Calling Out the Hatemongers

Susan Thistlethwaite discusses the faith activism campaign to challenge hate rhetoric directed at those who champion social justice.

Glenn Beck's national tour this summer culminates with an event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. (AP/Richard Drew)
Glenn Beck's national tour this summer culminates with an event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. (AP/Richard Drew)

Progressive faith activists are on the march this summer, challenging the misperceived monopoly of conservatives who for far too long have tried to establish themselves as the sole guardians of faith, morality, and values. Interfaith groups, Christian groups, and even seminary students and faculty are all involved in this new faith activism, working proactively, not reactively, to present progressive faith values in strong and yet less-divisive ways than the angry hate-filled rhetoric of the extreme far right. From radio ads to blogs and YouTube videos, diverse people of faith are countering the distortions of the extreme right wing while demonstrating the inclusiveness of faith communities united in pursuit of social justice.

Consider this new radio ad created by Faithful America, an online community of more than 100,000 people of faith. In it, listeners are asked:

Would you support a leader who said Jesus’ teachings can lead to Nazism or who attacks Christian pastors for preaching the full Gospel? Then why do so many Christians tune in to Glenn Beck?

This radio ad is playing in markets where Glenn Beck is visiting on his summer national tour “American Revival,” a tour that often includes Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly. The tour culminates with an August 28 event to “restore honor” to be held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which of course was also delivered there. While advertised as “non-political and non-partisan,” the August 28 event is promoted by “FreedomWorks,” a Washington, D.C.-based conservative not-for-profit, and headlines Sarah Palin.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, an African-American pastor, musician, and activist, is dismayed that Beck’s grand finale is not just on the anniversary of Dr. King’s most famous speech but also on the anniversary of the lynching of young Emmett Till in 1955. That’s why Yearwood and other progressives in the faith community are calling for a massive rally the next day, August 29—the day hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast five years ago.

Faithful America is running its ads beginning with a joint Beck-O’Reilly event on July 31 in Westbury, NY and continuing through later stops in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and South Carolina. These ads will run on Christian radio. Even the launch of the radio ads campaign idea seems to be having some effect. Beck has expressed outrage at Faithful America’s planned campaign, complaining about a “Faith initiative playing ads about me, saying I am perverting God.”

The ads are part of Faithful America’s "Driven by Faith, Not by Fear" campaign, an effort to counter the way in which far-right conservatives, both in the Tea Party and in other groups, use fear, lies, and hate to drive wedges between Americans. “Driven by Faith, Not Fear” was a slogan created by a Virginia woman, “Heidi R.,” who responded to a call by Faithful America to submit ideas for the new campaign’s bumper sticker. Her idea was selected from more than 500 submissions, and thousands voted online to select the winning slogan. Faithful America is coordinating this campaign with Faith in Public Life, an interfaith strategy center that seeks to advance “faith in the public square as a positive and unifying force for justice, compassion, and the common good.”

Glenn Beck is a particular focus of progressive faith activism because he has frequently attacked the idea that Christians should be committed to social justice. In March, he urged his listeners to leave their churches if pastors talked about social justice. Beck verbally attacked an evangelical pastor, the Rev. Jim Wallis, several times on his programs, and ridiculed the antipoverty commitments of Sojourners, the Christian organization founded by Wallis.

Ever the faith activist, Wallis challenged Beck to learn more about what social justice really means in a one-on-one discussion. Instead of meeting Wallis head on, Beck instead threatened him, saying “the hammer is coming…and when the hammer comes it is going to be coming hard and all through the night, over and over…”

In response to Beck’s aggressive hate rhetoric, more than 30,000 Christian pastors and laypeople sent emails to Beck about their commitment to faith and social justice. Wallis himself called for a boycott of Beck’s shows given the entertainer’s hateful commentary.

Amy Sullivan, in her Time blog “Swampland,” asks the question “Why does Glenn Beck Hate Jesus,” before pointing out that Beck’s comments managed to outrage a wide range of Christians from progressives to evangelicals, to those in African-American churches, Hispanic churches, and Catholics who have heard about the social teaching in the Bible and in church tradition from numerous papal encyclicals. Sullivan notes that Beck was even subject to some lecturing on faith and social justice for the poor in his own Mormon tradition. Philip Barlow, a professor of Mormon history at Utah State University, told The New York Times that, “One way to read the Book of Mormon is that it’s a vast tract on social justice,” adding, “A lot of Latter-Day Saints would think that Beck was asking them to leave their own church.”

Union Theological Seminary, a progressive graduate school of religion in New York City, is taking a very different tack in confronting Beck about social justice and scripture. Union has launched a campaign to send Bibles to Glenn Beck. Its president, Serene Jones, is excited about this student-led project. In an open letter to Glenn Beck she writes:

I write with exciting news. Bibles are en route to you, even as we speak! Kindly let me explain. On your show, you said that social justice is not in the Bible, anywhere. Oh my, Mr. Beck. At first we were so confused. We couldn’t figure out how you could possibly miss this important theme. And then it hit us: maybe you don’t have a Bible to read. Let me assure you, this is nothing to be ashamed of. Many people live Bible-less lives. But we want to help out. And so, as I write this, our students are collecting Bibles from across the nation, packing them in boxes, and sending them to your offices.

In an accompanying YouTube video, students helpfully diagram progressive faith on a blackboard, and cite social justice texts from the bible.

Indeed, seminary faculty such as myself also are helping to educate Beck on biblical theology. In a Washington Post online piece, I argue that the book of Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament begins with an economic plan that is nothing less than Glenn Beck’s worst nightmare:

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

The early church plainly thought “following Jesus” and “taking care of the poor” were directly connected.

But the issue is bigger than Glenn Beck himself, even though his extremist rhetoric about faith and progressive values must be directly named as a smear campaign against core Christian values. As the 2010 midterm elections near, there is real cause for concern that faith will be increasingly subject to political manipulation to pursue “wedge politics.” That’s why Faithful America and Faith in Public Life plan to take their campaign to promote faith as the opposite of fear mongering in the public square directly to the American people of faith. Together these organizations will coordinate antihate “Visibility Days” using both online and offline action and offering positive and powerful options for people of faith to engage their concerns about values in the upcoming mid-term elections in visible and targeted ways.

These groups are organizing with people of faith in synagogues, mosques, and churches to coordinate faith-based antihate demonstrations around the country. Faithful America will also ask its supporters to photograph themselves with their “Driven by Faith, Not Fear” bumper stickers and email them to their member of Congress. A companion social media campaign will use “Driven by Faith, Not Fear” on Facebook and Twitter as the fall campaign season heats up.

This kind of positive faith activism, countering the extremist rhetoric of the far right, is directed at a broad spectrum of people of faith in America who are becoming alienated by the attacks on core religious values by pundits such as Beck. This kind of extremism, often seen in the Tea Party, though not only there, is deeply disconcerting to many, with some evangelical leaders worried the extreme rhetoric will harm outreach to youth. Rev. Richard Cizik, who broke with the National Association of Evangelicals and founded the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good , made the observation: “The younger Evangelicals who I interact with are largely turned off by the tea party movement—by the incivility, the name-calling, the pathos of politics.”

And the young conservative blogger Meghan McCain also is disappointed by the “racism” evident among some in the Tea Party, arguing this is why “young people are turned off by this movement.”

The new pro-active progressive faith activists will continue their work through the fall, “calling out” extremists who use religion as a wedge issue for political gain. More such work is planned by both Faith in Public Life and Faithful America.

Susan Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite