Glenn Beck, Social Justice, and the Morality of Government Intervention

Only someone living on the moon could have missed the controversy that erupted after Glenn Beck admonished his listeners of his March 2nd show to “look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can.” Evidently, Beck believes these terms are code for communism and Nazism and that religious leaders who use these terms are subliminally persuading congregants to accept an evil ideology. Commentators and bloggers have raged against Beck’s seemingly heartless attack on the poor, his ignorance of Christian theology (the term “social justice” dates back to nineteenth century Catholic thought, has been codified in Papal encyclicals, and is used widely in Protestant and Catholic churches to the present), and his lack of understanding of how Catholic diocese function (Catholics, like Mormons, do not shop for a congregation but are assigned one based on geographic region).

The chief critic of Beck’s views was the progressive theologian Jim Wallis, who called for 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.”  Beck later clarified that he is not against helping the poor; rather he is against churches that use their podiums to promote government programs that would redistribute wealth. He seemed to call for a separation of church and state—at least within churches, not necessarily in the state; or at least in liberal churches where social justice might be taught. Pointing to Jeremiah Wright’s church, Beck stated that, “it’s a problem when your preacher stands up and starts telling you who to vote for, how to vote, and what the government should look like.” I would like to think Beck would feel this same way about a preacher who urged congregants to vote for conservative candidates or advocate a conservative government agenda. But somehow I doubt it.

Regardless, Beck has started a debate about religion and social justice which is long overdue in our nation. Unfortunately, the debate has been clumsy, ugly and, at times, downright silly. The issue that has been lost here is, I believe, the proper role of government in alleviating poverty and its effects. Jim Wallis and most other commentators attacking Beck have noted correctly that religion is all about social justice, but they have missed the obvious debate about how social justice should be brought about. I will concede that when academics and theologians speak of “social justice” and “economic justice” they often are seeking more than simply care for the poor and more generous donations to charitable organizations. They are more often advocating structural changes to our society that might end poverty—better access to health care, stronger educational systems, more effective job training programs, pay equity, etc. Nevertheless, I doubt many of these reformers advocate communism or Nazism as the cure. (The slippery slope fallacy seems to be Beck’s forte.)

What I don’t understand is why conservatives like Beck feel threatened by such reforms. I understand the libertarian position that government should do less. Indeed for Mormons like Beck and me, personal agency is eternal and sacred. Mormon theology postulates a radical individual agency that is eternal, central to God’s purpose, and opposed only by evil forces. For Mormons, free agency is not something to mess with. Nevertheless, most Mormons would see no affront to agency in government taking a strong stand against such moral issues as abortion. In fact, a Pew survey revealed that over 70 percent of Mormons in the U.S. say abortion should be illegal in most, if not all, cases. Conservative though they often are, most Mormons are not pure libertarians who long for government to stay out of economic and moral issues. Rather, they believe that abortion is an evil that government cannot tolerate. They would not see laws that outlawed abortion as forcing people to do good or as taking away free agency. They would expect government to reflect the community values of honoring the sanctity of human life.

I agree. In 2005—the most recent statistics we have on the issue—over 1.2 million abortions took place in the United States, with slightly more than one in five pregnancies ending in abortion. Despite a downward trend over the past 30 years, abortion rates are too high, and, I believe, we must do more to fight this tragedy. Those who want to end abortion need to know, however, that there is a direct link between abortion and poverty; women living below the federal poverty level ($9,570 for a single woman with no children) are more than four times more likely to have an abortion than women above who live at 300% of the poverty level (44 vs. 10 abortions per 1,000 women). What conservatives seem to ignore is that there is any connection between abortion and poverty, and that ending poverty might be one of the best ways to fight abortion.

Many conservatives will argue that abortion is a moral issue. Unfortunately, we all too frequently view morality in very narrow terms, focusing most often on sexuality and excluding broader issues of right and wrong. Historically morality has had to do with right conduct, of living a life of honesty, responsibility, and charity. Theorizing a working system of morality has been a chief concern of theologians and philosophers for millennia; however, a basic principle of most of these theories is an acceptance that we should minimize the harm and suffering of others. The conservative argument about abortion has been that it causes the death of over a million lives each year and therefore the government must intervene. This argument may hide a deeper desire to control sexuality; however, it is, nevertheless, a consistent moral argument for banning abortion.

