Sunday, August 29, 2010

Glenn Beck's Puzzling Civil Religion Rally

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.


Peter Hoh said...

While you're looking for subtext, Beck is looking to build book sales and audience. The crowd? Looking for affirmation.

Beck is serving up moralistic therapeutic patriotism.

Heather said...

Everyone should watch the video's, then read Tommy’s report on it later on – and try figuring out what rally he was at?

Gruntled said...


Benjamin said...

This may be helpful in addressing the motivations of those who attended the rally:

This is a post on a blog run by some "big-name" political scientists who address contemporary political questions in light of academic research. It's worth a read! - Benjamin Knoll

Gruntled said...

Benjamin: The symmetry between left and right in when they feel threatened is a helpful point. However, I am still puzzled by what, exactly, the Beck followers find threatening, especially to America's honor. The anti-war movement at least had a war to protest.

Whit said...

I think the danger to our honor is in the Left's constantly looking at every problem being the fault of America, or the West, etc. Thus we have the President going around the world apologizing to thugs, theives, tyrants and theocrats (who can't come close to the US on any moral scale) for the supposed wrongs of the US. And we have his wife saying that the first time she was proud of her country was when it was getting close to making her husband President. We have a President that does not believe in the concept of American Exceptionalism. And we have a party in power that views the things that made this country great - individual liberty and responsibility, free markets and free trade - as something to be demolished.

These folks showed up to express their preference for the principles, culture and traditions that made us the greatest nation in the world, and their fear that the current policies will lead to this nation losing our exceptionalism and greatness.

Beck has his limitations, but he's tapped into something important.

Benjamin said...

Well... I suppose there's a number of different ways we could address that questions. But it depends on what the dependent variable is. Is it "support for Glenn Beck"? Is it "fear of the iceberg" (whatever that is)? Is it "opposition to current administration's policies"?

In terms of the nativist "alien brown president" hypothesis... Obama and his "foreignness" might not be the iceberg, but those who have a nativist reaction to Obama may be more predisposed to perceive the iceberg that Beck sees, whatever that may be. Public opinion polls have shown convincingly that Tea Parties have higher levels of symbolic racism than the general public.

In terms of the "good vs. evil" archetype - it may be a manifestation of a personality characteristic: authoritarianism. One of the distinguishing features of authoritarian personalities (in political science, at least) is seeing the world in "black and white" instead of "shades of grey." This has become increasingly aligned with conservative political ideology and the Republican party over the last twenty years.

Anyways, just some thoughts based on my research interests (nativism, political psychology). Again, I think there a few different important dependent variables of interest in this bigger question, and each has some interesting implications.

Whit said...

Benjamin: What the heck is "symbolic racism"? Seems to me you either take race into account in making decisions and judging people, or you don't.

Gruntled said...


I remember Mrs. Obama's comment about feeling proud of her country. Your other threats I am not familiar with. Do you have specific examples in mind of the president apologizing to thugs, thieves, tyrants, and theocrats? Likewise, what do you have in mind when you say that the Democratic Party wants to demolish individual liberty and responsibility, free markets, and free trade?

Gruntled said...

I blogged a series on Hetherington and Weiler's study of authoritarianism and polarization. I incline to their view that authoritarianism is a response to fear, rather than a personality type. My puzzle in trying to understand Beck and the Tea Party movement is to understand what triggered their fear?

Whenever I blog about the fearful, I get many responses. Very few, though, can provide any specifics of what they are afraid of.

I think some people will always be afraid no matter what happens. But for most people in the middle, just being obliged to name what, exactly, they are afraid of seems to have a calming effect.

Benjamin said...

"Symbolic racism" is a term used to describe the type of racism that's become prevalent in the U.S. in the last 30 years. Most white Americans no longer believe that blacks are biologically inferior (one form of racism). However, there are several who stereotype blacks as failing to conform to a certain set of traditional American values, i.e. the Protestant work ethic, self-discipline, etc.

Anti-Hispanic symbolic racism is becoming prevalent as well, with some whites assuming that all Latinos fail to live up to particular American values such as speaking English, adhering to a Protestant religious faith, participating in government, etc.

Furthermore, there are implicit psychological biases as well that some are not even aware that they possess:

So there are many different ways that people could take race into consideration when forming political opinions and/or policy preferences. Some are more blatant while others are more subtle.

Benjamin said...

