Glenn Beck’s Black-Robed Regiment

Quite a few people have picked up on the religious content of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally this past weekend. It felt like a revival to a lot of people. Some folks saw a transparent effort by Beck to reconcile the libertarian Tea Party movement with religious fundamentalism with himself conveniently installed as the figurehead of a unified movement. That’s more than a bit ironic, considering that many of the evangelicals Beck sought to attract don’t consider Mormons to be Christians.

Digby picked up on one of the more interesting aspects of the whole tent revival/side show: Beck’s repeated reference to a “Black Robed Regiment.” I’d never heard of it either. Apparently it’s a reference to pro-Independence ministers in Revolutionary-era America, who the British blamed for stirring up the populace against colonial rule.

As Digby says:

A little googling shows that this is a major wingnut theocratic theme. (There are so many …)The basic concept is that it wasn’t the Enlightenment that informed the founders, it was fundamentalist preaching. Therefore, America was conceived as an “exceptional” Christian Theocracy.

That ain’t all. When I poked around, it wasn’t long before I uncovered this consideration of religion as a cause of the Revolution:

Joseph Galloway (1731-1803), a former speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and close friend of Benjamin Franklin, opposed the Revolution and fled to England in 1778. Like many Tories he believed, as he asserted in this pamphlet, that the Revolution was, to a considerable extent, a religious quarrel, caused by Presbyterians and Congregationalists whose “principles of religion and polity [were] equally averse to those of the established Church and Government.”

In fact, if I’m reading Galloway’s pamphlet correctly, the pro-independence faction seized on the network of independent congregations to organize itself across colonial jurisdictions. That, as Galloway points out, was over and against the interests of Methodists, Quakers, and especially the Church of England, which stood to lose its privileged place in the colonies. Now would that be a kick in the pants: his vaunted Black-Robed Regiment might have been the first to reject any kind of religious establishment!

Big deal, you say. Hasn’t Christianity always been used to push partisan agendas? Sure. But it works the other way around, too. Beck uses elements of right-wing theocracy and a particular interpretation of Mormonism against mainline Protestantism and social justice thought. Why? Because play-acting as the champion of so-called “Bible-based Christianity” earns him secular political juice. Just like the revolutionaries and the Black-Robed Regiment he so admires, he’s discovered that using sectarian division is an efficient way to advance the political football. And that’s before we get to anti-Islamic rhetoric.

This is why we believers tell our secular friends that religious distinctions matter. Trying to understand what Beck’s up to without understanding the religious component is something like trying to watch a chess game without being curious about how a bishop operates. You can do it, but you’re not likely to get a very accurate picture.

As important as the sectarian differences are, though, Beck’s folly exposes even more basic theological divisions that are worth looking at (and I’m not talking about academic niceties). I’ll take those up in a separate post presently.