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Beck to the Future

Beck, Palin ... and Obama.

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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The rally on August 28 in Washington, D.C., was about many things—some high, a few low (very few, as these events go), and many in-between, and is worth considering from various angles, from the political to the cultural to the sociological. We offer two excellent analyses in the following pages, by Harvey Mansfield and Lee Harris.

Beck to the Future

But stop for a minute before you hasten to Mansfield and Harris. The obvious starting point for thinking about the event is to take seriously its claim as to what it was about—God and country. The event’s host and organizer, Glenn Beck, dwelt on God. His special guest, Sarah Palin, focused on country.

Beck placed his hopes for America’s future on moral reform, even a religious awakening. What the rally meant to Beck was that “America today begins to turn back to God. For too long, this country has wandered in darkness.” Beck’s speech was an urgent appeal to Americans to look into themselves and commit to doing better.

Palin joined Beck in claiming to want to look beyond ordinary politics. She emphasized that she had been asked to speak not as a politician, but as “something more—something much more. I’ve been asked to speak as the mother of a soldier, and I am proud of that distinction.” Palin went beyond politics to patriotism. She didn’t picture Americans as wandering in darkness. Rather, she began by asking, “Are you not so proud to be an American?”

Now Palin did say she was humbled—but less by her failures in the eyes of God than by the patriotic surroundings and commitments of her audience: “It is so humbling to get to be here with you today, patriots.” And she devoted most of her remarks to praise for the finest of our patriots, our men and women in uniform who have been willing “to sacrifice, to restrain evil, to protect God-given liberty, to sacrifice all in defense of our country.”

Indeed, Palin’s wish to honor that service led her to acknowledge some tension with the theme of the rally, selected by Beck: “We honor those who served something greater than self and made the ultimate sacrifice, as well as those who served and did come home forever changed by the battlefield. Though this rally is about ‘restoring honor,’ for these men and women honor was never lost. If you look for the virtues that have sustained our country, you will find them in those who wear the uniform, who take the oath, who pay the price for our freedom.”

So Beck wants to restore honor. Palin thinks honor was never lost. There’s a tension between the rally’s twin messages: “We’re a great country” and “We’re wandering in the darkness.” But each side would acknowledge an element of truth in the other’s formulation. Beck’s call for a religious awakening has a patriotic theme and intention—it was Beck, after all, who arranged that proceeds from the gathering were to go to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. And Palin’s patriotism is religion-friendly (e.g., “God-given liberty”). The two make common cause against a liberalism that is often made nervous by religion and uncomfortable by patriotism.

Now it goes without saying that God and country are not the property of one political party. It goes without saying that religion and patriotism are not properly claimed by any one part of the political spectrum, let alone by participants in one rally convened by one television personality. It should further go without saying that much that is wrong can be and has been done in the name of God and country. Much that is right can be and has been done without invoking them. And it’s also true that there often is a tension between the claims of God and country.

Having granted all that, we would add that (as Mansfield also notes) most conservatives are more friendly to the invocation, and more responsive to the claims, of God and country than are most liberals. For better or worse, where conservatives tend to look to God, liberals tend to look to mankind; and where conservatives tend to think first of country, liberals tend to think first of humanity.

President Obama, asked about the rally the next day, said he hadn’t watched it. He nonetheless analyzed it: “So, given all those anxieties .  .  . it’s not surprising that somebody like a Mr. Beck is able to stir up a certain portion of the country.”

That certain portion of the country was “stirred up” at the rally to express pride in America and faith in God. That certain portion of the country is about to show itself (at least for this election) as a majority of the country. If that majority is animated not just by limiting government or living within our means or getting power back to the people—important though those are—but is also moved by the notion of rededicating oneself to God and Country, it could well be a lasting majority.

—William Kristol 

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