On Friday, August 28, radio talk show host (and sometime religious leader) Glenn Beck descended on Birmingham for a weekend of events, starting with an appearance from the pulpit of the Guiding Light Church. As reported by The Birmingham News, Beck spoke to an audience of some 800 people — among them 50 pastors — at the invitation of the church’s leader Bishop Jim Lowe.
Beck’s speech was something of a call to arms for evangelicals and other religious leaders to take a moral stand on issues that are inherently political, citing the Book of Ezekiel to state that the nation still has blood on its hands from Reconstruction — and abortion, gay marriage and a litany of other things important to Christians. This Old Testament language is highly evocative, often of doom-like scenarios that give tremendous gravitas to the message being conveyed.
Fundamentally, what Beck is doing is pandering to any group or faction who will give him an ear, and in the case of the Guiding Light Church and the reference to Reconstruction, the appeal was quite plainly to the black evangelical community. But his is a much broader effort than simply that of soothing or healing racial wounds. The pundit-cum-preacher is not simply some impassioned ally of oppressed minority groups; he is a slick political operative with a very well defined set of goals and tactics.
Beck, despite his supplications to black evangelicals (and many other Christians in his radio and television programming), is a Mormon, a religion that has a checkered history with black people. His unlikely brand of ecumenicism, on display last weekend, is impressively executed; this should surprise no one who has seen Beck in action. His political operation is a highly sophisticated one, and he is clearly very highly motivated, both monetarily and — if one takes him at his word — religiously. His worldview is distinctly millenarian; he sees himself as something of a Jeremiah, portraying the United States as a Judeo-Christian nation besieged by the forces of secularism, and frequently invoking apocalyptic rhetoric about economic catastrophe and the Constitution being under dire threat.
The next day, August 29, Beck led a march under the banner “All Lives Matter” from Kelly Ingram Park to City Hall, a route that is suggestive to say the least, accompanied by 20,000 fans and allies. The slogan, which came with its very own hashtag, is a direct reference to — and implicit criticism of — the currently high-profile “Black Lives Matter” movement that was born of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and has been fueled by many similar events since. The marchers included such figures as the actor Chuck Norris and Alveda King (a niece of Martin Luther King, Jr.).
Also, somewhat curiously, marching arm-in-arm next to Beck was Rafael Cruz, a pastor and the father of Texas Republican Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who famously spearheaded a government shutdown at the end of 2013 over the Affordable Care Act — and is hinting at doing so again this year over federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a longtime conservative issue that has some wind at its back lately after the release by anti-abortion rights groups of undercover videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale and transfer of fetal tissue from abortions. Planned Parenthood, for its part, points to the fact that federal law prohibits the use of public funds for abortions — which, incidentally, is true — but that argument gets nowhere in conservative circles.
This kind of thing is catnip to evangelical voters. Regardless of what Beck says about his high-minded religious goals — and some of them are indeed laudable, such as his appeal for people to come to the aid of the viciously persecuted Christians in the Middle East, particularly in the areas controlled by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS — this is a political operation.
For a man who refers to the Constitution so often and such with high reverence, he seems unaware of the Establishment Clause of that document’s First Amendment. Appearances aside, he is not unaware of said clause; he simply has a different vision of the country, one where religion is a part of its governance, and he intends to realize this vision if he can. One of the speakers at his speaker series this weekend (which took place after the march was over) was David Barton, founder of WallBuilders, an organization that seeks to inject Christian values into the United States government. The word “evil” was pervasive throughout the various speeches, not least Beck’s own. The Guiding Light Church’s choir performed, giving the event something of a gospel music backdrop.
The “Black Lives Matter” movement has become a hot topic of debate in national newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as in periodicals like Harper’s and The Atlantic and the online-only Slate magazine, among others. If one wanted to find a publication that is not discussing this movement and its implications for American politics, it would be an arduous — and perhaps even fruitless — enterprise.
Many in the media and in society have praised the movement as a new direct-action campaign to stand up for the rights of black people. Not all coverage of the movement has been adulatory, however, and the most visible critics have been the growing conservative cohorts in the Republican Party — some of whom were surely in attendance at Beck’s event. The young activists have been criticized for their tactics, for their goals and as Beck demonstrates, even their name. This is not criticism; it is outright negation. That is its nature, and that is its goal.
Kelly Ingram Park is, of course, just across from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where a bomb blast killed four young black girls in September of 1963. It was at this site that Bull Connor turned his fire hoses and German Shepherds on black protestors, and the park has been the site of Civil Rights commemorations for decades. This, yet again, is heavily fraught symbolism designed to appeal directly to the black psyche while simultaneously criticizing the younger generation’s most visible grassroots movement for black civil rights. Irony is certainly an appropriate descriptor here, but it somehow seems woefully inadequate. This is cruel, cruel irony.
Beck is an absolutely masterful user of emotional manipulation in order to influence political outcomes. His show on the Fox News Channel — before it was cancelled — was frequently characterized by highly animated, sometimes disjointed presentations, often making use of a chalkboard, on which he would connect seemingly disparate events and concepts to form an often bizarre core thesis. Perhaps more famously, Beck would occasionally break down in tears about the state of the country on the show, adding to the sense of impending doom he so carefully fosters.
Beck’s appearance here, which he dubbed “Restoring Unity,” occurred on the fifth anniversary of his “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, D.C., which occurred on the 47th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to about 250,000 people. Attendance at Beck’s rally was significantly smaller, but one of the attendees happened to be the same Alveda King seen here last weekend. Beck and his acolytes claim that “Black Lives Matter” is destroying unity and that what we need is more Christianity in our politics. How that is supposed to “restore” whatever unity they believe existed in the first place, well, that’s lost on me.