Glenn Beck and Protestantism

I taught the Protestant Reformation today in my United States survey course. I regularly devote a lecture to the Protestant Reformation and its influence on the settlement of New England. The more I deliver this lecture the more I am struck by the individualist nature of Protestantism as opposed to the more “collective” nature of salvation as understood by Roman Catholics.

Today as I prepared for this lecture I thought about how Glenn Beck seems to equate the individualism of Protestantism with true Christianity. I then ran across Peter Montgomery’s essay on Beck’s view of salvation and it confirmed a lot of what I had been thinking. In many respects, Beck’s entire God and country message assumes that the United States is a Protestant country.

Montgomery describes how Beck and his new friend David Barton are obsessed with individual salvation. Here is a taste:

In the Tea Party era, ‘collective’ is a four-letter word. Beck and Barton don’t even like the terms “human rights” or “social justice” because they see them as collectivist. In a televised conversation in April, Barton dismissed social justice, saying “That’s collective rights. Jesus was not into collective rights. He didn’t die for world in large. He died for every single individual.” Beck is spending so much time on collective salvation because he wants people to believe it is behind all the nefarious things he wants them to fear:

Get into your church and demand, demand that your minister, your priest, your rabbi, your pastor talk about individual rights. If they don’t know them, tell them to pick up George Whitefield. Tell them to pick up the sermons. They are available online. They are available in bookstores everywhere. The sermons that led to the American Revolution, on individual rights.

First off, the idea that Whitefield’s sermons triggered the American Revolution is a point that is still up for debate among historians. But how do Christians who take seriously passages such as Acts 2 fit into Beck’s vision for America? Is there a doctrine of the “Church” in Beck’s belief system? What about Catholicism?

The tension between individualism and community (or the “collective”) has always been at the heart of American history and American religious history. Montogmery writes:

I’m not going to evaluate Beck’s interpretation of liberation theology here. (For a thoughtful response to Beck’s interpretation of liberation theology, see RD’s
interview with scholar Serene Jones by Elijah Prewitt-Davis.) But it is clear that Beck is dismissing the faith of millions when he creates a simplistic label—‘individual’ or ‘collective’—and declares the latter to be un-Christian. For many Christians, says J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee, it’s a both/and, an individual decision nurtured by a church community. Max Carter, a Friends minister (and, like Walker, a commenter on a recent Washington Post On Faith question about whether Obama’s faith matters), says this:

I hesitate to criticize Beck’s faith, but his belief that Christianity is about “individual salvation” is actually counter to the faith of millions of Christians who see the church as the “ark of salvation” and that “personal salvation” is itself a perversion of the Christianity of Acts 2 and the earliest years of Christianity. Ask any Amish person.

One thought on “Glenn Beck and Protestantism

  1. Thanks for the post, John. Odder still is that Beck's Mormonism has, as I'm sure you know, a well-documented communal past. In addition to the LDS Church's 19th century communitarian practices and its insistence that temporal and spiritual salvation are inextricably linked, Mormon scripture dictates that salvation is indeed a collective affair on a number of levels. Latter-day Saints are taught that they cannot be saved and exalted except as husband and wife. Furthermore, the impetus behind Mormon temple work is the belief that those who have died without hearing the Mormon gospel cannot be saved except by the vicarious ordinances performed by the living and that the living cannot be saved unless they participate in that work (http://scriptures.lds.org/en/dc/128/15#15)

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