Mark Lilla: The Beck of Revelation

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mark Lilla is Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. He is the author of G.B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern (1993) and the editor of New French Thought: Political Philosophy (1991). His latest book is The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West.]

The weather cooperated with Glenn Beck on the August morning of his “Restoring Honor” rally. Or maybe it was a higher force. The skies were clear, it was hot but not Washington unbearable, and the crowd, prepared with lounge chairs and water bottles, was serene. He had also banned signs from the event so that he and his fans would not be easy targets for photojournalists, which was a canny way to introduce a kinder, gentler Beck.

He had been a busy man, publishing in June his dystopian thriller, The Overton Window, which has been selling briskly. In July he founded Beck University, a noncredit online education program that offers potted lectures on religion, American history, and economics. In August he was busy setting up his own Huffington Post–style website, called The Blaze. And now here he was, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out on a crowd of about 87,000 followers who had traversed the country in self-organized bus caravans just to listen to him. He did not rant, he did not rave. He did not, as I recall, mention Barack Obama or call anyone a “socialist” or even a “progressive.” Instead he talked about God and family, about repenting from our sins (including his own), about expressing hope rather than hate, serving others and our country, and tithing to our churches. He prayed, the clergy standing with him prayed, and his followers prayed, arms upraised, waving gently to the beat of some inner hymn.

Beck is the most gifted demagogue America has produced since Father Coughlin made his populist broadcasts during the Great Depression. In the course of one radio or television show he can transform himself from conspiracy nut and character assassin into bawling, repentant screw-up, then back to gold-hoarding Jeremiah, and finally to man of God, without ever falling out of character. Which is the real Glenn Beck? His detractors assume that his basest, most despicable moments reflect his core, and that the rest is acting and cynical manipulation....

...[A]s if to remind us of our national wrongs, he surrounded himself on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with an enormous poster of a Native American warrior, another of Frederick Douglass, and one of what seemed to be a Mormon pioneer family heading west in its covered wagon. He also projected a video montage of images from the civil rights movement, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. whenever possible, and stressing, correctly, that King was a minister standing up for divinely bestowed human rights, not a secular activist. It was political theater of the highest order. And it was fresh. It’s impossible to imagine Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or James Dobson sharing the stage with Frederick Douglass.

Beck skipped over the next part of his pitch, which he recounts in hair-raising language on his daily shows, and which his listeners know by heart—how, around the beginning of the twentieth century, power-hungry elites convinced “ordinary” Americans to abandon the Founders’ principles in the name of progressivism, eroding our rights in a steady process that has culminated in Barack Obama’s socialism. This loopy story would have ruined the atmosphere Beck was trying to create. Instead, he placed some blame on ordinary Americans themselves, who, he said, have grown spoiled and indifferent to their own liberty....

Abandoning the grab-it-all gospel preached by the Republican Party since the Reagan years, Beck chastises Americans for becoming a people who have forgotten that “capitalism isn’t about money, it’s about freedom.” In his sermon at the Kennedy Center, he proclaimed that America doesn’t need “change we can believe in,” it needs to be restored to its original principles. But that can only happen if individual Americans recover their private virtues and again place God, however they conceive Him, at the center of their lives. His congregation went wild....

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