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.