by Matthew Raley
Last Saturday’s headline at the New York Times pretty much said it all: “At Lincoln Memorial, a Call for Religious Rebirth.”
Glenn Beck aims to unite evangelicals and Mormons spiritually using generalized pietistic language to make America more religious. According to the Times: “’Something that is beyond man is happening,” Mr. Beck told the crowd, in what was part religious revival and part history lecture. ‘America today begins to turn back to God.’”
Several features of that statement strike me.
For starters, Beck does not say what is happening that is “beyond man.” Indeed, his second statement undermines that portentous claim: The nation’s repentance begins “today,” with Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, powered by high celebrity wattage and stimulated by plenty of free media. The event, whatever it was, came entirely “from man,” and was not in any sense “beyond man.”
Further, Beck’s use of the idea of repentance is safely generalized. “America,” Beck says, the nation corporately, turns back to God. The populist implications are clear: we who already follow “God” have gathered, and those other people who do not follow “God” would do well to pay attention.
Even further, the repentance is vague because the “God” to whom “America” is turning is a squishy sort of being. Beck appeals to us to pray to this God on our knees in front of our children. This God drops giant sandbags on Beck’s head, apparently. But does this God forgive sinners? Did he give his Son in an atoning death to save them? Is it this God’s sole purpose to build an eternal kingdom for His Son that is categorically greater than America? Is this, in other words, the God who revealed himself to all in the Bible?
Or is this the God who invites us to be initiated into one secret teaching after another under the strict guidance of a prophet in Utah, whose revelations continue to add to the good but insufficient work of Jesus Christ? Is he the God of the gnostics?
Those devoted to mere religiosity won’t care. But those devoted to the Gospel should.
Ross Douthat in the Times nailed what went on at the rally with his usual perceptiveness.
Now more than ever, Americans love leaders who seem to validate their way of life. This spirit of self-affirmation was at work in evangelicals’ enduring support for Bush, in the enthusiasm for the Dean campaign among the young, secular and tech-savvy, and now in the devotion that Palin inspires among socially conservative women. The Obama campaign raised it to an art form, convincing voters that by merely supporting his candidacy, they were proving themselves cosmopolitan and young-at-heart, multicultural and hip.
Beck’s Mormonism blends in well with the lifestyle of religiosity that the rally sought to affirm, and the evangelicals he woos always seem to be desperate for someone to affirm them. The courtship has been ongoing and shrewd.
David Gibson at Politics Daily reported earlier in the summer on Beck’s commencement speech at Liberty University.
“I want you to know that the invitation to speak today is not meant as an endorsement of my faith,” he said, absolving Falwell — son of the late Jerry Falwell Sr., icon of the religious right and founder of Liberty, which he envisioned as a Baptist Notre Dame. “But I also want you to understand that my agreeing to speak here today is an endorsement of your faith.”
Big applause, understandably, and then a good follow-up, as Beck told his listeners that this was no time for division on the right over things like doctrine and dogma. “We may have differences, but we need to find those things that unite us.”
It’s possible, even likely, that the courtship is a two-way street. I can readily understand some evangelical leaders making the most of an opportunity to influence Beck toward a true understanding of the Gospel.
But why are they promoting his bid for national spiritual leadership? Having a man who has not professed faith in Christ alone be a commencement speaker to Christian graduates, to say the least, is a novel form of outreach. And forming a “black-robe regiment” of evangelical pastors to amplify populist pieties under Mormon generalship is not going to advance the Bible’s Gospel. Such efforts will blur it.
That does indeed sound like something “beyond man,” but not from the direction of heaven.