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The Prophet Glenn

Having read in various places that Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" event in Washington turned out to be an apolitical nothing-burger--albeit a bizarre attempt to appropriate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.--I resolved to watch a video of Beck's entire 56-minute speech.

It was, without a doubt, one of the more vacuous and cliche-ridden speeches I have ever heard, with vague injunctions to the crowd to look to the future, take responsibility, love their children, get right with God, and stand up for their values. It even ended with that most cliched secular popularization of a fine old hymn, the bagpipe version of "Amazing Grace." If it was, as so many observers suggested, a primarily religious address, it's likely that the attendees could have heard a better-crafted and more instructive sermon in virtually any of Washington's houses of worship.

So was it all just a Beck-a-ganza aimed at marketing his "brand" at the expense of any real purpose?

I might have thought so, until the final portion of his speech, when he started talking about "black-robed regiments" of clergy who, in Beck's typically distorted reading of history, were the vanguard of the American revolution against godless Britain, and now, after more than two centuries of national infidelity, were being remustered by Beck himself as embodied by the clergy sharing his rostrum. They represented, Beck asserted, 180 million Americans, and they were determined to put God back in charge of the country. As Peter Montgomery of AlterNet (via Digby) has shown, the regiments were led by such theocratic warhorses as David Barton, the "Christian Nation" historian who has devoted his career to the destruction of church-state separation.

Beck's rather frank appeal to theocracy--a non-sectarian theocracy, to be sure, but one that enshrined a "firm reliance on Divine Providence" as involving very clear rules of individual and national behavior--was the real thrust of his address. And in fact, the bland nature of most of his speech ironically reinforced its radical intent. Anyone who shared any sort of commitment to basic moral values, religious piety, or patriotism ought to go along with what people like Glenn Beck and his allies consider the obvious implications of such commitments in politics: a hard-core conservatism recast as a restoration of faith and national honor. Thus his core audience, the true believers who traveled to Washington to participate in this event, and those who watched it live on Fox, were comforted to know that their political preferences were a faithful reflection of the views of Moses, Jesus Christ, the Founders, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.

Most readers will probably discern in Beck's appeal the familiar M.O. of the Christian Right: an effort to divinize a secular political agenda--much of it revolving around the golden calf of absolute private property rights--while anathamizing any opposition as hostile to religion. And that's why Beck's game was best revealed not on Saturday, but on Sunday, when he attacked President Obama's religion as a "perversion:"

During an interview on "Fox News Sunday," which was filmed after Saturday's rally, Beck claimed that Obama "is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor-and-victim."

"People aren't recognizing his version of Christianity," Beck added....

"You see, it's all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation. I don't know what that is, other than it's not Muslim, it's not Christian. It's a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it," Beck said.

But Beck is really attacking the idea that anyone can be godly who doesn't believe God's Will on this Earth happens to coincide pretty much precisely with the agenda of the right wing of the Republican Party of the United States, circa 2010. All the banalities of his "Restoring Honor" speech depend on identifying piety with his brand of conservatism. And in the effort to set himself up as prophet and pope, he's in dire danger of setting himself up for a truly biblical fall.

As was illustrated by the strong reaction back in March to his injunctions to Catholics to fight the very idea of "social justice," Beck is not in the best position to define orthodoxy and heterodoxy in Christian theology. As a Mormon, his own theology is often demonized by conservative evangelical Protestants as a perversion or worse. And in fact, you'd think that anyone associated with an often-persecuted religious minority would be afraid of the power of "black-robed regiments," and more sympathetic to Barack Obama's view that doubt about God's Will on Earth is a distinctively Christian perspective on church and state.

But Beck's made his choice, seeking to make his radical politics both more acceptable and more militant via identification with the very impulse of religiosity. In adopting the prophetic stance, Glenn Beck is perhaps making a bid to reconcile the Tea Party Movement with the Christian Right (not that they are necessarily two different groups of people), under his leadership. If that's not what he's up to, then maybe the "Restoring Honor" rally truly was a nothing-burger, and Beck himself is destined to spend his declining years not as a prophet, but as a late-night infomercial figure promoting motivational materials available at an affordable cost.