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Over at Reason, Nick Gillespie has a mostly insightful and important rumination on the very American people who descended on Washington, D.C. for Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor Rally. His take on the role of religion, however, is a little off. Okay, maybe a lot off.
Gillespie notes that Beck “is channeling a very strong tradition in American with regards to religion and the public square.” He describes the objective of that tradition as “’embracing’ God and putting him back in the center of our lives, both private and public.” But Gillespie thinks that any “anxiety” about “turning God […] out of the public square” is misplaced, because “politicians are far more publicly pious than they used to be.” He admits “that may be less important than the feeling” — but can’t identify any rational source for that feeling. This is a mistake.
But the truth is hiding in plain sight, between the lines of Gillespie’s otherwise clear-eyed synopsis. “For much of the new century, and certainly for all of the past three years,” he notes, “there has been nothing but uncertainty in the economy and a good degree of uncertainty in the political arena.”
The people we talked to felt something like cogs in a machine whose shape and size they didn’t even understand. They were not rabid xenophobes or racists […] not conspiracists […] but they felt cheated and frustrated that their individual lives seemed to be controlled by larger forces and institutions over which they had little or no control. And to the extent that they talked about government, the focus was generally upon government spending that they assumed threatened to destroy the future, for them and their kids or grandkids.
I think the connection is pretty simple. I’ve alluded to it before. The idea is that a cultural ruling class with a shared set of Western values and a generically but genuinely God-centric view of life will produce a political class that rejects a form of government in which they rule over a nation of citizen-subjects who pay for that rule but have lost the ability to control their own fortunes. The past ten years have made for some intense disillusionment on this count. Gillespie’s observation is essential that
The attendees saw a continuity between George Bush and Barack Obama […]. There were definitely more Republicans than Democrats (who may have been missing almost totally), but virtually everyone we talked with identified as an independent. Who was fed up with the past decade, really, not just the past 18 or so months of Obama.
This is a key reason why 2010, however it pans out, will be much different than 1994. It also underscores that anyone who really thinks that the tea parties are just a plutocratic astroturfing project, or an organized hissy fit that will subside as soon as the GOP is back in power, needs to tear up their notebook and start over. Elsewhere, I’ve written previously about an embryonic coalition in America between what Hunter Thompson half-jokingly called ‘Freak Power’ and what a red-blooded American with a sense of humor might today call ‘Rube Power.’ Reading Gillespie confirms that intuition:
I live part-time in small-town Ohio where the local Wal-Mart Super Center is a major third space. Over the past few years and contrary to its image as wholesome, the chain has gone serously goth. Check out the T-shirts you can buy there and virtually every other one has skulls and crosses on it. And if something doesn’t have stylized chains and blood on it, then it’s in Day-Glo colors. The crowd reflected that, with more piercings than I’ve seen at some rock shows, ZZ Top beards galore, a biker look on many men and women. A noticeable number of the crowd were even wearing inexpensive Faded Glory (Wal-Mart’s housebrand) American flag T-shirts. Any number of commentators may have been appalled by the crowd, but check it and see: This is America.
What’s key is that the basic idea of restoring honor and governing accordingly appeals not only to freaky rubes but to straight-laced nerds and preppies and yuppies and many, many other kinds of Americans besides. Gillespie goes off track in thinking that religion links up with this basket of broadly shared interests in a self-contradictory way. Beck’s folks, he writes,
worry about an undocumented fall in morals, and they are emphatic that genuine religiosity should be a feature of the public square. Which is to say, like most American voters, they may well want from government precisely the things that it really can’t deliver.
A secular libertarian would confuse a longing for a public air of genuine religiosity with ‘more religion in government’. But this, too, I think, badly misses the mark. The Americans who came out in droves for Beck’s rally don’t think the purpose of government is to hand you the good life. Why would they think the purpose of government is to hand you the right morals? As Gillespie himself puts it :”In some sense, the rally was a giant AA meeting (I don’t mean this snarkily), flush with the notion that whatever else is going on in the world, you can control some portion of your own life.”
ESFAHANI SMITH > A Report From the Beck-a-thon
HEMINGWAY > Cleaning Up After Your Own Rally? Honor Restored