Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.
By Dan Webster
It was a spectacle indeed. A few hundred thousand folks on the mall in Washington clustered close to the Lincoln Memorial to hear two TV spectacles. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, both creations of the media, spoke to one huge choir.
“Restoring Honor” was what Beck called this rally. But many news reports described the event as more religious than political and the oratory more like sermons. That should be no surprise to anyone who knows the background of both speakers. But what may surprise the casual follower is what Beck could be drawing from his own adopted Mormon faith.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church, believes Christianity fell into apostasy when the original apostles died. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, believes he was called by God to restore the gospel that Jesus taught but had been radically changed by second generation Christians and those who came after.
So when Beck says America has been “wandering in darkness” and that he is here to help lead the country back to God he is emulating the founder of his religion. He wants to restore America’s greatness just like his church believes it is called to establish the “restored gospel.”
Sarah Palin, a fundamentalist Christian who sees her religion and her patriotism as inseparable, is a willing player on Beck’s team. “We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want,” Palin said, “we must restore America and restore her honor.”
Beck told the crowd that Saturday’s event was “of God”. That is usually a certain way to silence your critics. After all, progressives of any faith rarely claim to speak for God waiting for time to prove that something is a human construct or divinely instigated. Joseph Smith claimed an angel of God gave him golden plates to translate into the Book of Mormon. Beck uses a blackboard and chalk to write his new scripture of God and country that is bound, not by leather around paper but by digits of video, audio and text that reaches around the world and into living rooms, car radios and computers across the nation.
Beck would have read a phrase that appears repeatedly in Smith’s Book of Mormon: “…the great and abominable church.” It refers to the Roman Catholic Church and all her offspring. The problem here is when anyone announces they are called to restore an original ideal that presumes they know something of that original ideal.
The “founding fathers” were mentioned at Beck’s rally. Most of the signers of the Constitution owned slaves. And I suspect that most of those in the crowd believe the original intent of the founders was to establish a Christian nation despite the numerous books, papers and articles by historians and scholars to the contrary. Beck, Palin and millions of their followers have chosen to ignore the experts and interpret the founders’ actions to fit their “restored” vision of this country.
The day after his rally, Beck took on President Obama’s religious faith. “People don’t like Obama’s version of Christianity,” he said on Fox News. He called Obama’s faith based on liberation theology which Beck has called socialist. Beck’s comments came on a Sunday when millions of Christians in hundreds of thousands of churches heard a gospel passage from Luke (14:12-14) urging folks not to invite friends or relatives or rich neighbors to a banquet but rather the poor, crippled, lame and blind. That’s the kind of liberation theology Jesus proclaims throughout the gospels.
Beck is running the risk of reopening wounds of suspicion and name-calling between Mormons and other Christians. He runs the risk of damaging the ecumenical work between Mormons and other Christians in communities across the country if not around the globe. Whether it’s his religion or his view of this nation he is preaching a gospel of division and distrust, of fear and separation.
America’s greatness will be restored when we have realized the dream of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It will be restored when Native Americans walk with pride and share in the bounty of this country rather than the poverty and unemployment rates of third world countries. America’s greatness will be restored when fewer than half of young African American males do not have criminal records. And the greatness of America will shine around the world when Muslims are free to lawfully build a community and prayer center anywhere they wish.
Beck clearly wants to be a 21st century Joseph Smith and restore some notion of a civil religion that exists, not in reality, but in his mind and in the minds of a few hundred thousand followers. God help us.
Dan Webster is an Episcopal priest who lived in Utah three different times for a total of nine years. He is a former broadcast journalism executive including news director at KUTV, Salt Lake City. Currently he resides in Baltimore, MD.