Glenn Beck and Liberation Theology

On Sunday, after his colossal “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, D.C., Glenn Beck took aim at one of his favorite targets, Barack Obama, but in a novel way.  Beck regrets saying a few months ago that President Obama was a “racist.”  What he should have said instead, he now realizes, was that he didn’t agree with Obama’s “theology.”  And what is Obama’s theology, according to Beck?  Liberation theology, of all things. 

Here’s Beck’s definition:


I think that it is much more of a theological question that he is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor and victim….That is a direct opposite of what the gospel is talking about…It's Marxism disguised as religion

As Ronald Reagan used to say, “There you go again.”  A few months ago, Beck decided that he would demolish the idea of “social justice,” by telling Christians if their priests, pastors or ministers use that buzz word on Sundays they should leave their churches.  As he may or may not have known, the tenets of “social justice” encourage one not only to help the poor but address the conditions that keep them poor.  He called that “communist.” 

That approach didn’t work all that well for Beck since so many Christian denominations, particularly the Catholic Church, espouse social justice explicitly.  But liberation theology?  Really? 

A little history: Liberation theology began in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, and was later was developed more systematically by Catholic theologians who began to reflect on experiences of the poor there.  The term was coined by the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest, in his landmark book A Theology of Liberation, published in 1971.  Briefly put, liberation theology (and there are many definitions, by the way) is a Gospel-based critique of the status quo through the eyes of the poor.  Contrary to what Beck implies, the liberation theologian doesn’t see himself or herself as victim; rather proponents call us to see how the poor are marginalized by society, work among them, advocate on their behalf, and help them advocate for themselves.  It has nothing to do with seeing yourself as victim.  It is, like all authentic Christian practices, “other-directed.” 

Perhaps more importantly (at least in my reading), it sees the figure of Jesus Christ as the “liberator,” who frees people from bondage and slavery of all kinds.  So, as he does in the Gospels, Christ not only frees us from sin and illness, Christ also desires to free our fellow human beings from the social structures that keep them impoverished.  This is this kind of “liberation” being espoused.  Liberation theologians meditate deeply on Gospel stories that show Christ upending the social structures of the day, in order to bring more—uh oh—social justice into the world.  We are also asked to make, as the saying a “preferential option for the poor.” 

It’s not hard to see what Beck has against “liberation theology.”  It’s one of the same reasons some people are opposed to “social justice.”  Both ideas ask us to consider the plight of the poor.  And that's disturbing.  Some liberation theologians even consider the poor to be privileged carriers of God’s grace.  In The True Church and the Poor, Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit theologian, wrote, “The poor are accepted as constituting the primary recipients of the Good News and, therefore, as having an inherent capacity of understanding it better than anyone else."  That’s pretty threatening for any comfortable Christian.  For not only do we have to help the poor, not only do we have to advocate on their behalf, we also have to see them as perhaps understanding God better than we do.  

But that’s not a new idea: It goes back to Jesus.  The poor, the sick, the outcast simply "got" him better than the wealthy did.  Perhaps because there was less between God and the poor.  Maybe that’s why Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, “If you wish to be perfect, sell all you have, and you will have treasure in heaven, and follow me.”  Like I said, pretty disturbing, then and now.

In its heyday, liberation theology was not without controversy: some in the church, and some in the Vatican, thought it skirted too close to Marxism--including Pope John Paul II.  On the other hand, John Paul didn’t shy away from personally involving himself in direct political activism in Poland.  It was the Latin American version of social action that seemed to bother him more.  But even John Paul affirmed the notion of “preferential option for the poor,” as did Paul VI before him.  “When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration,” John Paul wrote in his great encyclical Centesimus Annus, which celebrated 100 years of—uh oh--Catholic Social Teaching.

“Liberation theology” is easy to be against.  For one thing, most people don’t have the foggiest idea what you’re talking about.  (It even sounds vaguely suspicious, too.)  It’s also easier to ignore the concerns of the poor, particularly overseas, than it is to actually get to know them as individuals who make a moral claim on us.  For another, there are lots of overheated websites that facilely link it to Marxism.  My response to that last critique is to read the Gospels and count how many times Jesus tells us with should help the poor and even be poor.  In the Gospel of Matthew, in fact, Jesus tells us that the ones who are to enter the Kingdom of heaven are those who help “the least of my brothers and sisters,” i.e., the poor.   After that, read the Acts of the Apostles, and read about the apostles “sharing everything in common.”  Then let me know if helping the poor is communist or simply Christian.

I have no idea if President Obama subscribes to liberation theology.  But I do.  And for me, it’s somewhat personal.  Between 1992 and 1994, I worked with East African refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, and participated in Catholic parishes who tried to help poor parishioners (i.e., all the parishioners) reflect on their own struggles through lens of the Gospel.  And those Gospel passages that spoke of liberation for the poor were a lifeline to me and to those with whom I worked.  Oh, and it’s not only Jesus.  His mother had something to say about all that, too.  “He has filled the hungry with good things,” says Mary in the Gospel of Luke, “and sent the rich away empty.”  And more: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly." 

Liberation theology has also animated some of the great Christian witnesses of our age. Several of my brother Jesuits (and their companions), some of whom wrote and taught liberation theology, were assassinated at the University of Central America in 1989, by elements of the Salvadoran military--precisely for their work with the poor, all as Christ had encouraged them to do.  Archbishop Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was martyred in 1980, also heard the call of Christ the Liberator.  So did the four courageous Catholic churchwomen who were martyred that same year in El Salvador. 

These are my heroes.  These are the ones who “restore honor.”

It’s hard to ignore the fact that Jesus chose to be born poor; he worked as what many scholars now say was not simply a carpenter, but what might be called a day laborer; he spent his days and nights with the poor; he and his disciples lived with few if any possessions; he advocated tirelessly for the poor in a time when poverty was widely considered to be a curse; he placed the poor in many of his parables as over and above the rich; and he died an utterly poor man with only a single seamless garment to his name.  Jesus lived and died as a poor man.  Why is this so hard for modern-day Christians to see?  Liberation theology is not Marxism disguised as religion.  It is Christianity presented in all its disturbing fullness.

Glenn Beck’s opposition to “social justice” and “liberation theology” is all the more difficult to understand because of his cloaking of himself in the mantle of believer.  “Look to God and make your choice,” he said on Sunday. 

If he looked at Jesus more carefully he would see someone who already made a choice: for the poor.

James Martin, SJ


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9 years 9 months ago

This topic has nothing to do with religion.  When people use the term ''social justice'' think politics not religion.  When people use the term ''liberation theology'', think politics not religion.   People are using their own personal politics to hijack religion for their  political objectives.  So to talk about heresy is meaningless in this  discussion.

If you have the time, watch the four videos of the Beck show on this.  It is all about politics, and power politics more than just an occasion.

The use of religion on this site  to promote one's personal politics is rampant.  So consider it in this context.
9 years 9 months ago
There are places which shows Obama embracing Jerimiah Wright and plenty of places where Wright embraces Black Liberation Theology.  And there are clips on Beck's show which show Obama  talking about salvation.  I suggest everyone watch the Beck show on this.  At least everyone will be on the same page
9 years 9 months ago
Jeff Landry, Tom Maher,

I believe the ''Clarke'' above is Kevin Clarke from this site.
9 years 9 months ago
Mr. Clarke,

Socialism, whatever form it has taken has always failed except once and in that case the people abandoned it after one generation.  Even if it didn't fail, it is a poisonous philosophy that stifles incentive because incentives would cause someone to arise above others.  Socialism cannot handle incentive because it cannot be shared equally.  It is socialism's basic flaw even if it coudl work.

Socialism can work in small voluntary organizations and as one person said to me while discussing it, it can work only til the horizon.  Beyond the horizon we are unwilling to share  what we have gained.  Unfortunately for a large percentage of human beings  they are unable to share beyond their own walls.
Helena Loflin
9 years 9 months ago
PRESIDENT OBAMA: "You can take your diploma, walk off this stage and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy, you can choose to narrow your concerns and live life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America's, but I hope you don't, not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although I believe you do have that obligation; not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get to where you are today, although I do believe you have that debt to pay. It's because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation."

PRESIDENT OBAMA: "And recognizing that my fate remains tied up with their fates, that my individual salvation is not going to come about without a collective salvation for the country."

Sounds like "Love thy neighbor as thyself" to me.  Why else are Catholics taught to pray for others?  To do good for others?  Why else do we pray for the souls of the deceased? Why else do Catholics believe that we must do good works as well as have faith?  If all I care about is my own salvation on earth, how can I ever achieve Eternal Salvation?    

I'm thinking that "Prosperity Gospel" Christians would have something very good to learn from the president's words about how to achieve their own salvations.
Helena Loflin
9 years 9 months ago
If been a Catholic for 61 years and nine months.  This is the first time I've been told that Catholic social justice is just politics.
Helena Loflin
9 years 9 months ago
Try 1776 on for size: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

Sounds like a Declaration made in the name of collective salvation to me.
Gabriel Marcella
9 years 9 months ago
Let's not elevate Beck to the exalted status of theologian or historian. Beckification is dumming down our culture by reducing theological principles, sociology, economics, history, international relations, foreign policy, and political theory to sound bytes, catchy slogans, and theater.  God help us!
9 years 9 months ago
Mr. Clarke,

I remain perplexed.  You admit that Marxism has its problems when it is played out as a "political structure" or movement, yet still hold to its theoretical usefulness for analysis.  How, if the theory fails in reality, does that not indict the theory in itself?  We're talking about economics, after all, which purports to be a social science, i.e. its theory has to be translated and workable in "the real world", so to speak.  Are you content, then, to wait for a benign Marxist dictator to implement the theory? You will, I am afraid, be waiting a while.  Moreover, I may not have my theology correct, but wasn't Card. Ratzinger's "Instruction" on Liberation Theology aimed precisely at the incompatibiilty of Marxist analysis with Roman Catholic theology?  If I am correct, then how haven't you just admitted to continuing an analysis which, in the view of not only the current Pope, but a pretty darn smart theologian (whom I do not endorse 100% of the time) is incompatible with our theological anthropology?  I don't see how one can do that & still find it useful for analysis or without placing oneself outside the Catholic tradition.

This whole conversation seems so awfully 80s-ish to me.
Helena Loflin
9 years 9 months ago
The new rug in the Oval Office includes notable quotes from five of our greatest leaders:

“The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt
“The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, But it Bends Towards Justice” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Government of the People, By the People, For the People” – President Abraham Lincoln
“No Problem of Human Destiny is Beyond Human Beings” – President John F. Kennedy
“The Welfare of Each of Us is Dependent Fundamentally Upon the Welfare of All of Us” – President Theodore Roosevelt
There's that collective salvation again.  I had no idea that President Theodore Roosevelt was a Marxist and supporter of Liberation Theology.

Beck must be hyperventilating.

9 years 9 months ago
''To that point, you mention ''waiting for a benign Marxist dictator.'' Marx never did wait for one himself, that idea gets closer to Plato than Marx. Marx postulated a dictatorship of the proletariat, which would replace the dictatorship of the bourgeosie. He never spelled out how that would get installed, except to suggest it might work like the direct democracy of the Paris Communes.''
- I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree, as I'm pretty sure that the notion of ''proletariat'' dictatorship inevitably results in Leninism/Stalinism; but, hey, don't let facts get in the way.  I just find it hard to believe anyone actually still arguing that with a straight face these days (see more below).

''I only mean that in attempts to make sense out of how our current economic system functions, or more to the point, malfunctions, Marx is pretty useful.''
- Again, since it's been left in the ''dustbin of history'', I find it hard to believe someone still makes the argument about the usefulness of its critical dialectic; I think even the Europeans have moved on.

''Fortunately for me, I am not a theologian, but thank you for your concern that I might be on the wrong side of Pope Benedict's good graces and various prohibitions. I know I musn't, but I still think bad thoughts. I suspect there are other issues related to my fealty to the Curia which might come up before this one during my investigation.''
- I will take the tone of this to be sarcastic humor rather than outright derision.  Nonetheless, theologican or not, as an Associate Editor at a Catholic journal, I would have thunk one would take one's ''fealty'' to Catholic theology a bit more seriously and undertake at least some defense of how it is that you set aside the philosophical problems the Instruction pointed out.  Unless, that is, your view is that Catholics needn't be burdened with such troubles as their relationship to Magisterial authority, or, barring that, be bothered by the likes of a pretty darn smart intellectual like Ratzinger?

''As for the ''80s-nish'' of this conversation, I assume you mean the 1880s? ''
- finally, no, I mean instead the 1980s.  As in, after the defeat of Communisim and its dehumanizing statism, I can't believe people are still saying with a straightface that is intellectual framework is ''still useful for its critical analysis.''  Again, I think most serious intellectual thought has moved on.

So, bottomline, if you're critique is that critics of Marxist analysis make an invalid step in equating Communism in its historical form with Marxist theory, I say, no we are not so misstepping and the burden of proof, given the history of the last 50 years or so, is on those propping up Marxist theory to show otherwise.  I believe history is on our side.
9 years 8 months ago
I don't understand the defensiveness of suggesting that one give ear to what the Magisterium has said on this subject.  Nonetheless, I did not and do not intend to question anyone's "fealty".

