Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday was a civil religion rally. It was a pageant of American patriotism and generic Christianity, treating the two as identical. The heart of the event was an awards show for a few people Beck liked, with a fund-raiser for a military charity added on. Beck's own speech, coming about two hours into the rally, yearned for new heroes, new George Washingtons, to step forward and do ... something.
The great puzzle of "Restoring Honor" came from trying to figure out what Beck and his audience thought was threatening America's honor. A careful listener would hear several references to "wallowing in the scars" of American history, one section against those who "spread fear," and a single reference to leaving our children with large debts. Beck had to deny that he was spreading fear - by his account, he was just telling the truth about a threat that loomed like the iceberg before the Titanic.
But what iceberg Beck thinks he sees is a mystery.
I thought that there might be an unspoken subtext that everyone present knew but thought it too politically incorrect to say. One of my Facebook respondents thought that what drove the rally was a nativist fear of them, led by an alien brown president. I do not think that is what drove this rally. The crowd was, indeed, almost completely white, but the performers very pointedly were not. Beck made much of the fact that the date and place for his rally were the same as for Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, which was genuinely cheered by the crowd.
Another correspondent suggested what I think is a more plausible explanation: archetypes of Good versus Evil, of heroes and villains, that makes fantasy books, graphic novels, movies, and video games so popular. Beck's sermons were celebrations of America's goodness and heroes coupled with a call for ordinary people in his audience to be heroes today. He not only did not specify what the heroes should fight against, he repeatedly rejected "wallowing in the scars" - that is, thinking and talking about what had been wrong with America - as the very source of evil.
There was nothing wrong with what was said and celebrated at the "Restoring Honor" rally. The content was so vague, though, that I don't think many would turn out for a repeat performance.