FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Glenn Beck’s Redemption Song

About halfway through Saturday’s “Restoring Honor” rally on the DC mall, I realized that I was starting to like Glenn Beck.

Let me explain. It’s not that I really liked Beck, but more that I experienced his likeability. Whether or not he’s sincere, I came to admire his ability to project sincerity and to create coherence out of his incoherent rambling about religion, race, and redemption.

As a result, I’m more afraid for our political future than ever.

First, to be clear: Beck is the embodiment of everything I dislike about the U.S. politics and contemporary culture. I disagree with most every policy position he takes. I find his willful ignorance and skillful deceit to be unconscionable.

So, I’m not looking for a charismatic leader to follow and I haven’t been seduced by Beck’s televisual charm, nor have I given up on radical politics. Instead, I’m trying to understand what happened when I sat down at my computer on Saturday morning and plugged into the live stream of the event. Expecting to see just another right-wing base-building extravaganza that would speak to a narrow audience, I planned to watch for a few minutes before getting onto other projects. I stayed glued to my chair for the three-hour event.

What I saw was the most rhetorically and visually sophisticated political spectacle in recent memory. Beck was able to both connect to a right-wing base while at the same time moving beyond the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement, potentially creating a new audience for his politics. It’s foolish to make a prediction based on one rally, but I think Beck’s performance marked his move from blowhard broadcaster to front man for a potentially game-changing political configuration.

My advice: Liberals, progressive, and leftists — who may be tempted to denounce him as a demagogue and move on — should take all this seriously and try to understand what he’s doing. Here’s my best attempt to understand it.

Religion

There’s nothing new about mixing Christianity and right-wing politics in the United States, and Beck put forward a familiar framework: America is a Christian nation that honors religious freedom. Christians lead the way in the United States, but the way is open to all who believe in God. Anyone teaching the “lasting principles” found in all faiths is welcome, despite theological differences. “What they do agree on is God is the answer,” Beck said in his call for a central role for religious institutions, whether they be churches, synagogues, or mosques.

But for all the religious rhetoric, Beck never talked about the hot-button issues that are important to conservative Christians. No mention of abortion or gays and lesbians. Theologically based arguments against evolution and global warming were not on the table. No one bashed Islam as a devilish faith.

Instead, Beck concentrated on basics on which he could easily get consensus. God has given us the pieces — faith, hope, and charity — and all we have to do is put them together. Rather than arrogantly assert that God is on our side, he said, we have to be on God’s side.

Beck may eventually have to voice clear opposition to abortion and gay marriage to hold onto conservative Christian supporters, but on Saturday it was his apparent religious sincerity that mattered. I have no way to know how serious Beck’s faith in a traditional conception of God really is, but it doesn’t matter. He sounds sincere and moves sincere; he creates a feeling of sincerity. He brings an emotional candor to public discussion of religion that is unusual for someone in his line of work. When religious people believe that someone’s profession of faith is real — that it’s rooted in a basic decency and is deeply felt — then differences over doctrine become less crucial.

There has been some discussion of whether Beck, a convert to Mormonism, can really connect to Protestants and Catholics, some of whom view the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a cult rather than an authentic Christian denomination. No doubt some evangelical/fundamentalist Christians will reject Beck, but his personal appeal could overcome those objections for many others.

Race

There’s also nothing new in Beck’s analysis of race. Like most conservatives, he argues that America’s racism is mostly a thing of the past, and that racial justice means a level playing field that offers equal opportunity but does not guarantee equal outcomes. Rather than come to terms with the way white supremacy continues to affect those outcomes through institutionalized racism and unconscious prejudices, folks like Beck prefer a simple story about personal transcendence and the end of racism.

What was different about Beck’s version of this story was the supporting cast. There were a lot of non-white people on the stage, including a significant number of African Americans. The rally went well beyond the tokenism that we are used to seeing, not only in the Republican Party but also in institutions throughout society. Beck not only gave a featured speaking slot to Alveda King — one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nieces, no doubt selected to bolster his claim to be speaking in the MLK tradition — but also paid close attention to race throughout the day. Take a look at the lineup for the presenters of the three civilian badges of merit for faith, hope, and charity: An American Indian presenting to an African-American; a white man presenting to a Dominican; and a Mexican-American presenting to a white man, with a black woman accepting on his behalf.

