Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Is Beck off the Rails?

Media studies have reported that Glenn Beck’s Fox News program has had a 30 percent drop in ratings. And even though Beck will be a light across the sky for some time to come, there has to be a reason why his ratings have dropped.

I think it is about his stand on religion. A large number of his viewers are Tea Partiers; many of whom don’t think religion is a Tea Party issue. Certainly, many Tea Party people love watching Beck when he takes on big spenders. Yet, for many, it makes no sense when he routinely ends his shows by saying that the only solution to our problems is “God.”

Why do religious conservatives have an incessant need to bring up religion and God on almost every issue? Is God the conservative’s idea of a fundamental principle that everyone accepts? Are conservatives saying that they refuse to engage in secular political debate? Are they saying that the Founding documents are proof that God exists? Are they saying that their best argument is "divine intervention" and the centuries-old Ten Commandments?

Beck says that God is the basis of our society. To support this view, he trots out religious historians to provide arguments on his show. Since when did the truth in our history come only from historians who think that God has intervened in the founding of our nation? When did it become popular to ignore the influences of Locke, Bacon, Newton and other thinkers who brought us some of our most advanced “secular” ideas? (See my blog post, "The Forgotten "ism")

A case in point is Beck’s recent profile of George Whitefield, a pre-revolutionary religious teacher who developed the speaking style that is still common among Evangelical preachers today. During this show, he elevated the preacher to the status of Founding Father because he was well-known in the colonies and presumably supported the revolution. Whitefield was educated in Oxford, England which at the time was the seat of the Enlightenment, where John Locke and other prominent thinkers also got their educations. Enlightenment ideas were in the air, so to speak, while Whitefield was at Oxford. If he did not grasp the world-shattering “this-worldly” ideas of the Founding Fathers at Oxford, he certainly learned the skill of communication there.

Whitefield visited the colonies often and, as Beck mentions, he was one of the most famous men on both sides of the Atlantic. His preaching, the precursor of outdoor Evangelical revivals of the 19th and 20th Centuries was full of the eloquence and fire possible to a man who knew the use of words, scripture and especially had an understanding of “rendering unto Caesar” in a time when Caesar was the King of England.

One fact that Beck did not mention is that Whitefield actively fought for the re-legalization of slavery in Georgia. At a time when slavery had been banned there, Whitefield was one of the most vocal advocates for slavery. Of course, some of our nation’s Founders had slaves, yet many of them still abhorred the idea. Whitefield had no such view. After slavery became legal in Georgia again, Whitefield purchased several slaves to help him build his orphanage and raise money for charity.

Yet, Beck often quotes Jefferson, "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."(1) He even tells us to apply that maxim to everything that he says on his show.

Beck sees our society as a gift from God, divinely constituted and ordained to follow God's nature. Believe it or not, this view is eerily similar to that of Jefferson who was a Deist. The only difference between Beck and Jefferson is that, like most Deists, Jefferson did not believe that God intervenes in our world. On the other hand, Beck believes our society was created by God's direct intervention through Moses, Jesus and the Founding Fathers.

That God also ordained the myriad churches and religious societies through out history that were not based on individual rights, many of which were murderous, warlike, corrupt and exploitive is somehow lost on Beck. How is it that God got it wrong for so many centuries and countenanced brutality and persecution? I am assuming Beck thinks these societies were somehow not based on God and that God always had our society in mind. He also seems to ignore the fact that the only difference between these past cultures and our own is that ours, uniquely, was inspired by the Enlightenment, not by the Church of England.

Beck's argument, unfortunately, sidesteps reason and falls under the philosophical realm known as mysticism; and it leads him to rationalize the mysticism of many of the Founders as foundational of society. Yet this view does not reflect the fact that many of the Founders saw the establishment of a religion by government as dangerous for our freedoms. Like Jefferson, they saw the imposition of a set of religious ideas, not uniformly agreed upon, as potentially despotic and they had seen such dangers play out in the real world through the Church of England. Jefferson: "Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity."(2) The point is that no religion should be established as the state religion because of the danger to our freedoms posed by an effort to establish uniformity of thought. Man cannot be forced to think like his brothers.

The fight to restore our freedoms today is not about freedom of religion. If you believe it is, you should join the Republican Party…but I doubt you would get much support from people who are more concerned about today’s massive interventions of government. I suspect that the point for conservatives like Beck is not that we must fight for God in order to save our society; I think Beck's is more a visceral, emotional insistence on religion that is rooted in past sorrows; and although this is sad, and his rising from the ashes is inspirational, emotions can only help us learn what is going on inside of us, not what is going on in the world, and especially how we should build our society.

There was no miracle of divine intervention in the founding of our country. There was instead some serious and well-thought-out philosophical work, based in logic and experience. Our Founders were thinkers of the highest order and practical men of action; they were people out of time and space who realized, through the singularity of a single thought (that all men are created equal) that in their time they could strike a deadly blow to tyranny; they bravely embraced their opportunity, rather than letting it get away, to make the world beautiful. Unlike so many leaders of the past, they embraced "the pursuit of happiness" not God's utopia.

This singular group of men included the most profound thinkers in the history of humanity and they created a society that made possible free cooperation among men (rather than conflict and plunder); they liberated their minds and bodies to achieve heights never before imagined. Just ask yourself if a free society like ours would have been possible without the influence on these men of the Enlightenment. Let’s give the Founders credit for their accomplishment as men of intellect. With no disrespect intended, why give God the credit when this singular group of men, at this fortuitous turn in history, created the “perfect” nation. We owe them more than our respect; we owe them our very existence, our sacred honor, our love and our highest appreciation. To leave the credit with God makes it more difficult for us to understand the roots in reality of the idea that man should be free.

Like Jefferson, the Founders sought, not a utopian society but a "rational" society. They wanted to live where they deemed, establish the comforts or hardships they chose, think what they wanted and to raise their children in the best possible way. Again Jefferson, in a letter to his good friend Madison: "Monroe is buying land almost adjoining me. Short will do the same. What would I not give you could fall into the circle? With such a society I could once more venture home and lay myself up for the residue of life, quitting all its contentions which grow daily more and more insupportable. Think of it. To render it practicable only requires you to think it so. Life is of no value but as it brings us gratifications. Among the most valuable of these is rational society. It informs the mind, sweetens the temper, cheers our spirits, and promotes health..."(3)

Certainly, many of the Founders were religious men. And some of them, especially Jefferson, were Deists who thought God had little direct influence in the affairs of men; that He had gotten the world started and left the rest to our free will. As a Deist, Jefferson would have appealed to reason, to science, to reality and this attitude is clearly shown in his writings.

He sometimes bemoaned injustice and expressed hope that people would learn from their own experiences that reason taught a different lesson. For Jefferson, God was just, but his justice was sleeping; man had the task of understanding the gifts that God had given and it would be the actions of men that would determine the future. On the issue of slavery, he wrote, "...can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever..." For Jefferson, slavery was such an evil idea that he trembled at its potential for awakening God from his slumber. He was not saying that God would awaken; he was using a rhetorical device to say that slavery was very bad.

For Jefferson, it is man that brought about the abomination of slavery and he hoped that God would not awaken to inflict his punishment. This is Deism; a view that man walked a fine moral line while God slept, and that it was man's role to learn for himself. Jefferson continues: "...that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."(5)

To men like Jefferson, it was about exposing every idea to the light of reason, even slavery and the idea that God existed. What mattered most to him was how men used their minds. Certainly, among the Founders, many of them, were Christians; but what is unique about them is that they were so principled, so influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, that they were willing to put their own beliefs on the line and allow the truth to will out…regardless of what that truth would be. Men like Jefferson knew that accepted ideas would change over time; that men would continue to question and test reality; that even the idea of God as it stood in his time would be questioned, that free men could eventually span the universe and learn ideas that men during his time could barely fathom – and he wanted that bright future of questioning everything. He must have felt deeply proud to have been a man ushering in a bright new age of intellectual freedom. To Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers human progress was about making advances in human thought, not resting on the stagnant ideas of the past. No conservative was Jefferson.

The constant insistence on religion by conservatives like Beck is quite frankly, scary. We’ve got to restore all of our Constitutional liberties, not just our right to think as we desire. And we must respect the rights of all human beings, even those with whom we don’t agree.

To Mr. Beck, I’d like to say, “I find you to be a highly admirable individual and I am impressed by your ability to communicate complex ideas. You are truly an indispensable person during these times. I shudder to think of the pressures you are under from so many fronts. But the truth that you seek is that of Jefferson.

It is the Founders' insistence on the right to the pursuit of happiness that makes America different and exceptional. The evil of our time is in the sacrificing of the best among us. After fighting this sacrificing and regaining our freedom, how can we then say that we have liberated men so they can sacrifice voluntarily? Is that really a choice to build a nation upon? Would it not be better to say that we have liberated men to pursue their highest joys and to live without guilt?

Sacrifice is not what the Founders sought in their pursuit of liberty. As Jefferson's example shows, they sought a "rational society" rich in freedom and enjoyment and intellectual stimulation.

We should champion man’s capacity for pleasure and happiness, for reason and clarity, not his capacity to suffer and give up. We should look to his inquisitiveness and his desire for exploration, not to an imperative to duty. Only then can a person find peace and happiness.”

(1)Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787
(2)Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782
(3)Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1784
(4)Alf J. Mapp, Thomas Jefferson, a Case of Mistaken Identity
(5)Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782

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