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Glenn Beck’s ecumenical moment

Predictably, conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally Saturday on the National Mall has evoked a lot of consternation.

For instance, Greg Sargent of the Washington Post argues that because the rally explicitly avoided trumpeting a political agenda, it was all the more insidiously political. “Beck repeatedly claimed that his rally wasn’t meant to be ‘political,’ ” writes Sargent. “As high-minded as that may sound, the real point of stressing the rally’s apolitical goals was political.” By leaving the listener to infer an anti-Obama agenda from all of this talk of lost honor, Beck was practicing “classic political demagoguery,” according to Sargent.

In other words, if Beck had instead invited hundreds of thousands of anti-Obama signs and carved up President Obama like a turkey dinner, folks like Sargent would think the rally was less demagogic? Hmmm.

Obviously, Sargent’s not entirely wrong about the political resonance of the rally. It was a conservative- and libertarian-tinged event. It would have been impossible without the right-leaning “tea party” movement. That Beck and Sarah Palin attracted a massive crowd (estimates vary) to the National Mall is a sign that things are not going swimmingly for Obama and the Democrats.

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But the partisan implications of the rally really aren’t that interesting. One striking feature was how deeply religious, and ecumenical, it was. It seems like just yesterday that everyone was talking about how Christian evangelicals were too bigoted to vote for the upright and uptight Mormon, Mitt Romney. Yet Christians saw no problem cheering for — and praying with — the equally Mormon, but far less uptight, Beck, who asked citizens to go to “your churches, synagogues and mosques!”

And while the crowd was preponderantly white, the message was racially universal — on the stage and in the crowd. When Reason TV’s Nick Gillespie asked a couple whether as “African Americans” they felt comfortable in such a white audience, the woman responded emphatically but good-naturedly. “I’m not African, I am an American … a black American.” She went on to say “these people” — i.e. the white folks cheering her on — “are my family.”

Peter Viereck, a largely forgotten conservative intellectual, would have found this familiar. During the 1950s, he noted that anti-communism had the remarkable effect of lessening inter-ethnic tensions among like-minded activists. Anti-communist blacks were celebrated and welcomed by anti-communist whites. Anti-communist immigrants and Jews were welcomed to the supposedly xenophobic and anti-Semitic movement. Viereck, who disliked the phenomenon, dubbed it “transtolerance.”

I’m more upbeat about the dynamic. There’s been a lot of debate , largely in the context of the so-called ground zero mosque, about the evils of American identity. Will Wilkinson, an influential liberal-libertarian writer, sees opposition to the proposed mosque as a reprehensible expression of the “cult of American identity” and the “zaniness of right identity politics.” The upshot of his argument is that it is preposterous for Americans to see themselves as a people.

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Meanwhile, Ross Douthat recently dedicated his New York Times column to the idea that there are “two Americas.” One is wholly secular, “where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival … is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.” The other America is culturally defined. “This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics.” Douthat’s on to something, but I’d put it differently. America’s conception of itself as a people is what has kept it faithful to the Constitution.

I confess, if Beck wasn’t a libertarian, I would find his populism terrifying. But his basic message, flaws notwithstanding, is that our constitutional heritage largely defines us as a people, regardless of race, religion or creed. Is that so insulting to Martin Luther King Jr.'s memory?

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com


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