Fox News host Glenn Beck muddled biblical references with fragments of American history, recreating a pottage of civil religion that says America has a divine destiny and claiming that a national revival is beginning.
At the very beginning of the “Restoring Honor” Rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Beck proclaimed, “Something beyond imagination is happening. Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God.”
Forty-seven years ago to the date, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” a historical note that Beck and others played off.
“The story of America is the story of human kind. Five thousand years ago…God’s chosen people were led out of bondage…Man first began to recognize God and God’s law. The chosen people listened to the Lord. At the same time those things were happening, on this side on this land another group of people were gathered here. And they too were listening to God,” said Beck.
As he spoke, two Native Americans appeared behind him to stand next to a rabbi. They were followed by a white preacher.
Facing these three individuals with arms outreached, Beck said, “God’s chosen people, the Native Americans and the pilgrims.”
Beck claimed, “When people came together of different faiths… the first thing they did was to pray together.”
Some two hours later, during his lengthy, disjointed speech, Beck said, “This day is a day that we can start the heart of America again. And it has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with God…turning our faith back to the values and principles that made us great.”
Warning that Americans were at a crossroad and had to decide what they believed, Beck said, “Abraham Lincoln found God in the stars of Gettysburg. He was baptized and gave the second inaugural. He looked to God and set men free. America awakened again.”
He soon segued to Moses.
“Moses freed them. Then they forget. They wander until they remember that God is the answer. He always has been. And then they begin to trust,” said Beck.
“Have trust in the Lord. And recognize that Moses and Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were men. They were just like you…Man makes a difference. What is it that these men have that you don’t?…The answer is nothing…They relied on God…America is great because America is good…We as individuals must be good so America can be great. America is at a crossroads…Look to God,” pled the TV talk-show host.
He told the audience of religious and Tea Party conservatives: “If you find out who God truly is, I warn you, I warn you, if you know who he is, it will be the biggest blessing in your life. But it will also be the biggest curse in your life.”
Saying that America needed to go to “God’s boot camp,” Beck said, “We must insist that our churches stand for things that we know are true because they are universal and endless in nature.”
Having recalled earlier how disciples had fallen asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane before Jesus’ arrest, Beck returned to that theme of slumber. He said that the nation and its churches had fallen asleep.
Beck said that 240 years ago America had the “black-robed regiment,” preachers who opposed the British and were among the first killed by the British.
“The black-robed regiment is back again today,” said Beck.
On cue, 240 men and women marched up and stood behind him. Obediently with arms linked on the front row were Southern Baptist Convention official Richard Land and fundamentalist pastor John Hagee. Religious-right mythmaker David Barton stood next to Sarah Palin.
“America, it is time to start the heart of this nation again. And put it where it belongs. Our heart with God,” proclaimed Beck.
Claiming these clergy represented the thousands of clergy in the audience who represented 180 million people, Beck said, “We can disagree on politics. We can disagree on so much. These men and women don’t agree on fundamentals. They don’t agree on everything that every church teaches. What they do agree on is that God is the answer.”
He called for a group of bagpipers to play “Amazing Grace.”
Mixing Christian faith with military images, the rally included video clips of soldiers, flags and eagles. The Bible was also read.
C. L. Jackson, pastor of Houston’s Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church, prayed for the “ministry of Glenn Beck.”
The crowd – as viewed on Beck’s own streaming video broadcast – had very, very few people of color.
The white audience listened at one point as two African-American men read different passages from the Bible and two Africa-American women sang solos with recorded tracks.
Another African-American woman, Alveda King, a niece of Martin Luther King Jr., gave a sermon, referencing “Uncle Martin,” failing public education, the “womb war” and hope that prayer would one day be welcomed back in public schools.
No amount of Bible reading, sermons masquerading as prayers and Christian hymns can cover up Beck’s civil religion that slides back and forth between the Bible and nationalism, between authentic faith and patriotic religion.
He treats the “American scripture” – such as the Gettysburg Address – as if it bears the same revelatory weight as Christian Scripture.
What is important to Beck is belief in God – God generically – not a specific understanding of God revealed in the biblical witness, but God who appears in nature and from which one draws universal truths.
Not surprisingly, Beck only uses the Bible to point toward the idea of a God-generic. He does not listen to the God of the Bible who calls for the practice of social justice, the pursuit of peacemaking, the protection of the poor in the formation of community. Beck has little room for God’s warning about national idolatry and rejection of fabricated religion.
For Beck, God-generic is a unifying theme and religion is a unifying force for what appears to be his revivalist agenda for Americanism – blended nationalism and individualism.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.