Is it all cynical and symbolic? For those of us who are white, do we have a right to ask that question in the presence of so much passion from the people of color on stage? These weren’t cardboard cutouts shoved in front of a camera to add color, but an eclectic mix of people, all espousing a fundamental faith that they seemed to share with Beck.

Whether a movement rooted in Beck’s approach can gain wide acceptance in non-white communities is not the only question. For white people who are struggling with how to live (or, at least, appear to live) a commitment to racial justice, this kind of space will be attractive. Tea Party gatherings are weighed down by an overt racial ideology that limits their appeal; Beck may have a strategy that overcomes that problem, creating a movement that has a significant enough non-white component to make white people feel good about themselves without really challenging white dominance.

Redemption

The key message of the “Restoring Honor” rally was redemption, personal and collective, the personal intertwined with the collective. Unlike some reactionary right-wingers, Beck spoke often about America’s mistakes — though all of them are set safely in the past. Rather than try to downplay slavery, he highlighted it. It is one of America’s “scars,” a term he repeated over and over, to emphasize that our moral and political failures are from history, not of this moment.

“America has been both terribly good and terribly bad,” leaving us with a choice, he said. “We either let those scars crush us or redeem us.” Just as all individuals sin, so do all nations. Just as in our personal life we seek redemption, so do we as a nation. Framed that way, who would not want to choose the path of redemption?

But while on one level America has sinned, on another level it is beyond reproach. “It’s not just a country, it’s an idea, that man can rule himself,” Beck said. An idea remains pure, which means we don’t have to wonder whether there’s something about our political and economic systems that leads to failures; injustice must be the product of individual’s mistakes, not flaws in the systems in which they operate.

This is all standard conservative ideology as well. The United States is not just a nation struggling to be more democratic, but is the essence of democracy. Our wars are, by definition, wars of liberation. The wealth-concentrating capitalist system is not an impediment to freedom but is the essence of freedom. How any of this jibes with the egalitarian and anti-imperial spirit of the Gospels is off the table, because the United States is a Christian country and the idea of the United States is beyond reproach.

But, again, the key to Beck’s success is not just the ideology but the way he puts it all together. A nation whose wealth rests on genocide, slavery, and ongoing domination of the Third World is the nation that defines faith, hope, and charity? Beck “proves” it by connecting Moses to George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. All are part of the same tradition, the same striving for freedom.

Beck is the perfect person to sing this redemption song. He talks openly of the alcohol and drug abuse that ruled his life until he discovered his faith in God. Unlike George W. Bush, Beck tells the story with conviction. Perhaps both Bush and Beck tell the truth about their experience, but Beck makes you feel it is the truth in a way Bush could never pull off.

Reactions

Wait a minute, you say, none of this makes a lick of sense. Beck tosses a confused and confusing word salad that rewrites history and ignores reality. Maybe it sounds good, if you throw in enough energetic music and inspirational personal stories from veterans, ministers, philanthropists, and skillful TV personalities. But it’s really nothing but old right-wing ideology, no matter how slick and heartfelt the presentation.

What would Beck’s supporters say? Probably something like this:

So, you are one of those who wants to keep picking at the scars. Why do you lack faith, reject hope, refuse to offer charity? Why do you turn away from the values and principles that made us great? Glenn said it: “We must advance or perish. I choose, advance.” Glenn wants to help us advance, and you want us to perish.

I agree that Beck is wrong about almost everything. I agree that given his record of demagoguery and deception, he is unfit for work in the news media or political leadership. I agree that he may be one of those people incapable of sincerity, someone whose “real” personality is indistinguishable from his stage persona. I agree that he’s a scary guy.

I agree with all that, which is why I don’t really like Glenn Beck. If I ever got close to Beck I would probably like him even less. But after watching his performance on a screen over those three hours, I understand why it’s so easy to like him, at least on a screen. His convoluted mix of arrogance and humility is likeable, so long as one doesn’t look too closely at the details.

More than ever, people in the United States don’t want to look at details, because the details are bleak. Beck is on the national stage at a time when we face real collapse. One need not be a Revelation-quoting end-timer to recognize that we are a nation on the way down, living on a planet that is no longer able to supply the endless bounty of our dreams. That’s a difficult reality to face, one that many clamor to deny.

