By Andrew R. Murphy
There are any number of ways to interpret the [recent] events on the National Mall: the dueling rallies, the competition over the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream,” the intertwining of piety, politics, and patriotism. Many of these have already been blogged and commented on ad infinitum. And so first, to the obvious: Glenn Beck is no Martin Luther King. Beck’s movement is not King’s movement. This rally was not that rally. We know that. And the incongruity of it all (white middle-class Christians being comforted about their essential goodness on the very grounds where King had called a nation to account for its grievous moral failings) has been noisily pointed out by Rev. Al Sharpton’s counter-rally, by bloggers and pundits on the left, and by many surviving members of the Civil Rights movements.
What Beck does share with King, however, is that each sought to play prophet to a nation gone astray. That one of them became a national icon, a martyr for the cause of civil rights, and the other hosts a cable television show and has referred to himself as a “rodeo clown” (not to mention that one preached racial justice and reconciliation, while the other denounced the nation’s first African-American president as a “racist… with deep-seated hatred for whites and white culture”) shouldn’t diminish the significance of this observation. Nor should the fact that the diagnoses of the nation’s ills by each of these prophets, the sorts of solutions they offered, and the vision of the future that emerged from each rally could hardly be more different. The two rallies were attempts to bring a prophetic voice to America, and each one was framed by a jeremiad—a prophetic critique of the degenerate present in light of an enduring national mission. The jeremiad as a form of political rhetoric has a long history in the American tradition, and so it is worth taking another look at these two Jeremiahs on the Mall.
Promise of Liberty, Legacy of Injustice
King rose at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 to call the nation to account; to insist on the redemption of an American founding promise. The “dream” that he so eloquently voiced that day was actually built on a much more mundane image—that of a bounced check. King reported that he and his fellow marchers “have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” written by the nation’s founders, “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” Unfortunately, he continued, “America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned… America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
The American past and present, in King’s view, was defined largely by the unwillingness of the nation to honor the check written at the founding. And so the inheritance from the past was a dual one: a founding promise of liberty and equality in theory, and a legacy of slavery and segregation in practice. The change sought by King and the civil rights movement was motivated by a desire to overcome, or to redeem, the latter by finally realizing the potential of the former. This pointed contrast of present with past—of founding covenant with degenerate practice—is central to the power of King’s prophetic political critique.
Contrast all of this with the tenor of the contemporary conservative movement. Central to the traditionalist conservatism espoused by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, the two featured speakers at Saturday’s “Restoring Honor” rally, is the idea that the values and practices that dominated the nation’s life during previous eras—traditional families, (Christian) religion in the public sphere, celebration of the military, the equation of white America with “real” America—must be those that lead it into the future. This is the “honor” that needs to be restored, and despite the minor brouhaha caused by Beck’s admission earlier this month that he didn’t think gay marriage was a particular threat to the nation (or Palin’s constant attempt to claim the mantle of feminism), the insistently backward-looking nature of the 2010 rally betrayed a rather different valorization of the past than King’s lament over the squandering of founding promise.
Where King’s dream called for deep and radical transformation (the dismantling of Jim Crow, the passage of meaningful civil rights and voting rights legislation, real equality of economic opportunity such as had never before been witnessed in the nation’s history), on Saturday Sarah Palin set herself foursquare against any such questioning of the nation’s current practices:
I must assume that you too know that we must not fundamentally transform America as some would want. We must restore America and restore her honor!
So rather than transformation, we need restoration.
Apolitical? Not by a Long Shot
Beck said before the rally that he saw his role as “to wake America up onto the backsliding of principles and values most importantly of God.” He spoke on Saturday of a nation that has “wandered in the darkness too long,” and called on his listeners to rededicate themselves to faith and country, steering clear of commenting on specific pieces of legislation. Indeed, one of the more interesting claims made by Beck and his fellow organizers was that the rally was not “political.” Even the New York Times’ Ross Douthat claimed that “[Beck] had promised that the rally… would be an explicitly apolitical event. And so it came to pass.” But Douthat goes on to identify what was really at the heart of Saturday’s gathering: “a long festival of affirmation for middle-class, white Christians.” What he seems to mean is that the rally’s speakers did not explicitly endorse a particular legislative agenda. But anyone who thinks that such a “festival of affirmation for middle-class, white Christians,” given the nation’s current religious and political landscape, is “apolitical” needs—to say the least—a more robust and nuanced definition of politics.
Both of these would-be Jeremiahs (King and Beck) sought to call the nation to something, something deeply American as they understood that term. The different registers in which they spoke, the different approaches they took to the past, and the different issues on which they chose to focus their criticisms, though, betray fundamentally different understandings of prophecy and its relation to political critique. Beck’s critique evoked tradition, Christian faith, and the goodness of America, suggesting that his listeners “concentrate on the good things in America, the things we have accomplished and the things we can do tomorrow.” By contrast, King sought to transform the very foundations of an American society shot through with racial prejudice, to bring the past to bear on the present as a form of critique, to transcend past and present practices, to draw on the nation’s founding to envision a new future of racial harmony.
Of course one might object that unlike King, who confronted a governmentally-sanctioned system of American apartheid, we in the twenty-first century face no such organized evil and thus the nation needs no fundamental transformations in the way it clearly did in 1963. But this seems to me precisely the point in distinguishing Beck’s from King’s attempts at prophecy. The kind of celebration of tradition that lies at the heart of the Christian Right’s interpretation of American history and its interpretation of American politics rules out, almost by definition, the kind of searching national self-critique that King insisted on.
With a Gaze Set Boldly Backward
In my most recent book, I explore the history of the American jeremiad—the political preaching of such Jeremiahs—as a form of political rhetoric since the earliest days of colonial settlements. I examine the different ways in which traditionalists and progressives have sought to indict American society and mobilize political coalitions throughout American history, and the religious and political figures who have sought to play prophet to the nation since colonial times. King’s speech in 1963, not surprisingly, was one of the great moments of the progressive tradition in American political rhetoric, and it has achieved the sort of iconic status that so often blunts later generations’ appreciation of King’s edgy calls for reform, and his invocation of the “sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent.” Traditionalists, on the other hand, have long used the eclipse of institutional Christianity in the nation’s public life as a stalking horse for political movements (most recently, the Christian Right), and the Beck-Palin event fits squarely into the larger dynamic of a reaction against 1960s-style progressivism.
And here, it seems, lies the fundamental difference between the two rallies: King called the nation forward into the fuller realization of its founding principles; while Beck and Palin directed the nation’s gaze backward. In Palin’s America, like Beck’s, the future would look much like the past, with an aggressive public Christianity and a federal government weakened in its ability to safeguard the rights of religious or other minorities. King, of course, talked of the past as well, but although his dream was “deeply rooted in the American dream” and (in some way, he insisted) consistent with the nation’s founding principles, realizing that dream would require deep and lasting change. The dream would not become reality until the nation paid the check that it had bounced repeatedly over the course of its history.
When it comes down to it, of course, King’s speech would have remained just words—stirring words, perhaps, but just words—without a successful political movement that braved all sorts of dangers in pursuit of their understanding of American ideals and the meaning of the nation’s founding promises. What will become of Beck remains to be seen. But the rodeo clown who bills his program as “the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment” has certainly ensured that he will not fade from the limelight anytime soon.
Andrew R. Murphy is Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. He is the author of Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11. This article originally appeared on Religion Dispatches and is reposted with permission.