By Rob Boston
Now that Glenn Beck’s Lincoln Memorial rally is over, it’s time to step back and ask the all-important question: What the heck was that all about?
Beck portrayed the “Restoring Honor” event as a celebration of civil rights. But the reporting I read about the bombastic Fox News Channel host’s D.C. get together made some of it sound more like a fundamentalist religious revival.
“Something that is beyond man is happening,” Beck told the crowd. “America today begins to turn back to God.”
Beck claims his event was intended to be non-political, but the rally featured Sarah Palin as a speaker, and the very next day Beck went on national television and attacked President Barack Obama’s religion. (Obama’s fault? He fails to agree with Beck.)
Beck is stomping over well-trod ground. His real enemy isn’t racial injustice. He’s far too polarizing a figure to achieve a noble goal like bringing people together and healing racial discord. In fact, Beck is just another in a seemingly endless line of far-right blowhards seeking to curry favor with the ignoramus brigades of the Religious Right by bashing the wall of separation between church and state.
Backed by “Professor” David Barton – who is not a professor and not a historian – Beck unleashes the usual Religious Right line about America’s glorious Christian heritage with strident calls to win the country “back” from nefarious forces that have supposedly usurped it.
It’s an old story. Throughout our history, the nation has occasionally been seduced by extremists who play the fear card, warning darkly of dangerous forces that must be stopped before they destroy the country.
In the 1950s, it was Communists. In the 1960s, it was African Americans seeking civil rights and their “hippy” allies. In the 1970s, it was feminists. In the 1980s and ‘90s, it was gays. In the 2000s, it has been Muslims.
Demagogues are always looking for a new bogeyman to wave before their legions; they are always looking for a new group to demonize. It’s essential for whipping up the mob.
Beck is aiming to create a new enemy for the next decade: Anyone who dares to support church-state separation and its key partner, secular government.
This last point is important. The Religious Right is increasingly assailing a key component of American life – the idea that government should be neutral on matters of theology, a principle that is the essence of secular government. Beck wants to lead this new charge.
In doing so, Beck attacks our traditions. Remember, until the United States separated church and state, the idea that a government could be secular was unthinkable. America’s experiment worked so well that it caught on in other nations.
America’s leadership in this area should be a source of pride. Yet it infuriates the theocrats among us. They are spitting mad that they can no longer tap the power of the state to force everyone to live under their narrow definition of theology.
Beck is a Mormon, and it’s unlikely his religion would ever be embraced by the government. But he’s more than happy to lead the charge for a “Christian” government, well aware that on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, censorship and others, Mormons, fundamentalist Protestants and ultra-Orthodox Catholics often see eye to eye.
Beck, who claims to revere the Founding Fathers, is actually trying to undermine their handiwork. He is a shameless demagogue with access to millions nightly over the airwaves. His ascent is alarming, but it’s important that we keep a historical perspective in mind.
We’ve been down this road before. Father Charles Coughlin spewed his poison over the radio across the nation. Sen. Joseph McCarthy used television to engage in red baiting. Gerald L.K. Smith blasted his hate from a quasi-national pulpit.
The good news is that demagogues usually overreach and come crashing down. In my opinion, it can’t happen to Beck soon enough. But until it does, those of us who support real religious freedom and church-state separation need to be on guard.
After all, we are the target.