April 16, 2010
Glenn Beck is a fool.
I do not mean by this that Mr. Beck is an idiot-he is a reader and plainly bright. Instead, with his stagey manner, entertaining gambits, and hyperbole, Beck has made himself into the court jester for the Age of Obama.
One cannot watch a Glenn Beck program with a totally straight face, but then one cannot contemplate our debt and the irresponsible behavior of both political parties impassively either. One either needs jeremiads or jests and we are sadly short of men with the dignity and integrity of the prophet Jeremiah. Only those without fiscal sin can cast the first stone and there is hardly a man left in Washington who can afford to have his fiscal house examined.
We are left then with the voices of the clowns. Clowns are often a bit dodgy and they are allowed to make seedy arguments, but many a jest turns out to be truth. Fools entertain us, but they educate us while we laugh. This edutainment has limited value, but sometimes foolish rulers have to be answered by fools foolishly if they are to end their folly.
When the fool of the Middle Ages brayed like a donkey and galloped about the court, he was not being serious, but might get through to the King that the Sovereign was being an ass. In America the citizen is King and we get the rulers we deserve. Beck acts like an ass at times, but does so in a manner calculated to make millions of sovereign citizens wake up to many of our problems.
Glenn Beck is edutaining a generation with his antics. He is not my idea of entertainment, just as Colbert or Stewart, other fools of our political life, don't make everybody laugh, but he does serve a function. He is not my idea of fun, he may not be your idea of fun, but if he buys the Republic one hundred more years of fiscal sanity by his clowning than I say: "God bless, Glenn Beck."*
Beck's essential message is that both political parties have been corrupted by power and that a vile combination of big business and big government threaten our liberty. This message is not oft heard as one party kowtows to big business and the other creates ever bigger government. Beck trusts nobody and if his paranoid style is taken seriously it might be dangerous, but he is always winking at his audience to let them know he is never totally serious.
He loves liberty and a balanced budget, no fooling.
"Social justice" is a good thing. Every Christian is for justice and if Beck means that only individuals should be just, then he is wrong. But Beck is recognizing that many Christians on the left use the phrase "social justice" as an excuse to baptize their preferred solutions to injustice. We all want a just society, but disagree on the steps we should take to get it. How much injustice can we do to the rich, for example, in order to help bring justice to the poor? He is no fool to worry. For every Robin Hood who rights wrong by robbing from King John to give to Farmer John, there are five socialist bureaucrats who will rob from rich and poor to make government rich.
Of course, Beck over generalized on his show, but that is the job of the jester. He paints in bright colors to enable us to see. Beck starts discussions about social justice that illuminate our common concern that institutions be just, but also that the means used to achieve institutional justice do not become unjust to individuals. Institutions and society must be just, but this call for justice cannot be used as an excuse to expand government at the expense of our liberty.
That is the deep truth in the jests of Beck about social justice.
President Obama would be wise to chuckle at Beck's tears and hyperbole, but hear the authentic populist worries that have fueled his rise. Every king is lucky when they have a good fool and Glenn Beck is Obama's jester. He has gained a sizable audience by saying loudly in public what many people think in private. Joblessness is the bane of the early years of Obama's presidency and Beck understands the frustration of many of the fearful members of our culture. President Obama should make use of Beck, his court jester, because a jester unemployed is nobody's fool and a leader who ignores his clown is soon a nobody.**
*To paraphrase words of a wiser man than I in another difficult political time . . .
** A truth first presented to me in the luminous film The Court Jester with Danny Kaye.
This article originally appeared at the Washington Post's On Faith page. Click here to read the continuing conversation.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.