A lot has been said about Glenn Beck’s rally in Washington, D.C. on Saturday.
Beck’s opponents have loudly objected to his decision to speak at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary on Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Civil rights activists held a demonstration on the same day to protest Beck’s alleged “hijacking” of King’s legacy.
Beck said the rally was not intentionally scheduled on the anniversary of King’s speech. He also used the criticism of his event to argue that he is in fact continuing the legacy of the civil rights movement by standing up for his beliefs in the face of oppression. Beck claimed that his rally was nonpolitical, that he was taking a break from his regular conservative punditry to speak about honoring the military and restoring morality in the United States.
Beck has not been honest about his intentions, nor did his critics understand the true problem with his rally. The problem lies in Beck’s insistence on the political neutrality of his speech and with that speech’s emphasis on religion.
Beck is not hijacking King’s legacy; in fact, as Beck himself noted, he is incapable of doing so. King’s legacy is, and forever will be, so much greater than Beck’s that to propose a comparison of the two is laughable (though I find it highly unlikely that the rally’s timing was an accident.) Beck is an expert at attracting attention by generating controversy. More important than the debate over the significance of the date is Beck’s nonsensical claim that the rally was apolitical.
Any speech to 300,000 people gathered around the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial is inherently political. The long legacy of notable gatherings there — including the Million Man March and protests against both the Vietnam and Iraq wars — has established that a speech delivered from Lincoln’s feet is a request that its content be evaluated in the context of public policy. By masquerading his rally as an apolitical, value-oriented event, Beck was able to get away with making policy demands that are typically taboo because their extremism is not only unconstitutional, but threatening to the foundations of American society.
Beck’s speech concentrated on religion. “Something unimaginable is happening,” he began. “America today begins to turn back to God.” He later requested that audience members “recognize your place to the creator. Realize that he is our king … pray on your knees, but pray on your knees but with your door open for your children to see.”
Such a speech delivered at a church or neutral site would not only be harmless but commendable. Unfortunately, the site was far from neutral. By timing and locating his rally as he did, Beck succeeded in giving his speech a heavily political tone — and a dangerous one at that.
Rhetoric aside, Beck demanded that religion and politics mix even more than they already do in the United States. In the context of those major debates, such as those over the proposed Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City or the increasingly frustrated campaign in Afghanistan, a religious point of view has the opportunity to assert itself in public discourse and in government policymaking. Beck’s speech moved such a development closer to fruition.
This would be an unmistakable tragedy. The separation of church and state is a core principle of our nation and constitution. The erosion of this barrier has damaged our stature as the “land of the free,” and continues to chip away at our chance of ever reclaiming the international moral high ground and the “soft power” that comes with it. Holding an event that was widely compared to a 19th-century style religious revival at the Lincoln Memorial hardly helps reverse this course of events.
The strong association of the tea party with Beck’s event will allow tea party candidates to claim religious parity with the more traditional conservatives they are fighting. Seeing as the current crop of tea party candidates includes some of the most absurd viewpoints espoused by American politicians, this can hardly be viewed as a positive development for the country.
Beck (and Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, and the rest of America’s firebrand commentators) has made a living out of doublespeak, but he has never used it to such dangerous ends as on Saturday. If others learn by his example (and I do not doubt that they will), extreme punditry will become stronger and more sinister than ever.
Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Wednesdays.