However, if we define morality in the same way as pro-life advocates situate their argument—as the need to preserve human life—poverty must also be seen as a moral issue. Poverty is, like abortion, a tragedy that kills. For example, studies have shown a direct relationship between poverty and higher rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, mortality from breast cancer, and childhood disease. Lower income families have twice the mortality rate of those in the mid- to high-income levels, and the income-associated burdens of disease appear to be the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States. Despite declines in morbidity and mortality in the U.S. throughout the twentieth century, the same decline for the poor was only modest (if at all). A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health concludes that over 45,000 people die annually due to lack of health insurance. The study determined that “uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts, up from a 25 percent excess death rate found in 1993.” [1] Poverty, even in the United States, kills. In developing nations the deaths from malnutrition and disease are often catastrophic.

Education was intended to be the great equalizer in our nation to prevent generational poverty; however, it has become less and less effective in achieving this end. The gap between poor and middle-class children starts early and increases as they move through the system. Children living in poverty will enter fourth grade two to three grades behind their higher-income peers; only half will graduate from high school; and those that do will perform at only an eighth-grade level. Only one in ten will graduate from college. With these kinds of results, it’s perhaps not surprising that according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development the U.S. now lags behind OECD nations of Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Spain in intergenerational socio-economic mobility, the ease with which citizens move up or down the social ladder. The American Dream is becoming the Northern European and Canadian Dream.

I cannot help but see poverty as a moral issue, one that God has called all his children to address. The Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Qur’an, all call their disciples to care for the needy, clothe the naked, and give aid to the sick and weary. Mormon scripture is no different. As Elder Marion G. Romney once wrote, “A Latter-day Saint should abhor poverty and do all in his power to alleviate it. He should remember the Lord’s statement, ‘it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another’ (D&C 49:20), and that in the Lord’s plan ‘every man’ is to be ‘equal according to his family, according to his circumstances and his wants and needs’ (D&C 51:3).3.”[2] How we achieve this goal is a point to be debated, and scripture is less clear in this area. The question is whether the call to action is personal or public, whether the end goal is best achieved through private contributions and private enterprise or through government-led social changes. But the call to honor the sanctity of life is also one that can be either personal or public; a consistent libertarian view would advocate the same hands-off governmental approach to abortion as to poverty. If we are going to call on government to reflect the moral values of our people, as I believe it should, we need first to define “morality.” And if we are going to fight a systemic problem, like abortion and poverty, perhaps a systemic answer is in order. Such an approach is not a call to socialism, communism, or Nazism. It is a call for a government that mirrors the Kingdom of God on earth.


[1] Wilper, Andrew P, et al. “Health Insurance and Mortality in US Adults.” American Journal of Public Health 99.12 (2009): 2289-95. MEDLINE. Web. 20 Mar. 2010. See also Dowd, Jennifer Beam, Anna Zajacova, and Allison Aiello. “Early Origins of Health Disparities: Burden of Infection, Health, and Socioeconomic Status in U.S. Children.” Social Science & Medicine 68.4 (2009): 699-707. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. Malloy, Michael H., and Karl Eschbach. “Association of Poverty with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in Metropolitan Counties of the United States in the Years 1990 and 2000.” Southern Medical Journal 100.11 (2007): 1107-13. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. Muennig, Peter, et al. “The Income-Associated Burden of Disease in the United States.” Social Science & Medicine 61.9 (2005): 2018-26. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. Steenland, K, S Hu, and J Walker. “All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality by Socioeconomic Status among Employed Persons in 27 US States, 1984-1997.” American Journal of Public Health 94.6 (2004): 1037-42. CINAHL Plus with Full Text. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. Vona-Davis, Linda, and David P. Rose. “The Influence of Socioeconomic Disparities on Breast Cancer Tumor Biology and Prognosis: A Review.” Journal of Women’s Health 18.6 (2009): 883-93. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. Warren, John Robert, and Elaine M. Hernandez. “Did Socioeconomic Inequalities in Morbidity and Mortality Change in the United States over the Course of the Twentieth Century?” Journal of Health & Social Behavior 48.4 (2007): 335-51. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Mar. 2010.

[2] Marion G. Romney, “Gospel Forum,” Ensign (Jan. 1971): 16.

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8 thoughts on “Glenn Beck, Social Justice, and the Morality of Government Intervention

  1. Seems to me you’ve missed the main point in the argument, as you stated: “the proper role of government in alleviating poverty and its effects.” I think everyone can agree that poverty is a bad thing (maybe not immoral, but certainly not healthy for society), which is what your post seems to explain. But what exactly should the government do? How far should it go? “Improving education” is pretty general. “Providing health care” would be more specific, but to what extent?

    And what about all those rumored people in your “good countries” list (I’m thinking of Sweden in particular) who spend their lives living off the dole because it’s easy? At what point does institutionalized care for the poor become institutionalized prevention of failure? The first step in eliminating agency is eliminating the consequences of bad choices. (I’m genuine about wanting to hear your opinion on this question, even if my example is typical non-researched conservative fodder. It’s a question that bothers me greatly in my personal politics.)

  2. Glad to see I’m not the only one with no life on a Saturday night, Liz!

    I agree that this is an important point, but we first have to get over the point of WHETHER the government should be involved before we can have the discussion of how. I think it should and I do think it’s a moral issue. What I grow weary of is that every time we start to have the discussion about how, someone like Beck will come up with a slippery slope argument that taking one step to help people is going to lead to a socialist state. And many people in the U.S. buy it! (E.g., the current health reform bill is so far away from anything like they have in the UK or Canada that it’s laughable, and yet they are screaming “Socialism!” and having experienced first-hand the UK’s system I think it would be great if we could look objectively at that option.)

    I’m no economist, but I found this article interesting and it’s from a source that isn’t known for a strong liberal bias:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-social-welfare-state

    I would also note that the OECD study looked at social mobility, not welfare dependency, but I doubt those upwardly mobile Swedes are moving upward by living off the dole.

    I do agree that we need to preserve the possibility of failure, but what about the innocent victims of people’s failures, their children? What about the people who fail despite their their hard work? Those affected by a string of bad luck or layoffs or recession? And how far are you willing to let people fail? Should one bad decision cost them their life? Three? Four?

    And the assumption that many make that the poor do not work is not at all valid. Right now, for example, it’s the working poor who are lacking health care–those with good jobs have health care from their employers; those without have Medicaid; those elderly have Medicare. The people I see in my neighborhood who suffer are working two or three jobs to get by.

    Anyway, these are good questions and THIS is the kind of discussion I would hope we could have as a nation.

  3. I’m tired of the slippery slope argument that doing X will lead to the US becoming a socialist state for one reason, in particular: That ship sailed long before any of us were even born.

    Why the Glenn Becks of the nation don’t ever acknowledge that, i don’t rightly understand.

  4. Ms. Busby:

    “And what about all those rumored people in your “good countries” list (I’m thinking of Sweden in particular) who spend their lives living off the dole because it’s easy?”

    Well, some people live off the dole in Sweden, and elsewhere, and some do it here. I suspect that nothing we do, one way or the other, is going to change that. Would providing more social welfare programs increase the proportion living in that way? Perhaps at the margins, but I doubt the effect would be significant. And *even if* it were, would it be so great as to outweigh the good accomplished?

    I don’t know–I’m merely speculating on Ms. Busby’s speculations. It’s an interesting question, akin to the notion of “moral hazard” in the law…

    On a more general topic, I think that it’s interesting that Beck may have reignited the Catholic-Mormon war. Catholics have been in the forefront of the “social justice” movement for many years, and Beck appears to be widely viewed as a mouthpiece of the LDS Church. A number of sites I’ve visited in the past few days ask why he hasn’t been censured by Church leaders, and some refer to him as a “Mormon Apostle.” Which in turn for some Catholics (as well as other social justice folks) leads in turn to the question of whether Mormons are even Christians!

    I do my best to repair the damage, but Beck has the bigger microphone.

  5. Hmmm… some people living off the dole or many people starving and homeless… seems like a simple choice. I’m perfectly willing to support a few no-ambition deadbeats (really, social security benefits aren’t the lap of luxury anywhere) in order to not have children living on the streets. Every system has its downsides. Some downsides are worse than others.

    As someone who spends most of his work time dealing with Scandinavians (Finns) and Brits, I can attest to there being no lack of entrepreneurial spirit in those economies and no less fear of failure in one’s professional endeavors. It doesn’t take the threat of ending up on the streets to make people work hard and dream big.

  6. Boyd,

    Right on! I would only add that what makes a government totalitarian is not merely its activity or structure but a very low level of public participation, and this is the one part of the categorical criticism of big government that is missing. What made Hitler totalitarian and what made Soviet communism so insidious were both the disenfranchisement of the public and sometimes the public’s willingness to go along. The criticisms I hear today sound as if democratic processes are not in play in, say, Europe to create social democracies and that therefore we can equate their governments with anything totalitarian. Is it not possible that the majority actually wants socialized medicine, for example? Ideological critiques require no judgment at all. So a just government is not necessarily big or small but one which is shaped by the people and guided by good principles. If the people desire to help others through structural means as well as by private ones, that seems to allow for the possibility that a government program can do a lot of good. While big government can foster passivity and often does, it seems just as likely in my mind that a small government and a libertarian attitude can foster indifference to the public good, since the assumption is always that if left alone, people will choose the best of all possible worlds. I don’t know about you, but I don’t live in that kind of world, nor do we have that kind of theology. Some people do We are not inherently good, nor inherently bad, but as Elder Oaks taught, inherently free, whether or not we live in England or Utah. I see a lot of people making a lot of waste with their freedoms, so it seems we need to work hard to revitalize a commitment to the civic sphere. Indifference is our real enemy.

    Thanks!

    George

  7. I enjoyed reading this and the responses thus far. Mr. Boyd was calm, coherent, and looked at both sides without calling Mr. Beck the outrageous names he’s been called by those who disagree.

    I do agree that the first issue at hand is whether or not the government should get involved and then the how can be addressed. I agree with BHodges that for a conservative like myself it comes down to $$. I believe that God has given us a stewardship even over $$ and what we do with it. I don’t want to relinquish that responsibility to those that seem to be corrupt and inept.

    What I don’t understand is putting this much trust in our government to “mirror the Kingdom of God on Earth.” I just don’t see it happening. We keep giving our government opportunities and they’ve failed. One of those you’ve mentioned is education. The formation of the Department of Education under Pres. Carter was “intended to be the great equalizer” but you’re right, it has failed. Every president since Pres. Carter has expanded the DOE and for what result? It is an ever increasing gap. Government has shown ineptitude in helping those in need in even more recent times (think Hurricane Katrina.) Responses on a personal level are/were much more effective. If we keep giving to an ill-equipped federal government, eventually we will have nothing left to give personally.

    I do have a more optimistic view compared to Mr. Beck because I think destruction is not as imminent as he believes. This is because I think many in our country are realizing that we’re giving away too many of our freedoms and are speaking out to hopefully stop or at least slow down this process–a revitalization of “a commitment to the civic sphere” as George pointed out.

    My last comment regards the actual show referred to. As a regular listener to Mr. Beck (could you tell?) you must understand that it was a culmination of several weeks of education on the progressive movement as a political movement in our country. He researched how it started, the methods, the ideologies, the people . . . and shared his research with his audience. I’m sure you realize that Mr. Beck has a 3-hour radio show 5 days a week, a television show, and numerous speaking engagements. To take one part of one show and expect to understand exactly what he meant is a fallacy–or to hear about what he said from another source other than himself is also a mistake. I will have to disagree with you (vehemently, in fact) that he would accept a preacher advocating a conservative agenda or candidate. He has stated numerous times his religion preaches Christ and nothing else and that’s what a Christian religion should do. Even though we disagree on that, I do thank you for a thought-provoking discussion.

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