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Glenn Beck's liberation theology obsession

The Fox News personality is strangely bent on linking the president -- and race -- to liberation theology, evidence to the contrary be damned.

September 01, 2010|Tim Rutten

At least Glenn Beck isn't among the nearly one in five Americans who believe President Obama is a Muslim. Nor, as far as he's yet admitted, is he among the majority of Republicans who actually told Newsweek's pollsters that they believe the president hopes to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, on America.

No, Beck — who appears to be campaigning for prelate of an amorphous new civil religion — believes that Obama schemes to impose collectivism because he is an adherent of liberation theology. (We'll leave it for another time to wonder whether these bizarre challenges to the president's fundamental legitimacy — suspicions about his citizenship, his education, his religious beliefs — are purely coincidental with the fact that he is the first African American to occupy the Oval Office.)

On Sunday, the Fox News personality, fresh from the successful promotional rally for his chat shows and business enterprises staged on the National Mall the day before, told his colleague Chris Wallace that he regrets calling the president a "racist," because he now realizes that Obama "understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor-and-victim. People aren't recognizing his version of Christianity.... It's all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation.... It's a perversion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it."

It's an odd enough allegation on its own — mainly because there's no evidence that the president is an advocate of liberation theology — but there's little doubt about what Beck believes it implies. In a broadcast last month, he linked the movement to the Black Panthers — again without evidence — and charged that they "and anyone who subscribes to liberation theology are perverting the message of Christianity, and it goes straight to evil." Liberation theology, he said, "leads to genocide."

Beck may no longer believe the chief executive is a racist, but he is strangely bent on linking race and liberation theology: first the Panthers, then the president, and, in another broadcast last month, the weird allegation that the distinguished African Methodist Episcopal theologian James Cone is "one of the founding fathers of liberation theology."

Like the philosopher-theologian Cornel West, Cone is one of the African American scholars who have applied principles borrowed from liberation theology to their reflections on the condition of black America. He certainly is not among its founders.

Beck has made a lucrative specialty of peddling fantasies about the Founding Fathers and the history of the Revolutionary and constitutional eras. However, there's something particularly distasteful, even sinister, about misrepresenting the content of religious beliefs — or to attributing a variety of belief to someone who does not hold it.

Liberation theology is a movement that took shape in the late 1950s and '60s among Latin American Catholic thinkers, foremost among them the Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutierrez, who coined the term. The other "founders" were the Uruguayan Jesuit Juan Luis Segundo; the Spanish Jesuit Jon Sobrino, who has spent most of his career in El Salvador; and the Brazilian Franciscan Leonardo Boff. (These are hardly shadowy figures; Gutierrez, for example, is the O'Hara Professor of Theology at Notre Dame.)

Their common position was that social injustice is a form of violence arising from sin. They urged the poor — and those acting in solidarity with them — to reflect on Scripture from the perspective of the poor. To that end, some argued that certain facets of Marxist analysis, particularly those having to do with social class, could be helpful. None of this is particularly mysterious, nor does it have anything to do with Obama. In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone touched by liberation theology proposing anything like his Wall Street bailout.

Beck also has alleged that Pope Benedict XVI condemned liberation theology as "demonic." That's another fantasy. As the cardinal in charge of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he acted in 1984 and 1986 to condemn "certain forms" of liberation theology for elevating practice above orthodoxy and for promoting a notion of struggle against hierarchy that could be extended to the Roman Catholic Church itself. As pontiff, his writings on social justice don't differ substantially from those of most liberation theologians.

His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, counseled Latin American bishops that any moral concept of private property "must lead to a more just and equitable distribution of goods."

Perhaps Beck should go back to peddling misinformation about the Founding Fathers, who have been dead too long to complain.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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