At the risk of inflaming the situation more, I offer this quote from the "Instruction" with respect to Marxist "theory" vs. "reality":

The warning of Paul VI remains fully valid today: Marxism as it is actually lived out poses many distinct aspects and questions for Christians to reflect upon and act on. However, it would be "illusory and dangerous to ignore the intimate bond which radically unites them, and to accept elements of the Marxist analysis without recognizing its connections with the ideology, or to enter into the practice of class-struggle and of its Marxist interpretation while failing to see the kind of totalitarian society to which this process slowly leads." (emphasis added).
Ken Johnson
9 years 8 months ago
I think the responses to the original post have gone off track. The issue is not whether Liberation Theology is Marxist, but whether it is Catholic. The fact that the CDF/Ratzinger and Pope JPII took issue with certain elements of Latin American Liberation Theology does not mean that the magisterium has rejected it altogether. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The problem in Latin America was that so much emphasis was being placed on liberation from economic injustice, pitting the haves in a struggle against the have-nots and vice-versa, that some theologians were losing sight of Jesus' salvific work of redemption from the bonds of sin. Authentic Catholic theology emphasizes the importance of economic justice, also called distributive justice, but not at the expense of losing sight of the communal and personal dimensions of grace that redeems us from sin. In the end, the two aspects cannot be fully separated.

Pope Paul VI stated in Evangelii Nuntiandi that ''As the kernel and center of His Good News, Christ proclaims salvation, this great gift of God which is liberation from everything that oppresses man but which is above all liberation from sin and the Evil One, in the joy of knowing God and being known by Him, of seeing Him, and of being given over to Him.'' But he goes on to say ''But evangelization would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man's concrete life, both personal and social. This is why evangelization involves an explicit message, adapted to the different situations constantly being realized, about the rights and duties of every human being, about family life without which personal growth and development is hardly possible,[60] about life in society, about international life, peace, justice and development- a message especially energetic today about liberation...'' (to be continued)
Ken Johnson
9 years 8 months ago
Continued from my previous post...

Pope Paul VI goes on, ''Between evangelization and human advancement- development and liberation- there are in fact profound links. These include links of an anthropological order, because the man who is to be evangelized is not an abstract being but is subject to social and economic questions. They also include links in the theological order, since one cannot dissociate the plan of creation from the plan of Redemption. The latter plan touches the very concrete situations of injustice to be combated and of justice to be restored. They include links of the eminently evangelical order, which is that of charity: how in fact can one proclaim the new commandment without promoting in justice and in peace the true, authentic advancement of man? We ourself have taken care to point this out, by recalling that it is impossible to accept that in evangelization one could or should ignore the importance of the problems so much discussed today, concerning justice, liberation, development and peace in the world. This would be to forget the lesson which comes to us from the Gospel concerning love of our neighbor who is suffering and in need.''

The roots of this theology go back very far indeed. Fr. Martin has done a good job of mentioning its biblical roots.  I'd like to add the following statement from John Chrysostom, cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

St. JohnChrysostomvigorouslyrecalls this: ''Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. the goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.''238 ''The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity'':239 (CCC #2446)

The second quote above is from Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Vatican II document on the laity.

(To be continued...)
John Donaghy
9 years 8 months ago
A range of thoughts from Honduras.

Pope Paul VI's Evangelli Nuntiandi is an important work here in Latin America and I remember radical priests emphasizing its importance - the work of justice, struggling for the liberation from all types of sin and oppression are works of evanglization, not separated from but conneted with what traditionally is thought of as evangelization.

My experience is that liberation theology as a way of working pastorally has an integrity, at least here in the dicoese of Santa Rosa de Copán, since it functions side by side with a commitment to faith development, worship, and commitment to the Word of God. (People here quote scripture chapter and verse!) It is also found side by side with popular piety with the rosary, stations of the cross, and calls for frequent confession!

It is important to make this distinction between academic liberation theology and liberation theology at work in the trenches, though a good number of the "academics" are or have been, like Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, deeply involved in the lives of the poorest.

It is also important to distinguish between different liberation theologies and theologians. Some use Karl Marx's writings (especially those on alienation and fetishims) as analytical tools, much as Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle, though there are some who used Marxist solutions, rather than critique.

Lastly, the question of class. I fear that one of the greatest oversights of people outside places like Latin America is to fail to see the workings of class in countries like Honduras. Class is a reality. Class warfare is another thing altogether - pitting one class against the other so that the one class overcomes the other. That's not what's needed, nor is it what the best liberation theologians and practicioners want.

What I seek is that we all share in the Kingdom of God (fully in heaven) and that on earth we share in it as much as we can as we work to this end in our personal lives, in our lives together as the Church, and in soceity. That means that both rich and poor change - and experience real conversion.


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