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.
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.