D.C. preaching is never ‘nonpolitical’

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.

Alissa Masutani | Daily Trojan

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.

6 replies
  1. Diane
    Diane says:

    Kudos to Simon for finding an actual historical document. But again, my friend, it’s not the Constitution. It’s a letter… and no, it was not “far more than a personal correspondence.” It was a letter. The sentiment expressed there was entirely legitimate, as it is legitimate now for folks to desire separation of church and state. However, it is not legitimate for that phrase to be misused and misapplied as Constitutional, which is what our young friend Daniel clearly stated “a core principle of our Constitution.”

    What’s more — what does this have to do with a group of people getting together in D.C. and praying? They have the freedom to do that, too. Daniel’s twitchy leftism notwithstanding, this is no threat to America. And Simon, you are entirely misled if you are under the impression that because you have read something written by ONE founder, you have a handle on how they all felt about religion. On the contrary, as Beck and many, many scholars have pointed out, the vast majority of the founders were Christian, and believed that this country was being founded with God’s express assistance. Now, you are free to reject those beliefs today. But to deny them — to LIE and make ridiculous comments about “conservatives hating our founders” when you clearly have not taken the time to read ALL their writings — is just pathetic.

    And you show a great deal of historical ignorance with your comment about a Taliban-style cult. Clearly, this country has been “more Christian” in the past than it is today. If Christianity lent itself to a Taliban-style cult, buddy, you’d already be living in it. But it doesn’t. What an idiotic and ignorant comparison.

  2. Steve
    Steve says:

    That was obviously meant to be a camel walking through the needle. But picturing Jerry Falwell trying to do the same is enough to keep me entertained for the time being!

  3. Simon
    Simon says:

    Why do conservatives hate our founders? Why do they hate our history, America’s rich traditions? Why does Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and his band of lunatics want to turn our country into a Taliban-style cult? Tommy Jefferson had it right….

    Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter

    Thomas Jefferson was a man of deep religious conviction — his conviction was that religion was a very personal matter, one which the government had no business getting involved in. He was vilified by his political opponents for his role in the passage of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and for his criticism of such biblical events as the Great Flood and the theological age of the Earth. As president, he discontinued the practice started by his predecessors George Washington and John Adams of proclaiming days of fasting and thanksgiving. He was a staunch believer in the separation of church and state.

    Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 to answer a letter from them written in October 1801. A copy of the Danbury letter is available here. The Danbury Baptists were a religious minority in Connecticut, and they complained that in their state, the religious liberties they enjoyed were not seen as immutable rights, but as privileges granted by the legislature — as “favors granted.” Jefferson’s reply did not address their concerns about problems with state establishment of religion — only of establishment on the national level. The letter contains the phrase “wall of separation between church and state,” which led to the short-hand for the Establishment Clause that we use today: “Separation of church and state.”

    The letter was the subject of intense scrutiny by Jefferson, and he consulted a couple of New England politicians to assure that his words would not offend while still conveying his message: it was not the place of the Congress or the Executive to do anything that might be misconstrued as the establishment of religion.

    Note: The bracketed section in the second paragraph had been blocked off for deletion in the final draft of the letter sent to the Danbury Baptists, though it was not actually deleted in Jefferson’s draft of the letter. It is included here for completeness. Reflecting upon his knowledge that the letter was far from a mere personal correspondence, Jefferson deleted the block, he noted in the margin, to avoid offending members of his party in the eastern states.

    This is a transcript of the final letter as stored online at the Library of Congress, and reflects Jefferson’s spelling and punctuation.

    Mr. President

    To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.


    The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

    Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. [Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.] Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

    I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association assurances of my high respect & esteem.

    (signed) Thomas Jefferson

  4. Joe
    Joe says:

    Another year, another batch of failed products of our alma mater sign up as reporters at the Daily Trojan in order to score points with their favorite drug-addled liberal professors. When a bunch of Christian conservatives gather at the feet of (noted Christian conservative) Abraham Lincoln on the anniversary of a speech by (noted Christian conservative) Martin Luther King, to talk about Christian and conservative values, and factually do not speak about politics, you’ll need to come up with a better criticism than “It was all about politics, even though we all know it wasn’t, it was.” Indeed, instead of calling these values “dangerous” and “threatening” and “absurd”, how about identifying them and telling us, specifically, why they are wrong? If all you can do is insult your opponents with dubious slurs like “19th-century style religious revival” (that’s a bad thing?), then you don’t have much of an argument.

    Finally, your attempt to give “advice” to conservatives is greatly appreciated. It’s always so nice when the Left makes these helpful suggestions about what we ought to do. Rush Limbaugh says: the Left will always show you who they fear.

  5. Fred
    Fred says:


    Well said. THEY can’t handle the TRUTH. It’s even more interesting that there are no leftist pundits here yet. Nothing to say huh?

  6. Diane
    Diane says:

    Oh, Daniel Charnoff. You are a scared little mouse, aren’t you? The DANGER of encouraging people to pray to God! I’m appalled! {{snicker}}

    I fear for the value of a USC education if you, a senior, still don’t understand that separation of church and state is in fact not IN our Constitution, so it can’t really be a “core principle” of it. But, hey, way to spread the nonsense.

    Considering you are taking a broad swipe at a powerful, interesting, and charismatic personality (Beck) with your snide comments about legacies — I encourage you to shut your mouth and actually listen to what he has to say. He has shared a great deal of historical information with the American public that has been suppressed too long. You might consider, oh, I don’t know — opening your mind to the possibility that you, at your advanced age, don’t really know everything just yet. Oh, I know you watch CNN and MSNBC (never Fox!) so you know all the right catchphrases and can hit just the right note of smug elitist condescension — but that doesn’t change the fact that you don’t know WTF you are talking about.

    Your concern for “traditional conservative” candidates who are having to fight off Tea Party candidates — um, that doesn’t even make sense, Daniel. Who do you consider a “traditional conservative”? Boxer? You have been on campus too long. Get out in the real world, son. The Tea Party actually has a lot of “traditional conservatives” in it who are fighting for viewpoints that are only considered absurd by the most jaded and hard left idealogues (like our president) who wish to see individual liberty curtailed in favor of statist control. Yup, those “absurd viewpoints” include things like limited government and free market policies — things that have (a) historically been American hallmarks and (b) are still supported by a vast majority of Americans. Except for the aforementioned idealogues — and college students too dumb to think for themselves.

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