The danger of Beck is not just his appeal to fellow conservatives, but rather his appeal to anyone who wants to deny reality. My fear is not that he will galvanize a conservative base and make a bid for leadership of that part of the political spectrum, but that his message will resonate with moderates, maybe even some liberals, who despair over the future.

Does worrying about Beck’s appeal beyond the far right seem far fetched? The most important rhetorical move Beck made on Saturday was to claim the rally “has nothing to do with politics.” Many people across the ideological spectrum want desperately to escape from contemporary politics, which seems to be a source of endless frustration and heartbreak.

To those people, Glenn Beck’s redemption song will be seductive.

ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). Jensen is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu

More articles by:

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. He can be reached atrjensen@austin.utexas.edu or online at http://robertwjensen.org/.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
February 21, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Election Con 2020: Exposing Trump’s Deception on the Opioid Epidemic
Joshua Frank
Bloomberg is a Climate Change Con Man
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Billion Dollar Babies
Paul Street
More Real-Time Reflections from Your Friendly South Loop Marxist
Jonathan Latham
Extensive Chemical Safety Fraud Uncovered at German Testing Laboratory
Ramzy Baroud
‘The Donald Trump I know’: Abbas’ UN Speech and the Breakdown of Palestinian Politics
Martha Rosenberg
A Trump Sentence Commutation Attorneys Generals Liked
Ted Rall
Bernie Should Own the Socialist Label
Louis Proyect
Encountering Malcolm X
Kathleen Wallace
The Debate Question That Really Mattered
Jonathan Cook
UN List of Firms Aiding Israel’s Settlements was Dead on Arrival
George Wuerthner
‘Extremists,’ Not Collaborators, Have Kept Wilderness Whole
Colin Todhunter
Apocalypse Now! Insects, Pesticide and a Public Health Crisis  
Stephen Reyna
A Paradoxical Colonel: He Doesn’t Know What He is Talking About, Because He Knows What He is Talking About.
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A New Solar Power Deal From California
Richard Moser
One Winning Way to Build the Peace Movement and One Losing Way
Laiken Jordahl
Trump’s Wall is Destroying the Environment We Worked to Protect
Walden Bello
Duterte Does the Right Thing for a Change
Jefferson Morley
On JFK, Tulsi Gabbard Keeps Very Respectable Company
Vijay Prashad
Standing Up for Left Literature: In India, It Can Cost You Your Life
Gary Leupp
Bloomberg Versus Bernie: The Upcoming Battle?
Richard Klin
Loss Leaders
Gaither Stewart
Roma: How Romans Differ From Europeans
Kerron Ó Luain
The Soviet Century
Mike Garrity
We Can Fireproof Homes But Not Forests
Fred Baumgarten
Gaslighting Bernie and His Supporters
Joseph Essertier
Our First Amendment or Our Empire, But Not Both
Peter Linebaugh
A Story for the Anthropocene
Danny Sjursen
Where Have You Gone Smedley Butler?
Dave Lindorff
What’s a Social Democratic Political Program Really Mean?
Jill Richardson
A Broken Promise to Teachers and Nonprofit Workers
Binoy Kampmark
“Leave Our Bloke Alone”: A Little Mission for Julian Assange
Wade Sikorski
Oil or Food? Notes From a Farmer Who Doesn’t Think Pipelines are Worth It
Christopher Brauchli
The Politics of Vengeance
Hilary Moore – James Tracy
No Fascist USA! Lessons From a History of Anti-Klan Organizing
Linn Washington Jr.
Ridiculing MLK’s Historic Garden State ‘Firsts’
L. Michael Hager
Evaluating the Democratic Candidates: the Importance of Integrity
Jim Goodman
Bloomberg Won’t, as They Say, Play Well in Peoria, But Then Neither Should Trump
Olivia Alperstein
We Need to Treat Nuclear War Like the Emergency It Is
Eleanor Eagan
As the Primary Race Heats Up, Candidates Forget Principled Campaign Finance Stands
Jesse Jackson
Kerner Report Set Standard for What a Serious Presidential Candidate Should Champion
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Home Sweet Home: District Campaign Financing
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Latest BLM Hoodwinkery: “Fuel Breaks” in the Great Basin
Wendell Griffen
Grace and Gullibility
Cesar Chelala
Brazil’s Bolsonaro Says No to Democracy
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail