Glenn Beck’s track record of keeping promises may not be pristine (in fact, Pulitzer Prize-winning politifact.com has often given his statements a rating of “Pants-on-fire”), but the August 28 Restoring Honor rally seemed actually less political than past Tea Party gatherings. As New York Times columnists Kate Zernike and Carl Hulse report, the gathering had a decidedly more religious character:
It was part religious revival, part history lecture, as Mr. Beck invoked the founding fathers and the “black-robed regiment” of pastors of the Revolutionary War and spoke of American exceptionalism.
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But the program was distinctly different from most Tea Party rallies. While Tea Party groups have said they want to focus on fiscal conservatism and not risk alienating people by talking about religion or social issues, the rally on Saturday was overtly religious, filled with gospel music and speeches that were more like sermons.
Mr. Beck imbued his remarks on Saturday and at events the night before with references to God and a need for a religious revival. “For too long, this country has wandered in darkness,” Mr. Beck said Saturday. “This country has spent far too long worrying about scars and thinking about scars and concentrating on scars. Today, we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things that we have accomplished, and the things that we can do tomorrow.”
Sarah Palin’s veiled references to President Obama aside, the event was more characterized by people like Becky Benson from Orlando, FL, than Ron Paul, who said:
“We believe in Jesus Christ, and he is our savior.” Jesus, she said, would not have agreed with what she called the redistribution of wealth in the form of the economic stimulus package, bank bailouts and welfare. “You cannot sit and expect someone to hand out to you,” she said. “You don’t spend your way out of debt.”
All in all, it is completely possible that Beck’s original claim—that he did not intend for the rally to be anything other than a proclamation of values—has some truth to it. Even in the face of criticism for his choice of day and locale, both indelibly linked to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, the Fox News personality can elude charges that he meant to “hijack” the political inertia behind the Civil Rights movement. He simply meant to “wake America up to the backsliding of principles and values and most of all of God.” But is it possible that politics were never his goal? At least not directly?
It is a well known fact that the Civil Rights movement meant more than simply gaining social and political equality for African American citizens. In fact, the extent to which the entire enterprise—from the architecture, to the leadership, to those on the ground—can be seen as a largely religious movement is staggering. This theory is not new and has been pointed out by myriad scholars (like Charles Marsh or Davis W. Houck); and yet the coverage leading up to Saturday’s events was fixated upon solely the political dimensions and social repercussions: what it meant for the memory of MLK and contemporary civil rights that a largely white movement was attempting to claim a moment that, according to some, never belonged to them. But not until after the fact did many awaken to the possibility that, quite like the Civil Rights movement, the Honor rally was meant to mobilize Americans not only by tapping into their political preconceptions but into their religious heritages as well.
Curiously, it appears that Beck himself was one of the only people in the media to pick up on the religious power inherent in mimicking Dr. King’s speech. His decision to hold his rally on this particular day in this particular place was no coincidence (no one can seriously still believe his protestations it was an accident, inspired by divine providence). No, one must have more respect for Beck than that. The Restoring Honor rally, which according to the Times drew anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 (though CBS apparently pegged the number at closer to 87,000), did attempt to tap into the memory of MLK. Only it wasn’t the political message which those gathered were after (again, not directly); rather, it was the religious undercurrents, like those that brought about political changes in the 1960s, that Beck and his fellow Tea Partiers so desired.
Whether the rally will ultimately prove important in the November elections remains to be seen. What is certain, though, is that faith may well be just as powerful a catalyst—some would argue, an even stronger catalyst—for social activism and change as it was 47 years ago.