It seems to me that every time Glenn Beck opens his mouth, what issues forth is a cogent analysis of why what Mark Shea calls “the Thing That Used to Be Conservativism” is a violent enemy of the Gospel. I am sure this is not his intent, but there he is, spouting the sort of secular messianism that defines so much of American political discourse. Speaking at CPAC, the annual meeting that sets the agenda for conservatism — an immensely influential and important gathering — Glenn Beck made the following execrable pronouncement: “America is an idea that sets people free.”
Now, to be charitable, I know what he was trying to say, that America’s position as leader of the free world serves as a symbol and inspiration that makes others aspire to the same political liberties and material prosperity. This is undeniably true, and history has borne witness to it time and again. There’s a reason our immigration rate has historically been so high. There’s a reason it’s something that still causes consternation among nativists. We do attract people from all over the world who want what we have, and that’s a good thing, because it means that despite all the shit we’ve tossed out there, we’re still sort of doing something right. So I am not here to deny any of that.
But he’s still dead wrong, because America doesn’t set anybody free. Perhaps I should let this slide as minor quibbling, but I think it’s a fundamental mistake of a sizable magnitude. It is in fact nothing short of the messianization of the American enterprise, and that’s a dangerous path down which to walk. America is not now, nor has it ever been, the people chosen by God to bring the gospel of material wealth and political freedom unto the nations. We are not the Christ among nations (we would have to be willing to undergo far more sacrificial suffering to even approach warranting that title). We’re certainly not the new Israel (the Church). So how exactly are we setting people free? Or rather, how exactly is the mere idea of America setting people free?
Freedom is a spiritual reality and not a political one. Freedom exists in the heart, first and foremost, and is brought to its fullness in man’s freedom in Christ. Any liberation from a tyrant must first proceed from the heart, and ultimately thence from God. Man is converted and thus freed. He does not look overseas at the Stars and Stripes and there become free. A free man is not the man who has to set himself adrift on a raft to find his liberty, hoping to wash up on Florida’s shore; no, the free man is the one who precisely does not need to do that. His freedom is interior, and not found in civil rights.
Beck elevates, though, America to the position of the shining beacon, proclaiming human freedom above all others. In this, he turns America into the Gospel. The message is America. The goal is America. The preacher is America. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was spelled “America.” There is little room for Christ in such a vision.
Of couse, that’s okay. America is our secular religion, and object of our secular worship. Our spiritual faith, well, that’s incidental to the great project of human liberation. Whatever Christ preached, it’s useful only insofar as it makes people better capable of living in a democracy. It’s not quite irrelevant, but really, the Truly True Truth of America’s Amazing Brilliance is the real message we’re sending out. Be free! Look at us! Be like us, and be free!
This is the violent sin of creedal nationalism. Ours is a country built on exporting its vision as much as its wheat. We’re the heretical evangelists, and not the Twelve.