P.S. I thought very highly of the Heatherington and Weiler book. It's required reading for my students in the political behavior class later this semester. :-)

Regarding the dependent variable of interest being: "what triggers the Beck-crowd fear"... hmm. Let me chew on that for a little while.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your crystal clear explanation. It is spot on.

I love listening to the knowledge class (as exemplied in this thread by "Benjamin") twist in the wind while trying to figure out, and explain, what is going on with the tea parties, Beck, etc...

Benjamin -- You throw out terms such as "alien brown president" and "symbolic racism". I'm a Republican and support much of what the tea parties stand for. I would love to see Thomas Sowell as the U.S. president, but I don't care for Barack Obama. Does that make me a racist? I've yet to hear anyone answer that question.

Gruntled said...

NOTE: Whit left this comment, which I received an email version of; however, it did not appear (yet) in the comments list

Benjamin: So if you oppose progressive policies you must be a racist? Are there not good, non-racial reasons, whether you agree with them or not, for someone to prefer that, for the benefit of society, people work hard, take responsibility, have a common language for business transactions (even if they retain a non-English language in their home or community), etc. Some minorities, and some whites, don't live up to these ideals. But what is racist about wanting everybody to do so? It seems to me the racism comes in having different standards for people of different races.

Gruntled: Where have you been? Did you miss the whole Obama apology tour? Did you not see the President embracing Chavez, or cozying up to Castro, or trying to get a Chavez clone reinstated in Nicaragua, or the administration taking a pass on the opportunity to rhetorically support the "greens" in Iran (if nothing else), or throwing our allies and friends over the side to get a "reset" with Russia? I could go on.

As for free trade, what about the several free trade agreements awaiting Senate action for years? What about the Mexican trucks still not allowed on American highways because of the Teamsters? This administration has done exactly zero to reduce trade barriers.

As for free markets, how can you ask? Healthcare - taken over, Detroit car companies - owned, Banks - bailed out, etc. etc. Anyone who earns a profit is demonized for it. What about the "redistribute the wealth" comment? I think this administration really thinks, like Marx, that any return on capital is exploitation. They really believe that they can better allocate resources to favored industries and companies ("green investments" anyone) than the market and therefor why should capitalists be entitled to much, if any, profit. There is not one business person in the top tier of this administration, and it shows. They are all academics and politicians.

As for individual liberty, the only liberty that the Left seems to care about is sexual liberty (or license) and liberty for criminals and terrorists. But for the vast majority of Americans, who have no particular interest in, or need for, those liberties, they have little interest, and even less for the liberties these Americans find important. What about the liberty to run your business the way you want to as long as you don't defraud anyone, or to pick your own health care coverage? What about the liberty to make your own deal on consumer credit which might not fit what the government thinks you should have? What about the liberty to put a few extra shower heads in your bathroom if you want to, or a tiolet that actually flushes?

And as for responsibility, what about the responsibility to take care of yourself and not expect the productive members of society to support you, and provide you food, shelter, education, health care, etc., no matter how irresponsible or lazy you are?

Peter Hoh said...

Whit, tell me about your position on agriculture subsidies.

Anonymous said...

I watched the speech. It seemed pious, self-righteous, and generally incoherent. Beck, a Mormon, is not someone I could follow either religiously, or intellectually. His comments about Obama's faith a day later, are misinformed. He seems to be wandering off on some tangent. Not to be taken seriously. It was reported he met with religious leaders the day before. All were of the fringe.

Whit said...

Peter: End them. It is indisputed by economists that the nation as a whole would be better off if we simply ended all our trade restrictions, regardless of what other countries do. If there are some losers among American workers, better to give them some temporary help and retraining.

Sugar is just one example. Our Sugar restrictions drive up the price of sugar, which not only hurts consumers, it has driven candy makers to move their operations to Mexico.

And we end agricultural subsidies not just because it will help the US. The best thing we could do for Africa is to give them a market for agricultural products and stop flooding them with our own subsidized products. Most of the aid we give the governments in Africa ends up simply subsidizing statest governments, or in the Swiss Bank Accounts of the governors. A market for farm products helps create an entrepreneurial middle class in Africa which is necessary for civil society and democratic governance.

prambl said...

Whit, you are my hero. If hoh and benjamin are centrist God help us.Notice how debate gets stifled by name calling.

Whit said...

To Everyone: I have no particular affinity for Beck. As an LDS Church member Beck is not my co-religionist. Nor do I agree with everything he says or how he says it.

