Glenn Beck surprised most pundits this weekend when his "Restoring Honor" event in Washington sounded less like a political rally and more like a Billy Graham crusade. The only thing missing was George Beverly Shea and the crowd singing several verses of "Just As I Am."
As he opened the rally, Beck announced, "Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God. For too long, this country has wandered in darkness." Those three statements -- no doubt, carefully chosen -- tap into a deep reservoir of religious sentiment held by one-quarter of all Americans. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, evangelical Protestants constitute 26.3 percent of the entire U.S. adult population. That figure excludes the 1.7 percent of American adults who affiliate as Mormon, which is Beck's chosen tradition. (In 1999, he converted from the Catholicism of his youth.) Even though Beck has never been a conservative Protestant, his comments on Saturday resonated with the way many evangelicals think.
Something that is beyond man is happening. Rick Warren opens The Purpose Driven Life with a similar declaration: "It's not about you." The megachurch pastor and bestselling author continues by saying, "If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose." Conservative Protestants don't only believe this; they work to persuade others to reach the same conclusion.
With those seven words, Glenn Beck accomplished two complementary but seemingly opposite objectives, much like Warren does at the outset of his book. He diminished the crowd's sense that they can do anything ultimately important while simultaneously endowing their attempts with a sense of sacred purpose. It's as if Beck said to the throngs, "Put away your placards, and give up on your political machinations. We're not in control." But using the exact same words, he was exhorting, "We have a bigger obligation to play whatever role we are given in this larger divine drama."
This relativizing/sacralizing of actions is precisely why evangelicals are so successful in American politics. Ever since Pat Robertson mobilized millions of them for his failed presidential bid, evangelicals have been faithful foot soldiers in the Republican army. As I found when researching my book, Faith in the Halls of Power, they feel a sense of calling to political involvement, but when they lose political races, they bounce back incredibly fast. In fact, they shake loose of political defeatism much faster than their liberal counterparts do. Why? Because their sense of moral obligation does not include final responsibility for the outcome. They leave that part to God. This was precisely Max Weber's point in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. European Calvinists worked hard and reinvested their capital to build more ventures, but ultimately, they trusted the profits to God. This surrender, in turn, granted them a good bit of freedom from existential angst, which allowed them to become highly effective capitalists.
America today begins to turn back to God. In his second declaration, Beck's confidence is expressed by the use of the active, present tense. This is not a jeremiad against an America that "ought to turn back to God" or that "will turn back or else pay the price." Instead, Beck simply reports with the swagger of an evangelist that already we are witnessing a societal transformation. A number of evangelical leaders--especially those of the old guard (such as James Dobson)--opine about the kinds of cultural changes currently afoot. More Americans are becoming religiously unaffiliated (the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life pegs the latest figure at 16 percent, which is up ten percentage points over the last decade), and a growing number of people are accepting the validity of homosexual unions, including, scholars say, younger evangelicals.
But Beck's message to the faithful is one of hope and promise: America has already begun the process of turning back to God. Secular observers may wonder why Beck devoted so much of his rally to communicate an overtly religious message. Standing where Dr. King had delivered his "I Have a Dream" message forty-seven years ago, Beck had single-handedly gathered a crowd that numbered into the hundreds of thousands. Why didn't he use such an occasion and venue to mobilize the multitudes for political action?
Actually, he did. It just doesn't sound that way to those who don't recognize the signals.
Woven into the very fabric of Protestantism is a reforming impulse. As University of Texas sociologist Michael Young has shown in Bearing Witness Against Sin, Protestants have been active political crusaders throughout American history. One may think that talk of turning back to God is only about spiritual matters. But to those for whom religion is a core identity, this turning back entails a total transformation--until politics flow out of religious convictions, not the other way around. As Reformed theologian and Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper once said, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!' " For secularists and critics of conservative Protestants, that is a scary sentiment. For Glenn Beck's primary audience on Saturday, it is gospel truth.
For too long, this country has wandered in darkness. By alluding to the Jews' wandering in the Sinai Desert after they escaped Pharaoh, Beck employs a rhetorical trope that is incredibly powerful for those who recognize the allusion. After they wandered in distress for a very long time, the Jews eventually entered the Promised Land.
There are any number of interpretations on what Glenn Beck might have in mind when he thinks of the Promised Land, at least the one on this side of heaven. No doubt, the Promised Land would entail the election of a Republican majority of Congress this fall, and it would mean a halt to a number of policy initiatives the Democrats have pushed forward over the last two years. But I think it's something more.
In order to enact the sort of vision that Beck and his supporters have for American public life, the country needs more people of faith mobilized for political and cultural action. Yet to win elections and change institutions like Washington and Hollywood, they have to build bridges with people who do not share their faith commitments. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush succeeded in this venture when they united social and economic conservatives, even as their administrations' policies pleased neither group fully.
Fundamentally, the Tea Party movement has mobilized economic conservatives but not the religious faithful. That's a problem for anyone interested in electoral victory, because religious voters remain the most organized constituency of the Republican Party. On Saturday, Glenn Beck began the process of bringing back together these two segments of the conservative movement. Who will benefit the most if this rapprochement holds? Look no further than the second most prominent Mormon in American conservatism today. Indeed, Beck's call to the faithful in Washington this weekend may very well signal the second coming of Mitt Romney.
D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist at Rice University and the author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.