NYT: All of Christendom condemns Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck's comments about social justice last week made the blog rounds earlier this week, and the reaction has been somewhat predictable. Some ignore it; some eat it up; others are ready to condemn it. Here's what started it all:

I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! ...

If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, "Excuse me are you down with this whole social justice thing?" If it's my church, I'm alerting the church authorities: "Excuse me, what's this social justice thing?" And if they say, "yeah, we're all in that social justice thing"--I'm in the wrong place.

Later on his TV show (left), Beck held up cards, one with a hammer and sickle and other with a swastika, and on each banner, he said, read the words 'social justice.'

The New York Times article "Outraged by Glenn Beck's Salvo, Christians Fire Back" makes the sweeping generalization that Christians are firing back at Glenn Beck when in reality (drumroll please) Jim Wallis is calling for a boycott. I can't help but wonder if we'd ever see a headline like "Christian Leader Calls for Rachel Maddow Boycott." I doubt it, but then again, a story like that wouldn't be that shocking. Likewise, this article's angle is predictable and falls flat. Take a look:

This week the remarks prompted outrage from several Christian bloggers. The Rev. Jim Wallis, who leads the liberal Christian antipoverty group Sojourners, in Washington, called on Christians to leave Glenn Beck.

"What he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show," Mr. Wallis wrote on his blog, God's Politics. "His show should now be in the same category as Howard Stern."

Reporter Laurie Goodstein mentions "several Christian bloggers" but only mentions Wallis in her story. Is it still shocking that people are "outraged" and denouncing other people in blogs (can't anyone set one up on a whim)? Jim Wallis is noteworthy and he probably reflects how a lot of Christians feel about Beck's comments. But social justice is what Jim Wallis is about, how he makes his living. It would've been more compelling to me if the reporter had also found someone less likely to come out against Beck. Tobin Grant writes at Christianity Today about conservative Christians who are comfortable with the term.

Beck's comments came on the heels of a new six-part video small-group study, "Seek Social Justice," put out by the Heritage Foundation, a flagship conservative organization. The video series features Chuck Colson of BreakPoint, Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Sean Litton of the International Justice Mission, and other evangelical leaders speaking on the meaning and importance of social justice.

There's a group of people worth asking about Beck's comments. Here's more from the Times:

In attacking churches that espouse social justice, Mr. Beck is taking on most mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, black and Hispanic congregations in the country--not to mention plenty of evangelical churches and even his own, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I'm not sure why she writes that most Protestant, Roman Catholic, black and Hispanic congregations espouse social justice while just "plenty" of evangelical churches espouse it. Of course, since there's no cohesive leadership in evangelicalism like there is in Catholicism, for instance, there won't be a general consensus on the term "social justice." By separating evangelicals from the rest, she at least acknowledges that not everybody prefers the term "social justice," but she never informs readers why some might hesitate to use the phrase.

The Times article gives a little bit of helpful background, but I would've liked to see a bit more on how the term has evolved over the years. Perhaps the story could have included someone's definition of social justice. It seems like Beck assumes it means redistribution through government but Christians might assume a different application of the term.

Religion scholars say the term "social justice" was probably coined in the 1800s, codified in encyclicals by successive popes and adopted widely by Protestant churches in the 1900s. The concept is that Christians should not merely give to the poor, but also work to correct unjust conditions that keep people poor. Many Christians consider it a recurring theme in Scripture.

Mr. Beck himself is a convert to Mormonism, a faith that identifies itself as part of the Christian family, but is nevertheless rejected by many Christians.

The reporter should explain the end of that sentence suggesting Mormonism is "rejected by many Christians." Remember when Focus on the Family pulled an interview over Beck's faith? I would be curious to see if the same listeners will take their cues on church membership from Beck.

The story ends with a quote from a Mormon professor who suggests that Mormonism is all about social justice. That's good perspective, but no one disagrees in the Mormon world?

It appears the reporter has made no effort to contact Beck for a response to the outrage he's caused. I suppose you could argue he had his initial chance, but Sojourners wrote that Beck responded to Wallis yesterday morning (and we've already established that Goodstein reads the Sojourners blog).

Goodstein also wrote a post for the Caucus Blog, the Times's politics blog. I realize that blogs are often based on work that's already out there so I hesitate to critique them too carefully, but it reads like the longer version of the story that ended up in print. In addition to Wallis, Goodstein uses quotes from the Rev. James Martin at the Huffington Post and Joe Carter at First Things. This is all fine and good for a blog post, but I would expect a reporter to make a few more phone calls for a more solid story if she thinks outrage has been truly been prompted. I don't think it would have been difficult to get reaction from evangelicals -- black and white -- who use the term social justice who may not agree with either Wallis or Beck.

I'm not sure why the Times deemed Glenn Beck's ability to outrage people "news that's fit to print," but it had a potential hook, I suppose. The story could have delved into a larger question of whether groups choose to use the term "social justice" or not, what kinds of connotations it brings and what concerns they might have. The story could have also explored how, say, Catholics and evangelicals might agree on the idea of social justice but may disagree on how to pursue it.

I raise these issues because Goodstein is a respected reporter whom many religion writers emulate, and one whom we often praise. When she writes an article, people pay attention because she often writes well-reported, thoughtful pieces that raises many ideas and issues. More power to religion reporters writing on provocative issues, but I'll be looking for deeper angles next time around.

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