Here we go again. A self-promoting TV evangelist has summoned yet another gullible throng to a Washington pep rally/prayer meeting, and everybodys expected to ponder its vast significance. But what if it hasnt actually got any? Except perhaps as a validation of H.L. Menckens timeless observation that No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
To Fox News impresario Glenn Beck, who staged the so-called anti-Woodstock at the Lincoln Memorial, its impact was literally cosmic. In promos, Beck modestly compared the event to such landmarks in American history as the Declaration of Independence, Iwo Jima, the moon landing, the Montgomery school bus boycott, and, of course, to Martin Luther King Jr.s epochal I Have a Dream speech, delivered on the same date in 1963.
Claiming divine inspiration, the former disc jockey promised miracles. Youre going to see the spirit of God unleashed, he told his radio audience. Even the weather signaled the Lords approval. Dare I say it, God is smiling? Afterward, Beck showed video of a flock of Canada geese honking their way over the Tidal Mall. Gods flyover, he called it, and a miracle.
Beck then appeared on (where else?) Fox News Sunday, to pronounce President Obama an adept of liberation theology, which he decreed a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Beck himself is a Mormon.
This may have puzzled Fox News viewers who think the presidents a Muslim, but lets not sweat the small stuff. Beck could call Obama a Zoroastrian or a space alien and his fans wouldnt know the difference.
To the Associated Press, the portents were more mundane, but nevertheless significant. If Democrats had doubts about the voter unrest that threatens to rob them of their majority in Congress, Phillip Elliotts account began, they needed only look from the Capitol this weekend to the opposite end of the National Mall. Neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to ignore the antiestablishment fervor displayed Saturday during Becks rally.
On the left, some of my own more excitable correspondents saw the KKK. Exchange the white sheets for the black robe regiment, wrote one fellow with reference to Becks (basically imaginary) army of evangelical Founding Fathers. Another observer at Firedoglake.com made the obligatory Nazi comparison, writing of Beckstallnacht, as in Kristallnacht anti-Jewish pogroms in 1938.
Even the estimable David Niewart saw something ominous. Given the content of Becks rally, he wrote, something significant did happen Saturday, and it will affect our discourse going forward: Beck officially and publicly married the tea party movement to the Religious Right. That is a deeply disturbing development.
So what else is new? The tea party conterminous with the Religious Right? Why next theyll be saying the Moral Majoritys allied to the Christian Coalition!
Lets take them in order. First, regarding the 2010 congressional elections, if even 10 percent of the estimated 100,000 or so attending Becks shindig had voted for President Obama to begin with, it might have political significance.
But as thats highly unlikely, all that the gathering tells us is something we already knew. An awful lot of rural and small-town white Protestants feel estranged and a little paranoid, especially given bad economic times.
Partly its what psychiatrists call projection: Will they now be treated as second-class citizens? Its also partly a reflection of the fact that rednecks are basically the only American ethnic group its still OK to lampoon. These are Becks people. But they were always going to vote GOP, because they always have.
Second, Ill start heeding warnings about brown shirts when mobs of unemployed young men start smashing windows and burning cars. Crowds of retirees singing patriotic hymns and praying are no more objectionable than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and no real threat to anybody.
Fox Newss average audience is 65. Because hes on in the afternoon, Becks demographic probably trends older. Fifteen years ago, the old-timers attending his politicized prayer meeting were all agog about the Rev. Jerry Falwells lurid video The Clinton Chronicles, portraying a Democratic president and his wife as drug smugglers and murderers.
(In a filmed interview, I once asked Falwell if the commandment against false witness was less important than the one forbidding adultery. Rather to his credit, he said they were the same. Of course, what else could he say?)
More recently, the same cohort made Tim LaHayes awful End Times novels a huge bestseller. Theres always been a big audience in the United States for conspiracy theories and religious melodrama. The apocalyptic theology of the hard-shell denominations where hucksters like Beck and his co-star Sarah Palin have their biggest following basically demands it. Its Satan worship one year, secular humanism the next. The latest bogeyman is Islamic fundamentalist Shariah law, an almost purely theoretical threat in the USA.
Which actually constitutes progress. Back in Menckens day the enemies were Catholics and Jews.
Gene Lyons, National Magazine Award winner and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, writes a weekly column for Newspaper Enterprise Association. A Southerner with a liberal viewpoint, Lyons comments on politics and national issues.