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beckGlenn Beck’s latest and greatest departure from sanity is an opportunity not to be missed.

No, I’m not talking about jeering at this exceedingly small man with the big microphone. He’s no smaller in his views than a dozen people I know and love. And he has the microphone only because we the people gave it to him.

The opportunity is to notice that the sane religious have a helluva lot more in common with the sane nonreligious than with their screwier co-believers — and that in this case, they’re drawing the line themselves.

For those who haven’t been following the story, Glenn Beck pleaded with Christians on his March 2 show:

I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! If I’m going to Jeremiah’s Wright’s church? Yes! Leave your church. Social justice and economic justice. They are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, “Excuse me are you down with this whole social justice thing?” I don’t care what the church is. If it’s my church, I’m alerting the church authorities: “Excuse me, what’s this social justice thing?” And if they say, “Yeah, we’re all in that social justice thing,” I’m in the wrong place.

He repeated this revealing nonsense on radio and TV, and clarified what it is that “social justice” is code for: communism and Nazism.

People from a wide variety of denominational perspectives have condemned the remarks as an attack on the central message of Christianity.

Now I could take this opportunity as some have to argue that there are several central messages in Christianity, many of them contradictory and some immoral. But that knee-jerk tangent would miss the real beauty of this moment, which has nothing at all to do with this tiny, tiny man and the frightened little echo chamber between his ears.

The beauty of the moment has to do with the forceful statement by churches across a wide spectrum that social justice is at the heart of their identity and mission, not to mention Jesus’s message. Not judgment. Not fear. Not the enforcement of social categories or rules about who we can love or what seafood we can eat. Not the demonization of doubt or the prohibition of thought. They say that the desire for social justice is, and should be, at the heart of who they are.

And there’s the beauty. Given an invitation to clarify what they are about, this is what they chose to claim and defend. An attack on social justice from a fellow believer drew a more potent and broad-based response from the churches than any other critique I’ve ever seen.

It’s true that social justice is not at the heart of things for some churches. Author Bruce Bawer (Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity) wrote a piece in the New York Times long ago while the Presbyterians were tearing themselves apart over the ordination of gays — just like the Episcopalians have done more recently. It was a sharp and illuminating piece that instantly snapped the American religious landscape into perspective for me. As I blogged in August ’07 (quoting Bawer):

“American Protestantism…is being split into two nearly antithetical religions, both calling themselves Christianity. These two religions — the Church of Law, based in the South, and the Church of Love, based in the North — differ on almost every big theological point.

“The battle within Presbyterianism over gay ordinations is simply one more conflict over the most fundamental question of all: What is Christianity?

“The differences between the Church of Law and the Church of Love are so monumental that any rapprochement seems, at present, unimaginable. Indeed, it seems likely that if one side does not decisively triumph, the next generation will see a realignment in which historical denominations give way to new institutions that more truly reflect the split in American Protestantism.”

Though Bawer is talking about Protestants, the same fault line runs down the middle of American Catholicism, between venomous literalists and social justice-loving practitioners of genuine agape — unconditional love.

Many Christians I know are too quick to dismiss the “Church of Law” as an aberration, something unfortunate but…you know… over there somewhere. And atheists are often just as quick to overlook the presence of the “Church of Love.” My major complaint with that side of American Christendom isn’t that they have supernatural beliefs. As long as they do good with them, who cares? My complaint is that the church of love does far too little to confront its ugly fundamentalist stepsister. Worse yet, it arms her by indiscriminately promoting faith as a value in and of itself.

But take heart, Me of the Past! Here in 2010, in its strong condemnation of an unhinged conservative commentator, we have the Church of Love standing up and decisively separating from those who would underline the petty, hateful messages of religion at the expense of the uplifting and ennobling.

Beck is a Church of Law guy. He is afraid, and makes his living keeping others afraid as well. No surprise that a quick scan of his homepage brings up the words PROTECT, CRISIS, FEAR, WAR, ALERT, and WATCHDOG. Always “under attack,” he simply isn’t at liberty to extend any generosity (a.k.a. social justice) to others. Predictably, he has already begun sputtering that he is under attack on this issue as well, that his words were taken out of context, oh and etc.

Whatever. This isn’t about him anymore. It’s about a church that, in defending its values, has accepted a priceless opportunity to clarify and embrace them.

I for one send a loud shout-out to the Church of Love. Jesus would be so proud of all y’all.

Lest anyone think Beck’s thought is original

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...