Well, it was a busy Saturday in “River City.” No, not the fictional place in Iowa, where Meredith Wilson set his musical The Music Man but Washington, D.C. (hereafter known as “Potomac City”). Wilson’s story revolved around a traveling salesman, “Professor” Harold Hill, who persuades a town that he can turn an atonal and uninterested group of boys into an effective band. Its citizens willingly provided him with the funds to supply the lads with instruments, uniforms, and musical instruction. Hill’s initial plan was to skip town before the band was put to the test. But as they say in the theater, “a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.” The professor had to make good, lest he be exposed by another con man.
Last weekend, Potomac City welcomed a new “professor” to town, Glenn Beck. This time, the conductor was a noted political commentator on Fox News, publisher of instant books, and self-proclaimed explainer of American history to the ill-informed public. (Graduates of his academy know Woodrow Wilson as the man “responsible” for the Holocaust and Theodore Roosevelt as a practitioner of what we currently know as “fascism.”) His costar was former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. She arrived fresh from taking another victory bow, after her preferred candidate won yet another Republican primary--this time in her state. (Price of her fee and whether she charged: unknown.)
The oddest thing about Beck’s “happening” (a word from the 1960s) was its billing. Beck and his promoters claimed the event was not “political.” Organizers of his “Redemption” rally were reported to have advised participants not to carry signs with political messages. One story noted that there would be no “Republican officials” present. (As a former official-turned full-time celebrity, Palin was certainly not one of these.) “What then is Beck’s extravaganza to be?” many wondered. And, “why is a non-political event being held on the National Mall, where millions had assembled to air grievances and petition their government, before and after Martin Luther King’s celebrated ‘March on Washington’ in 1963.” Beck and his organizers kept their silence.
Standing in for the mayor of Wilson’s “River City” was none other than the Reverend Al Sharpton. After first proclaiming that it was sacrilege for Beck to lead his followers to a site where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 47 years ago, Sharpton organized what was billed as a “counter-protest.” Against what, we were never told. But, if Beck was for something, Sharpton had to be against it. The reverend’s criticism of Beck drew the professor additional attention. Worked like a charm.
On the morning the conclave took place, Beck finally revealed its purpose. He wanted to bring America closer to God. Having given up politics for religion for at least one day, Beck ventured into this area where his bona fides are less widely accepted--even on the political right--than they are in the political realm. By Sunday, newspapers were reporting some unease among religious leaders, some of them conservative, about what religion Beck practices, whether he is a “Christian,” and over what the popular pundit and entertainer was telling their flock. “Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged” obviously had not made it into his repertoire.
Beck accused the president of practicing “liberation theology,” a doctrine that reduces most problems into a struggle between victims and oppressors and advocates remedying past ills through reparations and redistribution. (Marxism, of course, does the same thing, but without the theological underpinnings.)
But in shifting his focus away from the president’s economic failings to his religious convictions, Beck, as he often does in his history lessons, made some wild accusations based on scanty evidence and false assumptions. In one foul swoop, Professor Beck presented his pupils with hypotheses he might term “loony” had they come from the left. He presented the following with a certainty worthy of Professor Hill:
- That the president is a man of religious convictions;
- That his religious beliefs account more for his actions than any other factor;
- That the president adheres to “liberation theology”;
- That Obama’s redistributionist and spending practices emanate from his religious beliefs, rather than in ideology;
- That the way out of current economic difficulties lay in electing a president with different religious views.
Beck was obviously not paying attention when the “born again,” sanctimonious, church-going Carter gave way to the highly un-preachy Reagan. In Obama-speak, that was indeed a “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.” The rest of us know it as a time when taxes were cut, the economy grew, the Soviet Union crumbled, and Americans regained confidence, both in themselves and in their country’s place in the world.
With the national economy still in the tank and nearly 10 percent of its workforce unemployed, Beck’s audiences might have benefited more from less prayer last Saturday and more policy pronouncements and political organizing. Here on earth, John F. Kennedy reminded us, “God’s work must truly be our own.”