. Life is crazy at the start of the semester!


  2. Beck in context, below.

    He's on a junky riff, reading Obama theologically instead of politically. But the President is on a junky riff, too, using the word “salvation” for his collectivist—let's say “communitarian”—politics, and uncautious because of his link to Rev. Wright and therefore to James Hal Cone, he of “black liberation theology.”

    Basically, junk, if viewed charitably. Disconcerting if one doesn't accept that the president was actually ignoring Rev. Wright all those years in his church, which is pretty much the president's story. [Charitibly, I have always pictured Barack Obama sitting there all those Sundays with an earphone, listening to the Bears game.]

    John, I hope you don't mind me planting these bits of context and commenting, but I'm here anyway, reading your blog, studying you. 😉


    PRESIDENT OBAMA: And recognizing that my fate remain tied up with their fates, that my individual salvation is not going to come about without a collective salvation for the country.

    GLENN: Understand what that means, that the sacrifice, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ doesn't do it. It's a collective salvation. We played Cone, the guy who started or really is —

    PAT: He is the founder of black liberation.

    GLENN: Is he the founder? That talks about liberation theology, that it's not enough, that white people cannot be Christian without giving up their power and all of their money, giving back that which they stole, and quoting him, and white people have stolen a lot from black people. So if you believe in collective salvation, God is telling you that you must take wealth away from people to be able to save people. You can have the purest intent, but it is wrapped in evil.

    You want to talk about Marxism? We can talk about Marxism because that is the power of man. We're now talking about the power of God and it has been cloaked. Don't take my word for it. I've talked to pastors about it. I've talked to the — I've talked to — we have the pope, the pope, Pope Benedict said this is demonic, but I've talked to pastors and priests and rabbis, and there is a split but it's pretty healthy, on the side that I'm telling you about.

    Let me go to Reverend…, etc. etc.”


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