After this weekend’s rally by the new Evangelist-in-Chief, Glenn Beck, I am left with a question: Why is it that when white religious men say outlandish stuff, it’s brilliant, and when black religious men say outlandish stuff, they are evil and racist?
This semester, I am teaching both “Martin and Malcolm in America” and “The Religious Right in America.” Often both classes intersect, but never like at this moment.
Beck is brilliant for turning his double-speak into a marketing juggernaut that is unassailable. He is pulling at the heartstrings of white Christians who are adrift because it seems the certainty in their world has been compromised.
Back in 2008, Jeremiah Wright was played in a continuous cable loop saying “God Damn America,” but Glenn Beck can talk about black-robed armies, black theology, and all manner of theology he doesn’t understand and get away with it.
Beck’s diatribes about the end of everything, his histrionics on Fox News accusing President Obama of being a racist, then not being “the right kind of Christian,” and then apologizing for that and saying “his theology is suspect,” are all designed to make you pay attention to Glenn Beck, and not to what he’s saying. But last weekend Glenn Beck did essentially what Jeremiah Wright did in his “God Damn America” sermon. He stood close to the spot where King stood for the historic March on Washington, calling America back to “God.” Wright did the same, criticizing the government for treating Native Americans wrongly, for many acts, but all of his criticisms in the “God Damn America” sermon rested on God’s judgment and the Bible, and what happens when nations kill innocent people. To quote Wright: “God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is supreme.”
As Andrew Murphy has noted in these pages, Beck preached a Jeremiad, a lament. When Jeremiah Wright did it, he was said to be a racist black man who preached black theology; a theology Beck believes is against white people. But when Beck preaches “American” or ostensibly “white” theology, he’s merely a provocateur—or to those who believe in him, a righteous man.
So what happens when Beck preaches about a black-robed army of pastors who will fight for their country? Nothing. What happens when Malcolm X says that if a dog is attacking a black man, even a two-legged dog, that he should kill that dog? Vilification and FBI files. I could go on, but I don’t want anyone to miss the point. To top it all off, Reihan Salam at the Daily Beast has the audacity to compare Beck to Malcolm X. Surely he jests. Seriously, Malcolm X was a brilliant man. Self-taught. Beck doesn’t have a rhetorical strength or intellectual capability that can even compare. Malcolm was about a pan-African consciousness and, after becoming a Muslim, global consciousness. Beck’s nastiness comes from rapacious self-aggrandizement.
Comparing X to Beck is just plain ignorant.
A shrewd snake-oil evangelist who knows how to pull at the heartstrings of his constituency has hijacked the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. That constituency, floundering because the old leaders of the Christian Right have faded or passed on, are looking for a narrative that fits their vision of an America based in piety, power, and the belief that even if their ancestors didn’t get here on the Mayflower but rather on a boat from Europe in the 19th or early 20th century, they are full-blooded Americans. They too can possess the special claim that this is God’s nation, and they are a part of its divine destiny.
What Glenn Beck sells is a hope that many of a certain theo-political belief can—wait for it—cling to: that God has not forgotten them in the midst of America’s melting pot. He capitalizes on a fear that somehow the greatness they always believed that was theirs alone can be erased if they could only get rid of that black president who is taking their nation downhill.
But while Beck is claiming to be the next King, where is the King of the contemporary black church? To counter Beck, Al Sharpton and others participated in the Reclaim the Dream March, trying to regain the narrative of fighting for ‘civil rights’ away from Beck. But it may be too late. I can’t believe I am going to say it, but perhaps Eddie Glaude was right; even if he didn’t say it exactly this way. If this Restoring Honor Rally doesn’t make the black church wake up now, it is truly dead. The message of civil rights has been cleverly hijacked into the Glenn Beck white civil rights/Tea Party movement.
If King knew how the end of his “I Have A Dream Speech” would be appropriated, especially by Beck, I think he would have had a stroke. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Rev. Alveda King, Dr. King’s niece, also spoke at the Restoring Honor rally, miming the black church and shouting hallelujahs in a nice Southern accent.
She even quoted from the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to support Beck’s message to honor special men and women in military service. For the resounding end to her remarks, King seemed briefly to speak in tongues, and then a small chorus began to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the “black national anthem.” I can guarantee you, that is not a hymn the predominately white crowd at the Mall on Saturday could sing along with. James Weldon Johnson is rolling around in his grave, for real.
Think of it. A good dose of Beck, a bit of end-times theology, a black president who almost half the country seems to believe is not a Christian and a black robed army of preachers ready to fight for America.
All of this churning religious melee can’t end well. Beck has just started another Web site “The Blaze,” where you can get news that Beck says “will pursue truth.” Beck would probably just accuse me of being a communist, but about what he is selling on Fox and at “The Blaze,” Vladimir Lenin is thought to have said it best: “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”
Let’s hope that Beck’s lies about history, theology, and America won’t be told enough to become the gospel truth.