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Race and Beyond: God Made Me Do It

SOURCE: AP/ Alex Brandon

Glenn Beck holds hands with faith leaders at his "Restoring Honor" rally on the National Mall on Saturday, August 28, 2010. At the rally, Beck made sure to make it clear that the Tea Party is a religious movement. 

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So now we know what the Tea Party stands for and who stands behind it.

Until this past weekend, the various factions of what’s collectively known as the Tea Party struggled to define who they are and what they represent. The amorphous movement backed by some of the wealthiest conservatives in the country couldn’t decide if it was a political organization, an ideological alternative to the Democratic or Republican parties, or an Internet-inspired and media-driven coalition of grassroots activists whose organizational base exists ephemerally in the nexus of the World Wide Web and right-wing blab shows.

The Tea Party’s split personality led its folk to wrestle with what a Tea Party platform should contain. Should it be exclusively about eliminating all taxes and rolling back progressive social programs? Or should it demonize President Barack Obama and glorify former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to boost web traffic and daily viewership? Or maybe it should focus on the relationship between the Tea Party and local, state, and federal governments? Could it be all of this? Or none?

Well, leave it to conservative Fox News entertainer Glenn Beck to declare definitively what the Tea Party stands for and who stands behind it–the All Mighty. Beck made clear at his rally this past weekend on the National Mall that the Tea Party is, in fact, a religious movement. “Something that is beyond man is happening,” Beck said, sounding like an evangelical preacher. “America today begins to turn back to God.”

Beck, who organized the rally and heavily promoted it on his television show, said divine inspiration directed his decision to have the gathering on the same day 47 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Beck declared that politics had no place on the agenda and that his fuzzy version of Christian redemption was necessary to “restore” America to an idealized past. So, he said, it was God’s will that he stand in the same place as King to issue his regressive definition of what the Tea Party represents.

But other than time and place, the Beck-led antigovernment rally shared little with King’s Baptist-fired civil rights demonstration. Most significantly, King used his moment to call upon the federal government to produce voting, housing, and economic rights for black Americans. King’s speech was an affirming call for government action. Not so with Beck’s religion-flavored rant, which was at its heart a negative protest against the government and the people it aims to help.

Indeed, the day after his rally on the National Mall Beck declared that the Tea Party does not stand for social justice of any kind, telling Fox News that his new religious movement stands in contrast to liberation theology, which he says underpins President’s Obama’s faith. Predictably mischaracterizing the president’s faith and Christian-inspired social justice the president supports, Beck said “it’s a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it.”

If so, it’s also a perversion of exactly what King preached and Beck mimics. King envisioned the mountaintop where our nation moved forward, to grant justice and equality to all its citizens. King’s speech soared with its language that stands to this day in diametric opposition to the call by Beck for a return to an era when white males defined and imposed their self-idolizing view of American culture and society. Those days are long gone, thanks in part to the protests, marches, and martyrdom of social justice advocates like King.

Palin, who is something of the movement’s star attraction since her failed run as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, confirmed Beck’s not so hidden agenda behind his religious revivalism. “We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want,” she said in what sounded like part-political swipe at President Obama and part-religious call to order. “We must restore America and restore her honor.”

It’s fairly obvious what Beck and Palin are attempting. In marketing terms, they are repackaging the old, stale product of white resentment that lurks at the heart of the Beck’s popularity and Tea Party outrage. Having exhausted racist tactics, Beck and his Tea Party faithful seek mainstream acceptability by cloaking their politics of resentment in a religious shawl. He links God and support for the military with his talk of “turning back” and “restoring honor.” This is old wine in new bottles, an appeal to the disaffected and frightened white Americans who see the nation changing right before their eyes.

Changing how? Our nation is becoming browner as racial minorities emerge as a greater percentage of the population. Demographers estimate that by the year 2050, the United States will no longer be a majority white nation. In contrast, those who attended last weekend’s Tea Party rally and demanded to “take back” their nation were overwhelmingly white.

Try as Beck might with his turn toward religious rhetoric and populist sleight of hand, his teary yelping is a tin-eared imitation of King’s prophetic voice. Indeed, the idea that Tea Party activists embraced Beck as the second coming of King—at a time when the nation is becoming increasingly multicultural—demonstrates why this religion gambit is doomed to fail.

Until Beck, Palin, and Tea Party believers link their national aspirations to an inclusive, affirming, and forward-looking view of the nation, the Tea Party will remain a murky mess, deeply mired in the right-wing’s crack-pot fringe.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of polices on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here