Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Progressive-Conservative leapfrog in the national narrative

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
A few of my peacenik friends on Facebook posted this article from Slate, which I'm thankful for in a sense but also suspicious of.  First, the article:

It's Good To Be King: Don't ridicule Glenn Beck's tribute to MLK. Celebrate it
by William Saletan

I'm thankful for the article because it helps me deal with some of the frustrations I was having with Glenn Beck's rally in D.C. this past weekend. These were small frustrations for me because I was avoiding all media coverage of it like the plague, not wishing to witness the options of either 1) joyful adulation/approval or 2) righteous indignation/fear the media was presenting and hoping to elicit in their loyal customers. This article attempts to cut through those options, which I think it does rather well. The thesis of the article is nicely summed up by the author himself:
This [i.e. Beck's rally] is how conservatives embrace progress. First they resist it. Then they lose to it. Then they assimilate it. They frame it as a fulfillment of longstanding values. They emphasize common threads between reformers and founders. They reinterpret the nation's origins to match the new ethos.
The article does a nice job illustrating how this playing out at the Beck rally, especially in its use of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so helps take a longer sociocultural view of what's going on at this rally, or in the Tea Party movement in general. So read on for why I'm still suspicious...

Where I depart with the author (and Beck...and a LOT of other Americans) is when religion w/r/t civic life and violence enters the discussion. After a fairly charitable assessment of the content of the rally's highly religious public discourse (including but not limited to public prayers), the author starts to signal that perhaps Beck is becoming a bit more religiously tolerant:
Four years ago, Beck, on live TV, told the country's first Muslim congressman: "What I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.' And I know you're not. I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel." On Saturday, however, Beck told his followers: "Our churches, our synagogues, our mosques—we must stand for the things that we know are true. … Go to your synagogues, your churches, your mosques—anyone that is not preaching hate and division, anyone that is not teaching to kill another man."
This sounds great, right? That's progress! It certainly seems to be the author's assumption. What I fear is that both the author and Beck have swallowed the distinctly Western/Modernist/Enlightenment nationalist kool-aid when it comes to the proper place for religious expression (private, individualistic) and the legitimate use of violence (nation-state). The military-industrial complex in this country has no place in the above comments. It goes unchecked and remains legitimate and justified in its use of large-scale violence. Both Beck's rally and this author's thankfully non-alarmist treatment of it could be a case study in William Cavanaugh's book, The Myth of Religious Violence, which I reviewed this past spring.

A post-Christendom, theological, pacifist, and Christian assessment of the whole situation finds much lacking. Too much power goes unquestioned, the potential for destructive physical and social violence (at "home" and abroad) goes unchecked. Religion remains in the hearts and minds of individuals alone and the inherently political nature of the Church as Christ's Body and foretaste of the coming Kingdom remains subject to the temporal nation-state's whim.

While I certainly don't always agree with Jim Wallis or the approaches he sometimes takes, his recent blog entry does a good job identifying how King's legacy is being emptied of its Christian political dimensions: Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Social Justice Christian. Wallis' post stands with my comments here as a counterpoint to a nationalist narrative that (whether liberal or conservative) seeks to situate the Christian faith somehow under itself. The Prince of Peace bows to no temporal lord.

One of my Anabaptist conversation partners, Robb Davis, offers up a much more nuanced look at the phenomena preceding and undergirding things like Beck's rally: 1968, George Wallace and My Dad: How I know that Glenn Beck Populism is not New

(Photo copyright: Slate)

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