Some Thoughts on Today’s Glenn Beck Rally

I spent the better portion of my Saturday on a soccer field in Gettysburg watching my daughter’s team go 4-0 and advance into today’s Gettysburg Tournament winner’s bracket.

But I was also aware that Glenn Beck was doing his thing down in Washington. As I strolled the grounds of the soccer tournament I saw reminders everywhere. Several soccer parents were sitting on the sidelines with one eye on their daughters and another on their I-Phones watching Beck’s rally. (Needless to say, they were not doing objective research).

Much has been made about the fact that Beck held today’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Beck claims that he did not realize it was the anniversary of this event when he planned the rally, but when he found out he said it must have been “providential.”

Perhaps the best thing I have read on the King-Beck comparison is by Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. In yesterday’s column, Robinson wrote:

The most offensive thing about the rally is Beck’s in-your-face boast that the event will “reclaim the civil rights movement.” But this is just a bunch of nonsense — too incoherent to really offend. Beck makes the false assertion that the struggle for civil rights was about winning “equal justice,” not “social justice” — in other words, that there was no economic component to the movement. He claims that today’s liberals, through such initiatives as health-care reform, are somehow “perverting” King’s dream.

But Beck’s version of history is flat-out wrong. The full name of the event at which King spoke 47 years ago was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Among its organizers was labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a vice president of the AFL-CIO, who gave a speech describing the injustice of “a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty.”

But there is more to say. As a historian I can’t help but comment on the irony of it all.

Like Beck, King loved America. And like Beck, King also promoted the idea of a Christian nation. King believed that such a Christian nation was rooted in equality for all. Apparently so does Beck.

Consider King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). Here King understood social justice in Christian terms. The rights granted to all citizens of the United States were “God given.” Segregation laws were unjust not only because they violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) but because they did not conform to the laws of God. King argued, using the views of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and theologian Paul Tillich, that segregation was “morally wrong and sinful” because it degraded “human personality.” Such a statement was grounded in the biblical idea that all human beings were created in the image of God and as a result possess inherent dignity and worth. King also used biblical examples of civil disobedience to make his point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago took a stand for God’s law over the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. St. Paul was willing to “bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” And, of course, Jesus Christ was “an extremist for love, truth, and goodness” who “rose above his environment….”

By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” The Civil Rights Movement, as King understood it, was in essence and attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation–a beloved community of love and equality.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written to clergy who believed that segregation was something that needed to be dealt with locally. They did not want “outside agitators” such as King or, presumably the federal government, intruding in their local affairs. They did not want the government taking away their liberties, even if it was the liberty to uphold segregation.

In the end, as the Letter from a Birmingham Jail makes clear and the entire Civil Rights Movement confirms, local action–especially by the clergy–failed to defend the basic human and civil rights afforded to all people, including Blacks. Since the churches and local municipalities were not willing to do anything about this social injustice, it was up to the federal government to step in–with a show of force in some cases–to take away the liberty of some (white segregationalists) so that the liberty of all could be preserved.

This is why a massive rally of libertarian tea partiers commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. and claiming his legacy is so ironic. I am not saying here that the tea partiers are racist, but I am pointing out the fact that there have been times in American history–the Civil Rights Movement being one of them–when local initiative has failed and the only way to bring justice has been through “outside agitators” such as the federal government.

Beck also had his “Black Robe Brigade” come out today and take a bow. This “Brigade” consisted of 240 clergy representing many different denominations and ethnic groups. In case you don’t know, the “Black Brigade” was a term used to describe eighteenth-century Protestant ministers who supported the American Revolution.

There is a lot more I could say about the way that Glenn Beck and his new friend David Barton are using the past to promote their political agenda. I have spent a lot of time doing this at “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” (Browse around a bit or do a search of “David Barton” to learn more).

If you can be patient, you can read more of my thoughts about religion and the American Founding–including the role of Protestant clergy–in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction which is due out in February with Westminster/John Knox Press. In the meantime, check out some of the advance praise the book has been getting from the likes of Thomas Fleming, Mary V. Thompson, Randall Balmer, Richard Bushman, Scot McKnight, John Wigger, Doug Sweeney, Stanley Hauerwas, and Ira Stoll.

9 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Today’s Glenn Beck Rally

  1. Saying that Glenn Beck shares with MLK a belief in “equality for all” does Dr. King a disservice. Beck's minimalist approach to the concept of “equality” seldom strays far from libertarian orthodoxy, which holds that the destitute individual living under a bridge, so long as he or she can breathe and walk upright, is “equal” to the Koch brothers, regardless of the gross disparity in concrete resources and opportunities available to each. I think it's highly unlikely that King would have endorsed this.

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  2. Tom: Thanks for the post. Beck is definitely an enigma. I think he gets a lot of things wrong–especially related to history. As a result he can be dangerous But he does seem to be filling a need for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

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  3. I completely agree with your conclusion that “local action–especially by the clergy–failed to defend the basic human and civil rights afforded to all people” and so the federal government needed to “to step in–with a show of force in some cases–to take away the liberty of some (white segregationalists) so that the liberty of all could be preserved.”

    Allow me to add something to your conclusion that intensifies what you've written.

    Segregation was legal. In other words, local and state governments were far more than simply apathetic bystanders that failed to restrain bigoted segregationists. No, they were the active force. State and local governments mandated segregation. And not just civil segregation. They dictated private discrimination as well.

    For example, my understanding of the infamous Rosa Parks protest is that the owners of the Montgomery Bus Company actually opposed the legislation that required them to segregate their buses. It was bad for business. But those in control of the statehouse didn't care.

    It is a story of the tyranny of the majority. Democratic governments that have no constitutional limits have the potential to be the worst offenders in this respect. The majority preys on the minority.

    Thus, this portion of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement is wholly commendable, deserving our recollection and respect. A few stood against many and against all odds won.

    Other outcomes were less commendable, but that was not the purpose of your post.

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  4. I'll wait for your book, John.

    Beck is a cultural phenomenon. Like all cultural phenomena, it is likely his fate to crash and burn, the way of all men and of all hubris. But as a phenomenon, he cannot be pounded into an already-prepared box or pigeonhole. That's what makes him phenomenal.

    He's already come out with an indifference toward gay marriage. This alone takes him out of the box/coffin that his opponents have prepared for him.

    And he's also starting to unleash the Mormon view of history, that Amerindians [you know, the native American peoples] had a direct connection to Israel, the Hebrews, “proven” by historical artifacts. This will not stand.

    But the hundreds of thousands of people—not thousands, not tens of thousands, as the media would dismiss them as—were not responding to or embracing his nuances, but agreed with the general thrust. The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.

    They also seem to agree that God has something to do with the USA, and if we do not continue to ask His guidance and protection, and not attempt to live according to His will and natural plan for man, we are lost. This is a Founding sentiment, not Glenn Beck's.

    I'm no Holy Roller, John. The one thing I've learned from studying religion and the Founding [and Protestantism in particular is that nobody buys another man's whole bill of goods.

    But men buy into a bill of goods when they agree more than disagree. This is “consensus,” and consensus is what makes a republic, and what makes it superior to a democracy. Democracies eat their own, because unanimity is impossible where human beings are involved.

    Which is a very good thing, thank God, and how He made us.

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