I spent much of this morning watching Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally on Cspan.org, and I'm still not sure what I saw. Was it a political rally? A tribute to our troops? Or a religious revival meeting?
It was, of course, partly all three. But while I emphatically support the First Amendment right of Beck, the Tea Partyers and adherents of all religious faith to gather and speak out in the public square, I must confess I was both surprised and more than a bit taken aback by the considerable overtly religious content of today's rally, which apparently drew 300,000 people, maybe more. The religious element of the rally wasn't limited to an invocation or other perfunctory acts, but often seemed to be the focus of the rally.
But what religion was being preached? Nearly everyone on stage was a Christian of some sort — Beck is a Latter-day Saint, Sarah Palin is Pentecostal, and evangelical pastors were prominent — but the rhetoric was such that denominational differences didn't surface. This wasn't the type of Christianity, however, that emphasizes personal repentance and a life of individual devotion to God, but rather one that was almost Old Testament-like in the sense that God was pictured as a kind of nationalistic, perhaps even militaristic, cheerleader. While it wasn't theocracy that was being preached, there was clearly rhetoric that suggested (without ever quite saying so) that Americans are God's chosen people for today.
I find that disturbing. I accept the premise that many (not all) of our Founding Fathers were seeking to follow the teachings of Christ as they understood them, and I don't doubt that there was inspiration behind the Bill of Rights and other key documents that recognize the inherent value of God's human creation. But it's a huge step beyond that to suggest that, as Beck's folks seemed to, that God somehow cares about the welfare of us Americans more than he does others, that God is inherently on America's side, or even that God cares all that much about civil religion. And it's still another step to suggest that there's only one political way of thinking that God endorses — and I'm speaking here not only of the Glenn Becks of the world but also of the Al Sharptons.
The danger of the type of religion preached at Beck's rally is that it can turn into a type of arrogance that doesn't see God in the face of our enemies, or even in those who see things differently than we do. The danger of the religion preached is that it can blind us to cases where God's demands to care for the poor, the foreigner and the oppressed clashes with our national or political interests. The danger of the religion preached is that it can ignore the need to get right with God as individuals first, and to let our relationships with politics and the broader community flow from that. The danger of the religion preached is that politics can substitute for devotion, God-is-on-my-side-ism for compassion.
When I read the Bible, I see a God who challenges us to look far beyond the issues that Beck and others raised today. I see a God who, in a sense, isn't always on our side — one who is ready to tell us when we are wrong, when we are arrogant, when we care too much about our needs and not enough about the needs of others. I see a God who is love, not one who is hungry for political power.