08/31/2010 01:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Hijacking of the Almighty

Have I missed something? Perhaps I have. Or is one of the troubling undersides of the Glenn Beck rally on the Lincoln Memorial last Saturday not yet receiving the full coverage that it deserves?

• The rally has rightly been criticized as a questionable attempt to exploit the legacy of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement which he led. This country has no history of excluding white males from voting or from sitting at food counters; and certainly no history of white men being lynched simply for looking at an African-American woman. Many of Glenn Beck's overwhelmingly white supporters at the rally may feel persecuted and unloved, but in the full story of persecution and racial hatred in this country they don't even make the front row. Indeed, when Glenn Beck was reminded by Chris Wallace on Fox News immediately after the rally that the original civil rights movement had an economic agenda as well as a political one - that the original March on Washington was one for jobs as well as for freedom - Beck explicitly rejected the legacy of that wider agenda. But rights without resources, as Lyndon Johnson once said, are not full rights at all. "The man who is hungry, who cannot find work or educate his children, who is bowed by want, that man is not fully free." Martin Luther King understood that - it was what took him to Memphis and his death - but Glenn Beck clearly does not.

• The rally has also been rightly criticized for pretending to be non-political while talking in apocalyptical terms about the country going in the wrong direction under the current administration. Maybe the main speakers just about negotiated that pitfall, purporting to be non-political by focusing on our men and women in uniform - honoring them as though only conservatives do that. But people in the crowd appeared pretty clear. They were there, yes to honor our soldiers - and to restore honor (which clearly in their view has been lost) - a political statement in itself - but when asked, many let it be known that they there to protest very specific things as well: to protest weak foreign policy, to protest high taxes, to protest the stimulus package and welfare handouts... And, of course, they were there to hear Sarah Palin, that well known paragon of non-partisanship, who - commissioned to speak as a mother of a combat veteran - let her political guard down just once, rejecting those who would fundamentally transform America instead of restoring it and its honor. Obama, beware!

Both are important critiques. Both have been extensively made.

But what about the Beck claim that, in the wake of the rally, America was turning back to God? How about the implication of that claim: the assertion that, before the rally occurred, the nation was turning away from God, that the rally itself was a key religious turning point, and that the turn being made was purely religiously-informed? How about the hijacking of Christianity that went on at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday? How does that play into an undercurrent of animosity among certain Tea Party folk towards our black president - the man whom so many conservative activists still continue simultaneously to condemn both for following Jeremiah Wright and for being a closet Muslim!

We have to ask them. Do Christianity and conservatism automatically go together? Is the New Testament a clarion call against Big Government? It was always implied but never said, at the rally on Saturday, that "turning back to God" meant turning away from even the modest centrist policies of the Obama administration. An individual relationship with The Almighty segued, in the arguments of Beck and Palin, into an anti-statist politics in which the solution to all our current difficulties required, as Glenn Beck later said on Fox News, primarily personal salvation. So no big government - just a turn back to God.

The question is: what sort of God?

• At what point did Jesus give up on Big Government?
• At what point did Jesus' "rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" turn itself into an argument for low taxation?
• When did the man who preached the Sermon on the Mount suddenly become a convert to trickle-down economics?
• When did the thesis that "it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle" become an argument for the extension of all the Bush Tax cuts, including those to the rich?

I don't know the answer to those questions; but it would appear that many people at the rally on Saturday do. For how else could their Christianity and their conservatism have so easily merged together?

In a society as serious about its religions as this one, any movement that can wrap its politics inside the Bible (or even inside the Book of Mormon) has a huge claim on people's loyalties. I assume Glenn Beck knows that, which is presumably why he is so keen to do that wrapping. But Christians come in many political shades, not just one; so where is the voice of the Christian Left, or even the Christian Center, shouting "foul" at this hijacking of their religion by one particular political philosophy?

That shout needs to be made, for if Beck can get away unchallenged on this theft now, presumably he will do it again - and each time to greater effect.

Jim Wallis has regularly made the counter-case to Beck's particular brand of religiosity, but when that brand fills the amphitheatre before the Lincoln Memorial and holds the attention of the world's media, his voice must not be the only one. It is time for all of us to remember - and to announce, loud and strong -that if Jesus were to return to earth today, the odds are that he would not be a modern-day Republican or a Tea Party activist. He would be way too compassionate for that.

For a fuller discussion of the arguments developed here, see Chapter 8 (Is God Necessarily Conservative?) in David Coates, Answering Back, New York: Continuum Books, 2010

First posted, with full sourcing, on