Not being a fan of Glenn Beck’s, plans for his “Restoring Honor” rally flew rather under my radar nearly until the day was upon us. I wrote to a friend who is more attentive to Beck than I, asking, “What is this about, really, I’m not sure I get it.”
Her answer was uncharacteristically vague and inarticulate. “He wants to restore honor and integrity to the country, because things have gotten off track, everyone can feel it!”
Sentimentalism and an over-emphasis on feelings, in general, have weakened the nation’s critical-thinking skills and our political processes. My friend knows I am leery of falling into sentimentalism—especially when it is seasoned with a thick layer of Americanism, which can too often turn into schmaltz—so she added, “I think basically Beck just wants to say good things about America, and to encourage others to do the same.”
In truth, the rally was a sort of sensible tent-revival meeting, reaching out to America, but not in a grabbing, aggressive manner, to say “Save yourself by reclaiming your soul; remember who you are, by remembering God’s grace.”
That’s not a bad message, and in fairness to Beck, he and Sarah Palin and the rest managed to craft something nearly unthinkable in 21st Century America: a political event so infused with a higher sense of purpose as to eschew the political, or at least to not name names. Less than two years after a presidential campaign that put out a cultish messianic vibe, however, it was difficult not to sense a deliberate mirroring of message.
Watching Beck pace the stage while urging a course-correction from “what we’ve allowed ourselves to become,” one could not miss the unspoken rebuke. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” was being soundly rejected for “We are still the ones we used to be!” There was a great deal of looking-back in order to look-ahead, which was meant to help a crowd that has felt ignored and displaced find its bearings and its brand.
Restoration was the word of the day; a reclamation of identity, pride, and place the desired effect. But restoration as a concept is heavy with eschatological meaning; Christians await the time “when all things are restored in Christ”; Jews look for restoration of the Temple and the Davidic line; some Muslim factions look for restoration of the Islamic Caliphate.
As the Beck rally closed to the strains of a bagpipe and a few hundred thousand voices singing “Amazing Grace,” the calls for “restoration” seemed distinctly Protestant but somehow ironic; can end times and old times ever make a coherent mix?
Presumably, a mostly-Christian crowd is one that awaits the Second Coming of Christ and therefore understands that we cannot turn the page back. Just as the old hymn tells, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back…”, so the Christian understands that the passing of ages—for better or worse—must lead inexorably to the day we await “with joyful hope.”
The rally attendees want to halt what is rightly perceived to be a devolution of the nation’s founding principles, and that is a worthy goal, but it is important to remember that genies do not go back into bottles; reclaiming some of the foundation will not restore lost innocence. That, as we know from our beautiful Easter proclamation, is wholly the purview of the resurrected Christ.
Since we know that, and as Christians are a people meant to keep a watch for the Bridegroom’s return, the puzzled non-religious might be forgiven for wondering: Why are these Christians so intently resisting the forward thrust of narrative? Will restoring foundational principles and old-time patriotism delay end times, or will they come apace?
It is a moment of cognitive dissonance for the faithful: everyone wants the resurrection, but nobody wants the crucifixion. Everyone wants the Second Coming, but no one, including me, wants to live through the dreadful social and political precursors hinted at in Scripture, and I guess that’s the answer.
Looking at the crowd gathered last Saturday, I couldn’t help but wonder what First Things founder Richard John Neuhaus would have thought of the “Restoring Honor” Rally. In his last book, American Babylon, he quoted G.K. Chesterton’s famous remark that “America is a nation with the soul of a church,” and added that “in the absence of an ecclesiology that tethered them to the Church from its beginnings through every period of its history, for many American Protestant thinkers America became their Church.” But, he continued,
it is not enough for America to have the soul of a church. It is an American Protestant trait to forget that, in the biblical image, the Church is not the soul of Christ but the body of Christ. It is a distinctive society through time—a society distinct from the societies in which, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, she is compelled to live through time toward the End Time.
At one point during the rally, the question was asked, “Where is our Washington, where is our Lincoln?” The speeches were populist and pretty, and they struck chords meant to swell the American breast, but the overall message seemed as vaguely hopeful as my friend’s explanation: “restore honor and integrity; say good things about America, again!”
Well, all right, I’m willing! As Neuhaus also wrote:
When I meet God, I expect to meet him as an American. Not most importantly as an American, to be sure, but as someone who tried to take seriously, and tried to encourage others to take seriously, the story of America within the story of the world. The argument, in short, is that God is not indifferent toward the American experiment, and therefore we who are called to think about God and his ways through time dare not be indifferent to the American experiment.
And that, perhaps, is an even better answer: not so much, “Where is our Washington?” but “Who is our God?”
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress.