Donning gray sweatpants and an old Hanes t-shirt, I made my way onto the campus of Beck University. Although, it would be more accurate to say I “clicked” onto the campus of Beck University, since the conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s new educational venture takes place entirely online. Also, seeing how there isn’t a mark of accreditation in sight, his definition of “university” is a broad one. There are no tests or pesky syllabi, and only one of the university’s three instructors carries a PhD. In fact, the structure of the whole thing resembles a pyramid-scheme webinar more than it does an actual educational institution. On a more positive note, tuition is a steal at $9.95 a month, which is the price of a “Glenn Beck Extreme Insider Pass” that grants you access to an in-studio webcam during his live radio show.
Being the overachiever that I am, I went to class early and was met with an empty video stream and what sounded like an Enya song playing in the background. At the stroke of 8 PM, Glenn Beck, dressed in an oversized polo, appeared and introduced tonight’s course as Faith 101, which, he tells us, is going to explain why the founders didn’t actually intend for a separation of church and state. The “professor” is David Barton, a supposed expert on American religious history (and coincidentally, a Republican activist). Some might call Barton’s credentials as a historian shaky. He hasn’t been to graduate school, and critics have often claimed that he frequently uses unsubstantiated sources. But hey, he holds a bachelor’s degree in religious education from Oral Roberts; that should be enough to disprove two hundred years of solid Constitutional precedence.
I was both anxious and excited to hear how Barton was going to prove that America is supposed to be a sort of Christian theo-democracy. His strategy? List every pastor that ever said anything patriotic from the years 1700-1776. The only really surprising thing was learning about how utterly political pastors were in the eighteenth century. These guys would’ve made Jerry Falwell squirm. For example, Reverend Jonathan Mayhew preached entire sermons arguing for “no taxation without representation” and commanding that King George repeal the Stamp Act. Barton light-heartedly dismissed this rather broad interpretation of the authority of Scripture as being “just how they did it back then.” Now, I admittedly can’t recite the Old Testament to you, but I don’t recall Isaiah claiming that a postal tax is an abomination before God. Maybe it’s in the Apocrypha.
Barton managed to go through almost the entire lecture without mentioning a single source other than sermons when he suddenly brought up John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Rather than delving into the ingenious political philosophy that the volume contains, he merely reassured us that John Locke, like, totally quoted a bunch of Bible verses.
Maybe I’m missing the point, but how does any of this prove that America is a Christian state? Barton’s whole argument is that Christian pastors and the Christian founders and Christian ideologues were, in fact, Christians. Maybe GBU should offer a Logic course.
Every fifteen minutes, an animated Glenn Beck came on the screen and quizzed the virtual class. One example: “What is American exceptionalism?”
After the lecture, all viewers – I mean, students – were encouraged to give their feedback in a chatroom. Still slightly flabbergasted, I asked, “Why didn’t we actually talk about the separation of church and state in this lecture about the separation of church and state?” I waited since all comments had to be moderated, but after two minutes my question hadn’t appeared. I entered it again – nothing. Fair and balanced?
The major lesson I learned (or more accurately, reaffirmed) at my first day at Beck University is that everyone has an agenda. Glenn Beck and David Barton want you to think that the Continental Congress was spending most of its time acting out the Gospel of Mark, while Keith Olbermann and his secular buddies rage on about how Thomas Jefferson would have written The God Delusion if given the chance. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a middle ground. Unfortunately, Compromise 101 isn’t in the GBU catalogue.
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