But getting back to Gruntled's original question, this rally was really an answer to Obama's "hope and change" message of 2008. Rather than hope and change, these folks want to "preserve and restore" the US. Neither "hope and change" nor this rally had much policy substance. Both captured, I think, the mood of the nation at the time.

The iceberg they see are policies (ObamaCare, tax and spending increases, government take-overs) which may permanently change the nature of American society, culture and government. The common thread is more control by government and less room for individual decision making. Obama has made it clear that he wants to be a "transformative President" and to enact all the Progressive wish list from the last 40 years. On this, at least, people believe him.

Politically, it is not so much a desire to exchange one group of politicians for another atop the government, but the desire to mostly govern themselves. They want to make their own decisions, and are willing to accept the consequences of bad choices. It seems to me this is the spirit of America and the essence of its "civil religion".

I noted in an earlier post that the administration is devoid of business people, being almost exclusively made up of politicians and academics. I would add that Obama himself hardly even knows any entrepreneurs or business people. To him, the stereotypical businessperson is Tony Rezko, a person who profited by political access. Coming from the Chicago Machine, that would be all he would know.

One correction, in my haste I incorrectly cited the administration's intervention in Nicaragua. It was actually Honduras.

Benjamin said...

And just to clarify: yes, Glenn Beck is LDS and yes, many LDS members probably watch his show "religiously", but Glenn Beck is NOT representative of all, or even most, Latter-day Saints in this country, nor does he speak for the LDS Church in any way.

I'm sure this goes without saying, but I argue that no one should judge the LDS Church by one of their most extreme members, an outlier in my view...

Gruntled said...

"The iceberg they see are policies (ObamaCare, tax and spending increases, government take-overs) which may permanently change the nature of American society, culture and government."

The first achievement of the Obama administration was a large tax cut for most people. This hardly sounds like socialism to me.

The one actual structural change in this list is extending health care insurance to the 15% or so who do not already have it. We as a nation made the decision that it would be just, as well as cheaper, to treat health care as a public good that everyone should have some of, like education. I believe this is a just and prudent change.

Some policy changes, especially health care extension, may cost more in the short run. Mostly, though, the increased spending that the Obama administration has engaged in have been temporary measures to stem the disastrous collapse brought about by the Bush administration. The bailouts of a few enormous businesses - a few stock brokers, a couple of car companies, and an insurance company - were sadly necessary to prevent a deep depression. The government is getting out of running them as fast as it can. These are not "takeovers" nor are they structural changes.

Moreover, the Obama administration has stopped most of the Big Brother intrusions on America liberty that the Bush administration started.

I don't think there is much that the Obama administration is doing that an Americans, even conservative Americans, should actually be afraid of. I think the fears Beck promotes fester precisely because they can't really be attached to things happening in the world.

Whit said...

I have to get back to work creating wealth so I can pay my taxes, but two quick comments.

First, there was no Obama tax cut. There were simply government checks sent to people. Those who pay the most taxes didn't even get one, while many who pay no income tax did get one. A tax cut is a cut in rates which incentivizes people to work, invest and create wealth. And of course there is a huge tax increase, the largest in history, coming January 1.

Second, if all ObamaCare did was help figure out a way to get the 15% health insurance, I would not be so upset. But there are much better, less expensive and intrusive, market-oriented ways to get there. The real problem with ObamaCare is its interference in the lives of the 85% who already have insurance by limiting choices, increasing costs, etc. It's the Left's fetish for equality of results which drove ObamaCare, not the desire to provide minimum coverage for the 15%.

The fact that you do not understand what the folks at the rally and the Tea Parties are concerned about, whether you agree with them or not, or that you would entertain the idea that it is all an issue of race or irrational "fear mongering" demonstrates how out of the mainstream you are.

Peter Hoh said...

Whit, I applaud your consistency. I would like to believe your position on ag subsidies is held across the Tea Party, but I suspect that ag subsidies are here to stay, despite their cost and their unfortunate consequences.

Whit said...

Peter, I'm not sure the folks at Tea Parties or the Beck rally have thought through the subtleties of free trade and ag subsidies to even have a position. It's counterintuitive. I think most of them would agree with me once they had. Most subsidies go to the larger, wealthier growers (not that there is anything wrong with them) not to the average folks you are likley to have run into on the mall.

But unfortunately, as you say, ag subsidies, and protectionism, are likely here to stay for a while.