Two personalities are dominating the cable “news” media among American conservatives these days: Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly has a reputation as a loud, “bloviating” (one of his favorite terms), argumentative nightly talk phenomenon who boasts of having TV’s most highly-rated cable news show. He is Roman Catholic.

Beck is described as a goofy, comedic commentator who delights in “lecturing” the uninformed American public on the imminent fall of Western civilization (read “capitalism”) should the Obama agenda succeed. Beck is a Mormon.

On a recent broadcast of the “O’Reilly Factor,” Beck and O’Reilly took up the religious gauntlet and unintelligently combated each other.

In a recent radio talk show program, Beck characterized social justice or economic justice as “code language” for progressivism or socialism. Beck’s advice: run for the hills, leave your church! Further, he called these types of churches “perversions of Christianity.” He identified the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Chicago congregation, a purveyor of social justice that once included Barack Obama, as a classic example.

Attempting to correct Beck’s overstatement, O’Reilly retorted that social justice is represented among Roman Catholics by liberation theology, particularly advanced by the Jesuits. Beck was swift to counter what he thought was O’Reilly’s mistake. He advised that liberation theology was a perversion of the true Catholic understanding of the Christian message. Roman Catholics beware!

It is amazing to think what a difference it would make if either Beck or O’Reilly knew more about American religious history and terminology. On the Protestant side, social activism has a long and distinguished heritage in the likes of Walter Rauschenbusch, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Washington Gladden and Martin Luther King Jr. Among American evangelicals, Charles Finney, D.L. Moody, Billy Graham, Ronald Sider and Samuel Escobar are all champions of social dimensions of the gospel.

But to O’Reilly goes the distinction of the biggest blunder of the evening. What a gaffe on the day after St. Patrick’s Day to have neglected his own Irish-American compatriot, Father John Ryan, who is the parent of American Catholic social concern. Ryan introduced the principle of a living wage, which led to the establishment of a minimum wage. He was arguably one of the most important influences on Roosevelt’s New Deal concept of a welfare system. Ryan remained in Washington, D.C., for much of his career teaching at the Catholic University of America, only a short distance from the halls of government.

The reported millions who listen to these two voices, among many others, are badly misinformed. Superficial treatments of Christian faith and life are exceedingly damaging and lead others to unfounded conclusions and misdirected courses of action.

Beck and O’Reilly are blind guides in matters religious.

William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.

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